More on Social Issues in Fisheries / by Francisco Blaha

Only a fisher (doesn’t matter where is he from) knows this feeling

Only a fisher (doesn’t matter where is he from) knows this feeling

While I have not signed yet, over the next year, on top of all other present obligations, FAO has contacted me to support their efforts to develop a guidance on social sustainability in cooperation with relevant stakeholders, including industry and fish worker associations. The final outcome of the guidance development process will be presented to COFI-FT in 2019 and COFI in 2020.

Important to understand right from the beginning, is that as usual (as with many other aspect of fisheries) the social component in not just a matter of new legal instruments, but a better implementation of the present ones.

My colleague (and very clever man) Tim Adams from FFA reminded me that  the latest UN General Assembly Resolution on Fisheries - to be agreed in December 2017 in paragraph 172 says: …”(the UN General Assembly) Calls upon flag States to effectively implement their duty under the Convention with respect to labour conditions, taking into account applicable international instruments and national laws, and in this regard encourages States that have not yet done so to consider becoming parties to the Protocol of 2014 to the Forced Labour Convention, 1930 (No. 29) and the Work in Fishing Convention, 2007 (No. 188), and to implement the Guidelines for port State control officers carrying out inspections under the Work in Fishing Convention, 2007 (No. 188) and the Guidelines on flag State inspection of working and living conditions on board fishing vessels”… This paragraph is actually copied from last year's UNGA fisheries resolution paragraph 169 – i.e. this is the existing view of the UN General Assembly. (See my last post for the details on these instruments)

So how come these issues are still a problem?

Well in that aspect, it seems to be not really different to the problems in fisheries (call them IUU, management, international collaboration, etc). Where international commitments are made, but do not eventuate into reality. For a myriad of factors, ranging from geopolitics to pure greed via transparency and subsidies, just to name a couple of them…

But on the labour side there is also a bit of further complexity from the human perspective… we fishers are a unique bunch of people and only a limited body of research has been done in order to understand our “anthropology” and decision making process…

And while I never would even dream to generalise on “one size fits all” casting of the “model” fisher, I remember nodding my head positively many times while reading many years ago  Social Issues in Fisheries - FAO FTP 375 from 1998 and while things have changed a lot since them (hence the book is ready for refresh!) some parts always stayed close to me, like the ones below:

10.3 Attitudes towards institutions and authorities
Peoples attitudes to authority will also play a major role in shaping their responses to efforts to manage their fishing activity. Fishers the world over are renowned for being independent and suspicious of authority. This is as true in modern, industrialised fisheries as in artisanal fisheries in less developed countries.

In order to gauge what responses to different types of fisheries intervention might be, managers need to look at the history of management and assess how stakeholder communities have reacted to these interventions and also assess current opinions and attitudes towards authorities concerned with fisheries.

These attitudes towards the institutions responsible for fisheries can have a major influence on the extent to which future fisheries interventions will be observed. If a particular institution is commonly perceived by fishers as being either untrustworthy or dominated by particular sets of interests which are not necessarily sympathetic to the needs of fishers, co-operation is likely to be reduced. On occasions, the same set of fisheries interventions might succeed or fail simply depending on who it is that is seen to be enforcing them.

10.4 Levels of education
The long-term ability of fishers to adapt to changes in the fishery as a result of development or management will also depend on the skills and education which they command. In many parts of the developing world, fishing communities are consistently among the people with the lowest levels of education. What is more, their skills are extremely specific to the fishing profession. This can make movement out of fishing very difficult.

From assessment of educational levels and skills within stakeholder communities affected by changes in fisheries, managers and decision-makers can determine what forms of education or training might be required as part of development packages.

I heard once that “organising fisher is like herding cats” yet on the other side when is see the countries that have ratified ILO Work in Fishing Convention, 2007 (No. 188) my believe is that the common factor for some of them is a strong labour union and syndicates.

From my personal experience in Argentina (which was the 1st country to sign it in 2011!) we always had the Sindicato de Obreros Marítimos Unidos (SOMU) and Sindicato Marítimo de Pescadores (SiMaPe), both work close to each other and have a tradition of being very hard core and combative while quite dodgy on their directive ranks (corruption, embezzlement, etc.) Yet reality is that I would have not being able to start and to finish my university studies without the concessions they had for students (even if most them where for high school)e and the established contracts they had (while keeping a % of my income).

I did not expected to have anything like that while fishing in the Pacific Islands, but it did totally surprised me when I came to NZ. I just started working… no standard contract, no membership, etc. There would be 3 or 4 of us in vessel that in Argentina would have at least a crew of 6 or 7, of course the 4 of us made more money that if we were 7, yet something important was lost in my opinion. I could not have done my 2nd MSc at Auckland Uni, if I had to survive by fishing only for example

In fact even if at the time I was working a lot land bases for NZ biggest fishing company, they didn't accepted my proposal to work part time so I could do my thesis on a topic of their interest, that was part of the reason I took on consulting. Anyway point is that once you loose (or your never had) some rights and good contract conditions (even if at the cost of financial gains or “efficiency”) there are gone for good.

Yet this “union” protection model work when the flag, port and coastal state are the same and the nationality of the crew relates to them.

Reality today in many fisheries is totally different; for example half the US Purse seine fleet is Taiwanese owned and there is only a token American captain on board… that is it. Everyone else is from either the beneficial ownership country (TW) of one of the crewing countries (Indonesia, Myanmar, Vietnam, etc.)

Yet at least there is a link to America via the captain, but while the vessel is an extension of the US floating in the pacific, their labour rules don’t apply, no one on board will have a US working permit, if you try to enter US territory without a visa you get deported, yet on a FV rules don't apply.  

Of course it gets worst, most Vanuatu flag fishing vessel have absolutely no linkage to Vanuatu or they labour or migration system, and so on… I just have chose those two yet it could be dozens more countries.

The crew recruitment process typically occurs through recruitment agencies or brokers that may range from legally-regulated job placement agencies to very informal arrangements (sometimes associated with people- smuggling and trafficking). Sometimes brokers charge a fee to be paid against future earnings, which could become a basis for debt bondage.

Crew may also be transferred from one broker to another, or sometimes brokers source fishers for recruitment agencies or fishing vessels directly. Many fishers may come from non-fishing countries (Nepal, Laos) and not aware that they will be working on fishing vessels and what are the conditions until they find themselves in the harbour.

The process can start with:
1- the fishers signing the agreement with home state agents  
2- then then proceed across a border to other agents- who take the fishers to a vessel in country X
4- which is owned in country Y - while being flagged in country Z

So which rules apply? In principle Flag state… but if they don't play game…. How do you push the agenda? 

Of course from the port state (as in fisheries) can have a role… but why should RMI for example  a developing country who has one good port, take on controlling Taiwanese, Chinese, Korean and other much richer countries vessels… furthermore even if they where to do that, nothing stops those vessels top go to another port or a different 300 mile south, where no one ask questions? Is big ask to for small countries without even their won labour systems to take on that role.

But also there is also scope for nations to act on their own as coastal States, New Zealand, for example, applies its social and labour laws to all fishers operating within its Exclusive Economic Zone. (We had Korean flagged vessels fishing under joint ventures in NZ waters, their ill treatment and forced labour conditions of their Indonesian crews made the media, yet was little that could legally be done at the time. This brought into law the Fisheries (Foreign Charter Vessels and Other Matters) Amendment Bill, requiring labour conditions similar to those expected for NZ nationals were imposed. As a result, many vessels didn't come back)

So as you see is VERY complex and there are no easy answers.

Furthermore, and from own experience when you have nothing... anything is a lot, you’ll eat shit if you have to. I had only 70 USD to start a new live when I came to NZ in 1994, I would have accepted anything that gave some hope… and is only by good luck that I got an opportunity given by quite decent people.

And here is perhaps a key element to big part of this, poverty and desperation… Adam Smith in 1776 nothed in “An Enquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations”  that  “...(fishers) are all very poor people who follow as a trade what other people pursue as a pastime.” 

Of course today is not the same when we talk about commercial fisheries (while to a point not much has changed for subsistence and small scale ones), but looks like the system is always rigged to predate on the desperate.