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Discarded at sea

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Blog Discarded at sea Why do workers' rights get forgotten when we talk about the fishing industry? By Chris Williams 13 July 2020 Fishing is playing a totemic role in Brexit negotiations. While awareness of the importance of environmental sustainability is more prominent than ever, there’s a widespread failure to connect this with the human rights of fishers themselves. Labour rights violations, people trafficking, forced labour and other illegal activity occur in fisheries, with ​’illegal, unregulated and unsustainable fishing’ (IUU) in all of the world’s oceans. Only last week a story emerged of a

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Discarded at sea

Why do workers' rights get forgotten when we talk about the fishing industry?


Fishing is playing a totemic role in Brexit negotiations. While awareness of the importance of environmental sustainability is more prominent than ever, there’s a widespread failure to connect this with the human rights of fishers themselves.

Labour rights violations, people trafficking, forced labour and other illegal activity occur in fisheries, with illegal, unregulated and unsustainable fishing’ (IUU) in all of the world’s oceans. Only last week a story emerged of a Chinese tuna fishing vessel where crew worked 18-hour days without adequate food or water, under the threat of violence. In addition to the human cost, IUU fishing damages the health of fish stocks and the livelihoods of fishers and consumers who depend upon healthy seas. Sometimes IUU fishing is linked to organised crime and sold into legal markets. IUU fishing costs society $10-$24bn annually (or 20% of the value of legitimate catches). Europe is the largest importer of fishery products globally and it is thought around €1.1bn of illegal fish products enter the EU each year.

Working at sea brings practical challenges and labour conditions are difficult to monitor. Vessel owners may flag a vessel in a different country with lower financial charges or regulations than their own. This comes at the expense of worker pay, safety and freedom. Migrant labour is particularly vulnerable to exploitation. To combat some of these issues, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) brought the Work in Fishing Convention 188 into force in 2017 to provide guidance for safe jobs in fishing.

That’s the big picture, but there are major problems closer to home. In 2019, Ireland’s permit scheme for migrant workers on trawlers was condemned by UN experts for violating international human rights law for failing to prevent people trafficking for forced labour, and other labour exploitation in the fishing industry. This year the US State Department downgraded Ireland to a Tier 2 Watch List’ country for failing to combat the trafficking of people for work or sex, allowing sectors of the economy including fishing to develop a low-wage model sustained through bringing in vulnerable workers from Asia and Africa, who are hired and fired with impunity.

As fishing continues to play a central role in Brexit negotiations, there has been much talk about the UK setting a gold standard’ in post-Brexit fishing policy. While the outcome of that claim is closely tied to the fate of the Fisheries Bill passing through the House of Commons, UK fishing policy should focus on improving labour conditions, as much as tackling its privatised quota system and environmental impacts.

The fishing industry is inherently vulnerable. Our report out last week found that most fishers have no set salary, no statutory entitlement to paid leave or sick pay, no workplace private pension and no minimum wage. Union membership is very low and migrant workers frequently do not have work visas to rely on. These all combine to leave fishers with no financial safety net.

A gold standard’ and world beating’ fisheries policy needs to consider these labour issues. Addressing them, as we write in our report, will require action across multiple areas, from labour practices, to how fishers organise, to wider economic policy:

  • We should consider alternatives to the crew share model for worker pay, where crew are paid a percentage of the vessel’s catch.
  • The work in fishing convention (ILO C188) could improve working conditions on board fishing vessels – but some key provisions are not yet in place, so fisheries control agencies should ensure it is implemented in constructive manner in the UK.
  • Mutual insurance – where fishers join together to support collective health insurance provision – in partnership with a trade union could provide benefits to workers in the industry. Netherlands models a collective bargaining agreement on behalf of non-EU offshore fishers to guarantee rights and wages.
  • We need a diversity of voices represented in the media to understand the full picture and consequences of a no-deal Brexit. The organisations which have their voice heard during political lobbying tend to represent large fishing producers and associations. They have very different needs to smaller-scale fishers. Our report last year found that 48% of the media interviews on Brexit and fisheries are attributed to a single spokesperson, despite there being 12,000 fishers in the UK.
  • Fishers who don’t want to be crew members effectively have to buy into the industry, through buying a vessel, a licence, and quota. The cost of all of these is rising, creating an economic barrier to new entrants. The Danish Fishfund’ sets aside some national quota for new entrants. The state could also end privatised fishing and distribute quota according to social, economic, and environmental criteria.
  • A Minimum Income Guarantee (MIG) would give fishers a financial safety net. We propose that the government provides £221 per person per week for every working-age adult who needs it.

As the new Fisheries Bill makes its way through parliament, it can only deliver on government rhetoric if it tackles all the issues that affect the industry. Beyond a single policy change, we need the recognition that changes to the fishing labour situation should be part of the future for the industry.

Image: Pexels

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