Providing Decent Employment for Pacific Fishers / by Francisco Blaha

The labour rules around fishing have been in the media a lot. The vessels owners from the DWFN in the aim to maximize profits are employing people from the most desperate backgrounds and nations to pay them less every year. And this is for me the real “race to bottom” in fishing.

Welcome to a Taiwanese Longliner

Welcome to a Taiwanese Longliner

It used to be a good job that was open to pretty much anyone from any background, race and social strata… just do your job right and you'll be ok. But that reality is long gone. The job paid good enough money as long as you were ready to put the effort. It was great for a young guy to make a career, or educate himself, or start a business, or support his family or just make cash to get wasted! But that reality is long gone. I don't believe that a young guy that starts fishing today could make enough money to pay for a place to live and his university studies like I was lucky to do.

I think that is very sad. Working on a fishing boat is a worthwhile experience, fishing still is one of the few apprenticeship structures that still survive. You learn from your elders, you work as a team in a not very forgiving environment… your life depends on the guy next to you and his life depends on yours. Whatever much or little I achieved so far asperson and as professional, is mostly based on knowledge I learned or strengthened by working in fishing.

Years ago I fished in the Ocean Breeze (a NZ flagged purse seiner owned by Simunovich Fisheries) with Pedro Souza a 6th generation tuna fisherman from the Madeira Islands of the Atlantic coast of Portugal. His formal education was very limited, but he had the an immense accumulative knowledge of tuna fisheries. Every sunset he would gaze the horizon and tell me what fishing would be like the next day, and he was always right.

He would see in the horizon 'signs" that for him were big as buildings, but I barely distinguish them. Needless to say, I learned a lot from him, but most of his knowledge would go with him to his grave. None of his 3 kids continued with fishing, is just not attractive enough. Money is no good, long time away from home, hard physical work... most young people in developed countries have other alternatives.  Hence going at sea is not attractive anymore except for those from really desperate backgrounds and countries that will be happy with very little, and even so they get abused.

Pedro Souza 2nd from the right, next to me Apolino Marques from Peru, the other 2 are the Gomez brothers also from Madeira. Simunovich Fisheries was a great company to work for, I have a life long respect and gratitude to them.

Pedro Souza 2nd from the right, next to me Apolino Marques from Peru, the other 2 are the Gomez brothers also from Madeira. Simunovich Fisheries was a great company to work for, I have a life long respect and gratitude to them.

My colleagues at FFA worked with ILO to tackle the issue a fair labour practices in the Pacific fisheries. At least in the Pacific we are trying to make sure that Pacific Islanders get a fair share of what is after all their fish. So I was really pleased when this publication was released today. Besides the fact that they use many of my pictures.

I quote its contents:

Fishing is critical both to survival and subsistence of many Pacific Islanders, as well as long-term prosperity in the region.

Although the vast Pacific Ocean creates economic challenges for Pacific island countries – which are often small and isolated from large markets - the size and natural wealth of this ocean also contains extraordinary natural resources of fish, particularly tuna.

The Pacific Islands domestic tuna sector adds around US$446 million to the combined GDP of the region per annum, and fishing contributes to more than 10% to GDP in countries such as Tuvalu, Federate States of Micronesia and Kiribati.1

Although the Pacific region reaps important economic benefits from licensing fees for vessels catching fish in their Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) – which are home to the world’s largest tuna fishery – there are still untapped opportunities to further benefit from this valuable resource.

More than 60% of the tuna caught from Pacific Island EEZs is harvested by foreign vessels and more than 85% is taken out of the region for processing, highlighting considerable scope to develop domestic industry. Pacific Islanders could not only benefit through domestic processing, but also increased employment on fishing vessels, which currently employ relatively few workers from the region.

Skipper of a P&L vessel from NFD in the Solomon Islands, with well paid 100% local crew it was one of the happiest vessels I ever worked. Everyone had training and reasonable time at home.  Unfortunately companies like NFD are the exception and not the norm

Skipper of a P&L vessel from NFD in the Solomon Islands, with well paid 100% local crew it was one of the happiest vessels I ever worked. Everyone had training and reasonable time at home.  Unfortunately companies like NFD are the exception and not the norm

Increasing employment in the fishing sector is a key goal…

In 2015, the Forum Fisheries Agency developed a Regional Roadmap for Sustainable Pacific Fisheries, approved by the Pacific Island leaders, which sets the direction for future management of this industry. The Roadmap identifies seven clear goals for oceanic and coastal fisheries which member states have committed to achieve over the next ten years. Among them is the important goal of creating 18,000 new jobs in the tuna industry within the next decade – which would include employment in tuna processing, vessel crew, observers and fisheries management staff.

Current figures indicate that there are around 18,000 jobs currently held by Pacific Islanders in the sector, requiring a doubling of jobs to meet the goal.

… but cannot come at the expense of unsafe, exploitative conditions

While high unemployment figures in many parts of the Pacific certainly suggest a need for greater opportunities in the fishing sector, it is important above else to ensure that these jobs are decent and safe.

Fishers commonly have conditions of work that are vastly different from those experienced by workers in other sectors. The fatality rate of fishers is typically several times higher than for other workers. Fishing is hazardous even compared with such occupations as fire-fighting and mining. Being out at sea often means being away from professional medical care, which can be particularly dangerous in the case of serious accidents.

Many fishers live as well as work in their vessels, in conditions that can be cramped and congested. There may be long periods away from home and very long working hours. Access to adequate food and drinking water – as well as to recreational facilities when fishers are off-duty – can be an issue. Fatigue, linked to long hours, has been identified as a serious problem.

There are other features that make the fishing sector different. For example, fishers are often paid on the basis of a share of the value of fish caught, in whole or in part, by the vessel (rather than receiving a fixed wage). Fishers may not be employees in the conventional sense, for a great number are owner-operators or considered to be self-employed.

All this means that the sorts of procedures and safeguards which may be in place for workers working in shore-based occupations and industries may not be appropriate or effective, thus contributing to a “decent work deficit” for fishers.

The ILO Convention on Work in Fishing (C188) was adopted in 2007 with overwhelming support from governments, workers’ and employers’ organizations around the world. It covers a broad range of issues particular to the fishing industry, including minimum age for work, minimum standards for work agreements, rest periods, standards for living conditions and food on board, occupational safety and health and basic medical care (see on Key Provisions of C188).

It is important to ensure that Pacific Island countries have a strong institutional and legislative framework, and an effective training regime to prepare and support fishers, to ensure that these workers can be safe and make a decent living through which they can support themselves and their families.

Ensuring good standards of work isn’t just good for workers, but also for business

The fisheries sector has been connected with slave labour and bondage in some parts of the world. The United States Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report has noted evidence of trafficking in this sector in parts of Asia, as well as in some Pacific Island countries.

This is a terrible risk for the fishers concerned, but also has consequences for the marketing of seafood products from the countries which are thought to be connected with such exploitation. Not only may consumers refuse to buy brands that are associated with abuse of workers, but large markets such as the EU may boycott exports from a country that is given a ‘red card’ under its illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing (IUU) regulation.3

Thus, creating an environment where fishers’ rights are protected isn’t just good for human rights. It’s also smart for maintaining good brand reputation and increasing exports.

Challenges exist to creating decent work

Employment conditions can vary significantly between different vessels and types of vessels. Ensuring good working conditions can be particularly challenging in the longline fisheries where very cheap labour is readily available and living and working conditions can be sub-standard.

However, establishing more rigorous and standardised fishers’ work agreements, or minimum elements of such contracts, is possible, and can be an effective strategy to protect fishers.

The ILO’s Work in Fishing Convention, 2007 (No. 188), and the accompanying Work in Fishing Recommendation, 2007 (No. 199) set important standards for safe and decent employment on fishing vessels (see on Key Provisions of C188 below).

Another important priority is to ensure that Pacific Island workers are properly trained and more likely to be recruited by companies operating in the region.

… But there are ways to progress forward

Some of the key priorities going forward are:

  1. Establishing regionally agreed minimum standards, consistent with international standards, to ensure that countries in the Pacific are not played off against each other in a race ‘to the bottom’.
  2. Developing a harmonized approach to intervention by port states with regard to labour matters on foreign flagged fishing vessels visiting their ports (see Box on ‘Understanding Key Terms’), including what to do in serious cases such as forced labour and trafficking. This would minimize negative consequences on the development of the port states’ seafood processing sectors.
  3. Supporting recognition of qualifications and employment pathways. The vast majority of Pacific Island vessel crew are serving in relatively lower-level roles with limited opportunity for promotion, including to role of captains, fishing masters and chief engineers. It is important for training to be recognized not only among Pacific Island countries but by other flag States fishing the Pacific.
  4. Expanding domestic processing capabilities. While recognising that not all States have the opportunity to expand or develop domestic processing opportunities, this sector has seen the greatest increases in employment over the past 10 years, specifically in Papua New Guinea but also in the Solomon Islands, Fiji, Republic of Marshall Islands and Kiribati. In particular, the sector employs a large number of women, which can be good for increasing gender parity, but should also make States consider the need for personal safety standards and child care provision. Opportunities can be further enhanced through ensuring that countries have a conducive climate for investment, well-developed career pathways and associated training and priority systems to link fisheries access to enhanced domestic investment and associated processing. Several countries already provide preferential access to locally based fleets that supply processing plants, and may have scope to require more of this fish to be landed for processing. Members can also consider requiring minimum landings by foreign access vessels. The region needs to work collaboratively on innovative and enforceable options creating decent jobs in this sector, with the support of organizations such as the FFA and the ILO.

Understanding Key Terms

What is a flag state?

A flag state in relation to a fishing vessel, is the State under whose laws the fishing vessel is registered or licensed. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, in Article 94, provides, among other things, that “every State shall effectively exercise its jurisdiction and control in administrative, technical and social matters over ships flying its flag”. This includes fishing vessels. Convention No. 188 sets out that a State “shall effectively exercise its jurisdiction and control over vessels that fly its flag by establishing a system for ensuring compliance with the requirements of this Convention…”

What is a port state?

Port states are those in whose ports foreign fishing vessels may stop. Port states which ratify C.188 may inspect the conditions of such foreign fishing vessels (‘exercising port state control’) for compliance with the Convention and may take action when conditions on board are found to present a hazard to the safety and health of the crew.

Key provisions of C188

The Convention on Work in Fishing addresses issues essential to ensuring decent work on fishing vessels. In particular, the Convention:

  • Establishes the responsibilities of fishing vessel owners and skippers for the safety of fishers on board and for the safety of the vessels (Article 8);
  • Sets a minimum age for work on board fishing boats and requires special protection for young fishers (Article 9);
  • Requires fishers to undergo periodic examinations of their medical fitness for work on fishing vessels (Articles 10-12);
  • Requires that fishing vessels are sufficiently and efficiently manned (crewed), are under the control of a competent skipper, and that the fishers on board are provided sufficient rest periods (Articles 13-14);
  • Requires fishing vessels to have a crew list and fishers to have the protection of a signed work agreement, setting out the terms of the work they are performing (Articles 15-20, and Annex II);
  • Entitles fishers to be repatriated when their agreements expire – and for other reasons, and prohibits making fishers pay to obtain their jobs, or blacklisting them (Articles 21-22);
  • Addresses how fishers are paid and that they shall have the means to send money home to their families at no cost (Article 23-24);
  • Sets standards for living accommodation and food on board (Articles 25-28, and Annex III);
  • Establishes requirements for occupational safety and health, as well as a basic level of medical care on fishing vessels; (Articles 31-33);
  • Ensures that fishers benefit from social security protection no less favourable than that provided to other workers in their country; and, at a minimum, provides protection in cases of their work- related sickness, injury or death (Articles 34-39).