Meet Salim. He works on a purse-seiner flagged to a distant-water fishing nation operating in the Western and Central Pacific Ocean.
You may be at home enjoying a leisurely weekend meal of tuna from a fish he helped catch, freeze and tranship during his current work stint.
Salim is still working on that boat. His contract is for three years, and he has almost two years more to go before he can go home and sit down to dinner with his family.
There are no weekends or holidays on a fishing boat. The day is marked by mealtimes and the weeks and months by fishing, coming to port to tranship or unload, and going back fishing.
When at sea, the vessels are either looking for fish or catching it. The catching requires a highly choregraphed and dangerous set of manoeuvres that, while completed in a rigorous order, depend a lot on the weather and sea conditions for their execution. And while the vessel is looking for fish, the crew are doing maintenance: moving fish from wells to dry lockers, repairing nets, cleaning, and a hundred more chores.
When in port, you have to unload (either tranship or land), and that means handling one by one all the tuna in a catch that may weigh in at anything from 700 tons to 1,700 tons.
There are different jobs on board during the unloading, and crew get rotated among a few of them. Salim is wearing protective clothing because he is loading frozen tuna into a cargo net to move the catch to carrier during transhipment. On deck temperature may be 35°C, but where he is working is around –15°C. (On a longliner, the freezer may get down to –35°C.) On this kind of day, Salim starts at 7 am and finishes at 10 pm, and has five breaks during the day.
Crew members’ rights are protected when working in waters of FFA states
Salim’s rights as an employee are complex. In principle, they depend on the flag state of the vessel, but unfortunately there many loopholes that allow some operators to circumvent these.
Until recently, fisheries authorities of coastal state and port states had very limited scope on what they could do when labour rights where abused, since they were considered labour issues and not fisheries offences. But in momentous move, FFA’s member states ruled that vessels allowed to fish in their waters must comply with labour standards as part of the regionally harmonised minimum terms and conditions (MTCs) for access by fishing vessels. The labour component of the MTCs are based on the International Labour Organisation’s standard C188, Working in Fishing Convention.
This is momentous because, since 1 January 2020, if a vessel does not uphold these labour rights and conditions as part of their licensing, its right to fish can be removed and the vessel would not be in good standing. This is the first time in the world that a direct link has been made between labour standards and the right to fish by a coalition of coastal states!
This is good for Salim, as his rights are protected as long as the vessel fishes in the waters of FFA members.
While we can help protect what he earns, we do not influence how much he earns. Crew in Salim’s deckhand position earn around US$350 a month. A fisher doing the same work but from a country with a stronger labour set-up and unions or a flag state that applies its domestic laws to its vessels would earn four or five times that.
So why do people like Salim do this work? Simply, because the work opportunities in his home country are so limited that this actually a good deal for him. And although this fact can be used to justify his very limited earnings, one could argue strongly that it fits under the definition of exploitation of labour.
But international guidelines on working conditions remain voluntary
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) is in the process of developing guidelines for social responsibility in the fishing industry. However, they are being watered down by some powerful countries that are bent on maintaining the status quo to keep labour costs low, so as to maximise profits from fishing. As with most of the UN instruments, unless signed by nations, they remain voluntary.
Although people such as Salim are meant to be the main beneficiaries of these guidelines, it may be a long time before Salim sees working conditions similar to those of fishers from developed nations.
The issue of labour right in fisheries is very complex, multifaceted and political and, as with most difficult problems, there are never easy answers. Yet there are many good people trying to work it out. Initiatives like FFA’s MTCs are a solid start in what is a marathon and not a sprint.
My approach to the work ahead would be from two parallel angles. On one side are regulatory frameworks, and international agreements under flag, coastal, and port state jurisdiction. On the other are private sector due diligence, since at the end of the day consumers in rich market states would not be keen to buy if they have doubts about the human cost of their fish.
So, the importers have the chance to influence the international supply chains to see labour conditions and earnings of crew raised. (Hopefully, this would be supported with a price difference.)
For all this, it is important that you don’t pity Salim and many other thousands like him in many jobs in the world. Pity the circumstances they live in, and shame the operators that exploit those circumstances.People like Salim are some of the most resilient, positive, nicest, and most innovative and determined people Ihave ever met and worked with. Without these qualities, they wouldn’t be alive.