While fishing is a lucrative industry , fishers are vulnerable to forced labour and human trafficking due to lack of education or training, and inadequate language skills.

Issues on fishers were discussed during the 9th Manila International Dialogue (MID) on Human Trafficking held last December 13, 2023 at the Rizal Park Hotel that coincided with the 75th year of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and the 20th year of the Philippine Anti-Trafficking in Persons Law,

MID started in 2015 as a space for sharing knowledge and information on emerging trends and key interventions.

The three MID Technical Working Groups (TWGs) (1) household service workers and tourist workers, (2) online child exploitation, and (3) seafarers and fisherfolks presented their anti-trafficking activities, research-based results, and recommendations.

Southeast Asia is among the world’s top producers and exporters of fish and seafood products, with a significant reliance on migrant workers in fishing processing.

It is estimated that there are 40 million men and women working in fisheries worldwide are operating in a highly dangerous and mostly unregulated profession.

An average of 4,335 Filipinos leave the country annually to commercially fish aboard foreign flag vessels which represent just two per cent of all sea-based workers.

Migrant workers are vulnerable to being deceived and coerced to work on board vessels where the work is hazardous, and often accompanied by a range of labour and human rights abuses.

Associate Professor Sallie Yea of La Trobe University noted in her presentation that modern day slavery in the global seafood industry is a recurring issue involving illegal fishing, forced labour and human traffic.

Yea said that allowing the fishermen to tell and record their stories helps bring awareness towards issues in seafood slavery and the long-term effects on their lives.

“Access to justice has been very piecemeal for these men. Many have their contracts invalidated or disregarded, and it is very difficult for them to even just recover lost salaries or get compensation for injuries that they have suffered onboard the vessels.” Yea said.

Deception is used to recruit victims, who are often poorly educated or illiterate. to work on board foreign fishing vessels with promises of decent, well-paid jobs.

But once they begin working, these promises do not materialize, and they find themselves trapped in abusive conditions that are degrading (humiliating or dirty) or hazardous (difficult or dangerous without adequate protective gear), and in severe instances, breach of labor laws.

Under the so-called debt bondage, the migrant fishers are often working in an attempt to pay off an incurred or sometimes even inherited debt. The debt can arise from wage advances or loans to cover recruitment or transport costs or from daily living or emergency expenses, such as medical costs.

The Work in Fishing Convention (C188) establishes minimum standards that protect fishers in all aspects of their work which came into force on November 16, 2017 after being ratified by ten International Labor Organization (ILO) member states.

C188 defines a fisher as a person employed or engaged in any capacity or carrying out an occupation on board any fishing vessel, including persons working on board who are paid on the basis of a share of the catch but excluding pilots, naval personnel, other persons in the permanent service of a government, shore-based persons carrying out work aboard a fishing vessel and fisher observers.

The standards include safety on board fishing vessels; food, accommodation and medical care at sea; employment practices, insurance and liability

The convention aims to ensure that fishers have (a) improved occupational safety and health and medical care at sea, and that sick or injured fishers receive care ashore; (b) sufficient rest for their health and safety; (c) protection of a written work agreement; (d) same social security protection as other workers.

It also aims to ensure that fishing vessels are constructed and maintained so that fishers have decent living conditions on board.

Stella Maris Philippines , in coordination with ILO, have spearheaded efforts to develop a comprehensive pre-departure orientation and information package to address abuses, forced labour and human trafficking in the fishing industry.

“The information package we are putting together will help fishers gain deeper understanding of their rights and the abuses they may face, such as forced labour and human trafficking, and how they affect them and their families. As fishers learn about their rights, the laws, and the policies that safeguard them, they will be equipped to know what to do and with whom to communicate in times of crisis,” said Fr. John Mission, National Director of Stella Maris Philippines.

(Atty. Dennis R. Gorecho heads the seafarers’ division of the Sapalo Velez Bundang Bulilan law offices. For comments, e-mail info@sapalovelez.com, or call 09175025808 or 09088665786.)

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