Dealing with forced labour among fishers

Fishers are vulnerable to forced labour and human trafficking.  Father Bruno Ciceri will speak for fishers on our behalf at a meeting of the ILO to be held in Turin later this month to address injustices in the fishing industry.

The International Christian Maritime Association has been invited by the United Nations’ International Labour Organisation to participate in the consultation on forced labour among fishers.  The meeting, “Forced Labour in the Fishing Sector”,  will be held on 19-20 September 2012, in Turin, Italy, at the ILO International Training Centre.  In its invitation the ILO stated:

The purpose of the meeting is to have a holistic discussion of the legal, practical and technical modalities needed to form an effective and coordinated global strategy to combat forced labour in the fishing industry. We are targeting participants with a high level of expertise on the issue.  We would be grateful if an ICMA representative could attend this event.

Father Bruno Ciceri’s attendance will be jointly sponsored by the Apostleship of the Sea and the ILO. Father Bruno and the ICMA sub-committee for Ministry to Fishers and Families have asked that ICMA members contribute by sending him information that might be useful to the discussion.

In an abstract from the ILO’s discussion paper, the vulnerability of fishers to forced labour and human trafficking is defined as follows:

There are a number of reasons why fishers are particularly vulnerable to deceptive and coercive employment practices.

Fishing vessels, especially in the long-distance fishing fleet, can stay at sea for several years at a time and tranship fuel, stores, crew, and fish at sea. Fishers on board these vessels will find it difficult to report abuse, injuries, and deaths, and seek assistance for their own protection.

Also, relatively few fishers are members of trade unions.

Fishers are frequently asked to surrender their identity documents to the master of the vessel whilst on board and their movements in foreign ports are restricted.

Communication with family and friends whilst at sea is dependent on the availability and access to satellite, cell phone, or other communication equipment on board. The ability of family and friends to trace the fisher on a particular vessel will depend on amongst others the extent to which the fishing vessel releases radio or satellite signals.

The transnational nature of fishing operations taking place across multiple maritime zones means that fishers must often rely on the protection of the State where the vessel is registered. Some of these registries are unfortunately established in States that are unable or unwilling to adequately protect fishers and may have little connection with the fisher, the fishing vessel, or the fishing operator, leaving fishers in a vulnerable position.

Capture fisheries are labour intensive, hazardous, hard, and difficult. Intensive periods of hard work will take place when fishing grounds are reached. Is it not uncommon to receive reports from fishers of 18-20 hours of work a day in adverse weather conditions whilst operating hazardous machinery. 

In addition fishers frequently suffer seasickness and rashes and are dependent on the availability of adequately nutritious foods and medical supplies to avoid malnourishment and deceases.

Globalisation has meant that fishing vessels are increasingly operated with crew from diverse countries speaking different languages, with migrant unskilled and sometimes illiterate labourers from low-income regions occupying junior and less advantageous positions.Rigid lines of authority and lack of communication between senior and junior crew can fuel conflict and abuse on board fishing vessels.

Moreover, the recruitment process in which migrant labourers are sourced by recruitment agencies in one jurisdiction and employed by fishing operators in another means that fishers can easily be deceived by recruitment agencies or fishing operators and be coerced into accepting employment contracts or agreements on lesser terms when embarking the fishing vessel.

Fishers may also be required to pay their own way to the port of departure and repatriation from the port of disembarkation. If debt is incurred to meet the vessel or no payments reach the fisher or the fisher’s family during the employment period, then the fisher may be unable to return home when the employment contract is terminated and could be trapped in an abusive working relationship.

Fishers on board vessels engaged in illegal fishing are particularly vulnerable to abuse.  Vessels engaged in illegal fishing are often substandard due to the possibility that the vessel may be detained or seized. These vessels will also not have a government appointed scientific observer who could otherwise have served as a neutral third party presence on board. Fishers on board these vessels are less likely to know who their employers are as fishing operators engaged in illegal fishing will try to hide their identity behind shell companies and secrecy jurisdictions. These fishing operators also frequently register their vessels in States that are unable or unwilling to adhere to internationally accepted safety and labour standards and exercise their law enforcement jurisdiction over the vessel.

Fishers are moreover vulnerable to sanctions by coastal States for their participation in illegal fishing activities as it is often the vessel, and not the fishing operator, that is targeted by fisheries law enforcement agencies.  

The factual conditions amounting to forced labour will in most cases also be definable as ‘human trafficking’ or ‘trafficking in persons’. ‘Trafficking’ refers to illicit movement, trade or dealings in persons or goods. ‘Human trafficking’ is a criminal offence carried out by criminals referred to as ‘human traffickers’. Human traffickers could be brokers, recruitment agencies, employers or anyone else (such as senior crew on board a vessel or corrupt port or border officials) who recruits, transports, transfers, harbours or receives a person for the purpose of human trafficking.  The Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, supplementing the United Nations Conventions against Transnational Organised Crime of 2000 (‘the Trafficking in Persons Protocol’) aims to prevent and combat trafficking in persons.  

The focus of ILO’s forced labour instruments and other fundamental and sector specific standards and activities is to regulate employment relationships to supress the use of forced labour through standard setting, awareness raising, technical support, and strategic tripartite partnerships with governments and employers’ and workers’ organizations.
The focus of the Trafficking in Persons Protocol is to prevent, investigate and prosecute criminal human trafficking offences and offenders (often in conjunction with other criminal offences such as document fraud, money laundering, and corruption) and human trafficking carried out by transnational organised criminal groups.