Despite its global contributions to the world’s food stocks, the fishing sector still harbours some of the worst working conditions in the world. The International Labour Organization (ILO) claims that although many fishing vessel owners treat their staff well, a lack of regulation and poor enforcement has led to numerous cases of exploitation, including low wages, inadequate living facilities, a lack of safety equipment, and endless working hours.

At the darker end of the spectrum, vessels in the remote waters around Asia are manned by modern day slaves, the victims of human trafficking or press-ganged into forced labour. Overall, they are the victims of a lacking or non-existent regulatory framework to protect fishers.

International treaties, such as the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS), have protected seafarers on cargo and passenger ships for decades. However, the path to having the same enforced instruments for workers in the fishing industry has taken a lot longer.

The perils of fishing

The hazardous weather endured by seafarers presents a markedly higher risk for fishers, who are often afloat for weeks or months at a time.

“The fatality rates and injury rates in fishing have always been high and they continue to be high because of the nature of the work,” says Brandt Wagner, head of the transport and maritime unit in the ILO’s sectoral policies department. “When you’re on a merchant ship you’re going from one place to another and for the most part you’re not really operating. In fishing you’re working in the sea all the time, so that presents further dangers.”

The dangers of fishing are exacerbated by cut-throat competition. Fish populations have been steadily depleted as the range of industrial fishing vessels trawling the ocean has increased. Add this to a growing demand for cheap seafood and overcapacity, and fishing companies are more motivated to cut costs and keep their staff on the front lines for longer.

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“Fishers, particularly those with migrant status, are more likely to be exposed to immoral employment practices.”

The trickle-down effect is that fishers, particularly those with migrant status, are more likely to be exposed to immoral employment practices. A recent report from Migrant Rights Centre Ireland, which included in-depth interviews from more than 30 fishermen in the region, revealed that they received average pay of just €2.82 an hour, and that 65% worked more than 100 hours a week.

The ILO claims that legislation, if it exists at all, is not regularly monitored and sanctions are not always imposed on offenders. This opens the door to illegal, unregulated and unreported (IUU) fishing, and boosts the incentive for vessel owners to employ cheap or forced labour, or fail to invest in proper safety equipment for vessels.

Ensuring that vessels are inspected by port state control authorities is the obvious solution, however vessels are often at sea for long periods of time. They may not even dock to restock, instead transferring their catch to another boat while still at sea. Fishing vessel operators can break the system simply by switching the flags on their vessel, linking it with countries that have less strict or non-existent standards.

“Like in shipping, you have some flag states that are very responsible,” says Wagner. “But you also have a lot of vessels that are not being inspected at all, and this creates problems.”

When vessels do pull into port, the ILO says there are often insufficient inspectors to do the job. Those that are available are sometimes not trained to detect forced labour, don’t speak the language of those on-board, or fail to check for issues such as passport confiscation or failure to pay wages.

All this adds up to a grim picture for fishers, with migrant fishers in particular left at the mercy of vessel owners, with little support to depend upon.

Changing the law

The path to ensuring safer vessels and decent working conditions for fishers has been painfully drawn out.

Back in 1977, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) adopted the Torremolinos Convention, which gave specific requirements for the construction of and equipment on-board fishing vessels measuring 24m or more in length. The convention was updated in 1993, but was never ratified by enough countries to bring those regulations into enforcement.

The IMO revived its push with the adoption of the Cape Town Agreement, under which ratifying countries agree to the Torremolinos amendments. Nevertheless, with this new agreement only racking up eight ratifications out of the 22 required, just getting this vital first step out of the way has proven a challenge.

Elsewhere, the ILO has had more success with its Work in Fishing Convention, which finally came into force in November 2017. Known as Convention 188, it sets out binding requirements for countries to address issues on fishing vessels, including occupational safety, health and medical care, rest periods, written work agreements, and social security protection.

Providing greater regulation for the recruitment process, the ILO believes, will help prevent forced labour, trafficking and other abuses. One example is by ensuring fishers are provided with written contracts identifying their specific rights with regards to safety. Another is preventing fishers from paying recruitment fees, a practice which the Work in Fishing Convention stipulates against.

“The manning agent often makes their money from the fishermen and some of them come from poor communities, so they get into a debt bondage situation,” says Wagner. “This creates a vulnerability because they go on-board a vessel and already owe a lot of money.”

Fishers in dire circumstances also need a better way to voice their grievances. For example, the ILO is trying to develop complaint procedures in Thailand, where fishing vessel owners have commonly turned to Cambodia and Myanmar to source migrant workers. This involves implementation of a new system whereby fishers in the region are interviewed about their experiences.

“If you’re in a really dangerous situation and make a complaint and you go back on-board the vessel, you have to make sure you’re protected, because you then increase your vulnerability if you’re not careful,” says Wagner.

Raising awareness

Though the recent launch of the Work in Fishing Convention is a positive step, the results are unlikely to be seen overnight. Implementation requires countries to perform complex gap analysis to figure out how their national laws are lacking, a process which involves rigorous consultation between governments, fishing vessel owners and workers.

“The big problem in many states is the issue of hours of rest,” says Wagner. “Often when you’re fishing you don’t have any choice when the fish are going to show up, and when you’re catching the fish you can’t stop.”

“Fishers, particularly those with migrant status, are more likely to be exposed to immoral employment practices.”

These logistical problems go some way to explaining why so many member states have yet to ratify the ILO convention, and indeed the IMO’s Cape Town Agreement. Committing to an international agreement requires states to periodically report how they are being implemented through laws, regulations or other measures – a process some states may not yet be ready to prioritise.

Promoting awareness will therefore be crucial for driving countries towards ratifying treaties. The IMO has been running a series of seminars around the world to explain the importance of the Cape Town Agreement, with the most recent in October last year seeing attendance from ten African nations.

“There can be many varied reasons for a state to delay ratification, such as lack of awareness, parliamentary procedures, and other pressing national priorities,” says Sandra Allnutt, head of marine technology and GBS in IMO’s maritime safety division. “So it is important that awareness is raised amongst the key states with large numbers of fishing vessels.”

Work is also being carried out to raise awareness of the need to regulate the fishing vessel sector and combat IUU fishing by non-governmental organisations, including the General Fisheries Commission for the Mediterranean, the North East Atlantic Fisheries Commission, and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

“Overall, we are seeing increasing commitment from a number of IMO Member States as well as from regional organisations and international governmental and non-governmental organisations to promote the Cape Town Agreement and other measures to make fishing a safer and more sustainable industry,” says Allnutt. “This is something to be welcomed, for the millions of people worldwide who work in the fishing sector.”

Wagner agrees that decent working conditions are increasingly being seen as important to the sustainability of the fishing sector overall. Though legislative challenges lie ahead, the numerous initiatives underway are shining a greater spotlight on the plight of workers.

“When we eat fish, I think we want to know that not only is it safe and clean, but also that it has not been caught by somebody under abusive conditions,” he concludes.