COLUMN | The International Labour Organisation’s South East Asia fisheries project [Fishing for a Living]

A pair of large fishing boats in Ranong Thailand, with 30-man crews not much room for comfort. Photo: Alan Haig-Brown

I recently sat in on parts of a teleconference regarding the International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) South East Asia (SEA) Fisheries Project.

The ILO-sponsored project aims to reduce human trafficking and labour exploitation in fisheries by strengthening coordination and increasing the efficiency and effectiveness of existing national and regional level anti-trafficking efforts in South East Asia.

The broad based team has some real challenges in trying to harmonise labour practices and standards for fishermen across several nations. They have made a bold attempt with the document ILO Convention #188 (C188), Work In Fishing Convention. This is an effort to deal with issues specific to fishing work as opposed to land-based labour laws.

In the teleconference, eight talking points were identified to respond to common myths about C188. Myth one in the list said, “C188 is not needed. We already have the Maritime Labour Convention 2006…”

But this was rebutted with, “MLC 2006 explicitly excludes fishers and fishing vessels. C188 address the fish industry’s unique characteristics, as well as the hazards of working in fishing.”

An early purse seiner that the author crewed on with eight men. Bunk in the fo’c’sle but a flush toilet. Photo: Alan Haig-Brown

This reminded me of an industrial labour safety inspector who boarded a 60-foot Canadian purse seiner that I crewed on 50 years ago. He wanted my captain to build a three-foot high railing around the bow of our boat to prevent crew from falling overboard. We had to explain that when the seine skiff returned to the boat, crew had to climb up over the bow, a task that the modification would make more dangerous.

A second myth was that C188 treats all vessels the same. However, this is not the case as there is a divide between vessels of less than and more than 24 metres.

I fished on purse seiners both over and under 24 metres. While we slept in the fo’c’sle on both boats, the larger boat has a proper bulkhead separating the bunk area from the engine room while the smaller boat had a much flimsier arrangement. Today, most Canadian boats of either size would have the five-person crew sleeping above the main deck.

They will also have proper flush toilets and, in most cases, a shower integrated with the shower space. In the 1960s the large boat that I crewed on had a flush toilet but the smaller boat had a toilet that we flushed with a deck-bucket of water.

On both boats, we washed up with a basin on the hatch combing. In Asia today, I see many boats under and over 24 metres with metal rigs suspended over the stern for use as toilets.

“In my fishing days, I was so keen to get out on the boat that I never asked for a personal agreement”

Myth three is a concern that C188 requires expensive renovations of existing boats. But it was explained that the standards for accommodations would apply only to new vessels or those undergoing extensive renovations.

I found questions about wageworkers versus co-ventures and also work and rest hours per day of interest since these are challenges that have been around since I started out as a young commercial fisherman in Canada.

In my day it was argued by some that we shouldn’t have a union as we were co-adventurers not workers, but this was always defeated and a strong union helped define the eleven share system that divided the after-expense-catch between vessel, net, captain, and crew.

In the days of pulling cotton seines by hand there were eight-man crews; later this reduced to five-man crews. With some adjustment this resulted in a crewmember making about ten per cent of the net returns on the catch.

In Asia I see crews of 25 to 35 and more to handle similar gear. They are mostly paid wages with an arbitrary bonus. It would be interesting to see how a share system with some automation could improve incomes and reduce the dependence on temporary foreign crews.

In the discussion of C188, myth number four dealt with catch shares and myth number five with work agreements. In my fishing days, I was so keen to get out on the boat that I never asked for a personal agreement and the master agreement was left safely in the union hall.

But a friend who skippers a tuna jig boat out of Washington State and has a background that includes the US Coast Guard, has a detailed contract with his two-member crew. It allows them a 15 per cent share but is dead strict on drugs and several other life-style issues.

He still had trouble finding reliable American crews and eventually hired Fijians with the same contract and much better results. Clearly, all the same concerns, to protect the crew and the owner, exist worldwide.

“C188 will be only as strong as the national level enforcement”

Myth number six of C188 invariably elicits laughter from fishermen. Speak to many fishermen about work hours and you will hear: “lots of time to sleep when we are travelling,” fishermen say, “but when we are on the fish, we work.”

For the large crews on South East Asian boats, life may not be so simple. Many of them are from villages that have no fishing history and left home planning to work in a factory.

C188 has come up with a compromise that looks good on paper but may not always be followed in practice. The draft proposal calls for fishing vessels at sea for more than three days to allow 10 hours of rest per day or 77 hours in a seven-day period.

Myth number seven deals with the concern that these regulations will make the fishing industry less competitive. The SEA Fisheries Project counters that idea with the power of Port State Control. Once a nation has ratified C188, they can have their Port State Control officers inspect all vessels for compliance. This will be true even for vessels registered to nations that have not yet endorse C188.

A final concern addressed by the SEA Fisheries Project is that the program may be too rigid for a specific fishery. Here they point out that there are provisions for flexibility from “progressive implementation” to the, “possibility to exclude limited categories of fishing vessels and fishers.”

While this latter provision leaves the whole program open to weakened provisions, the policy makers have anticipated such concerns. Nations ratifying C188 are also agreeing that, in the case of exemptions, they will set, “substantially equivalent alternative requirements for minimum rest hours and accommodation.”

As with all fisheries regulations and policies, C188 will be only as strong as the national level enforcement. However in its current form it is looking like a good place to start a realistic discussion between fishermen, vessel owners, and their national regulators.

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Alan Haig-Brown

Alan Roderick Haig-Brown is a Canadian novelist and non-fiction writer. He specialises in commercial marine and commercial fishing writing and photography. He is a regular contributor to a number of marine publications.