Fishing for fairness: Ending slavery and labour exploitation in the fishing industry

by Trang Chu Minh | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Saturday, 10 September 2016 19:41 GMT

Babu Babu / REUTERS

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Championing the fight against modern day slavery, TrustLaw connected Visayan Forum Foundation to seven law firms, led by Linklaters, to lead a critical examination of the rules and standards that protect fishers across 14 jurisdictions throughout the Asia-Pacific, Europe, Africa and the US.

Slavery continues to run rampant in the multi-billion dollar fishing industry in South-East Asia despite increased investigative reporting, high-profile scandals , or diplomatic actions such as the EU’s yellow card warning against Thailand over illegal fishing. According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), more than 30 million people worldwide are classified as fishers, over half of whom work full-time onboard fishing vessels. Fishing is considered to be one of the most hazardous occupations globally, yet fishers often are excluded from general labour law protections.

Visayan Forum Foundation, a non-profit working towards ending modern day slavery in the Philippines, has pioneered an advocacy campaign to improve the working conditions of fishers in the island country, particularly within the controversial pa-aling fishing industry. 

Pa-aling fishing relates to a 40-day expedition whereby a group of 250 male fishers go deepwater fishing under perilous and inhumane circumstances that are equivalent to forced labour. "One victim was forced into pa-aling fishing at the age of nine and has already lost three fingers", commented Cecilia Oebanda, Founder and Executive Director of Visayan Forum Foundation.

The report, published in November 2015, revealed that one of the major hurdles for fishers is that they are not explicitly categorised as ‘employees’ and hence do not enjoy the rights and protection provided by employment laws.  There is no dedicated ministry overseeing the fishing industry in the Philippines, and the responsibilities are instead divided up among a multitude of government agencies, which has inevitably led the policing of fishers’ rights to fall through the net. 

The research identified material gaps in legislation where the minimum working and living standards for fishers set by ILO’s Work in Fishing Convention 2007, also known as ILO Convention 188, are not met. It also highlighted best practices in countries where legal protection for fishers exists, serving as a strong foundation for advocacy efforts worldwide.

Following the publication of the research, Visayan Forum has been invited to participate in the pre-boarding checks for fishers, effectively placing the NGO in the frontline of the fight to eliminate unacceptable work practices in the fishing industry. As a result, in June 2016, the Department of Labour and Employment (DOLE) released the Philippines' first rules and regulations governing the working and living conditions of fishers. The guidelines clarify the responsibilities of relevant agencies and remove the loopholes exploited by employers, who can no longer dodge responsibilities to ensure basic employee rights for fishing industry workers.

The report also created momentum for policy change on the ground in the provinces of Negros Oriental and Cebu. In the fishing hub of Dumaguete, fishing companies have agreed to enter into more equitable profit-sharing agreements with fishers, provide adequate social protection and medical insurance, sign formal contracts, implement rigorous pre-employment orientation, and comply with official inspections of fishers’ sleeping quarters. Fishers have subsequently reported earning more than the double of what they have received the previous year.

As of May 2017, only nine countries – and none in Asia - have adopted ILO Convention 188. Legislative change will take time, especially considering the weak rule of law in the region, urging for more pro-active engagement by the private sector and civil society organisations. At a time when shareholders are increasingly vigilant over the socio-economic footprint of many corporations, this research makes an important contribution to ensure that the fight against slavery, particularly in the fishing industry, is perceived both as a human rights priority, and a business imperative.

The project has been nominated for the 2016 TrustLaw Collaboration Award