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Improving living and working conditions in the fishing sector - 96th session of the International Labour Conference

Delegates to the 96th International Labour Conference will consider a new international labour standard that revises the seven existing ILO standards on fishing adopted between 1920 and 1966. The discussions will focus on living and working conditions of some 30 million people who work in the global fishing sector, one of the world’s most dangerous. ILO Online reports from Ireland where the loss of two trawlers and seven fishermen has brought the sector to the forefront of public attention.

Article | 29 May 2007

CORK, Ireland (ILO Online) – Fishermen have always gone to sea in the month of January in search of herring, but this year the Irish coast had suffered a prolonged period of bad weather.

On the night of 10 January this year, weather conditions at Force 8 took a heavy toll: seven fishermen died when two Irish fishing boats sank within 20 miles and four hours of each other off the South-East coast.

First, the Pere Charles disappeared. The Coast Guard called out its helicopter and the Dunmore East Lifeboat, which were quickly on the scene, but all that was found of the boat was a gas cylinder and a life ring. Just four hours later, the Honeydew II out of Kinsdale suffered a similar fate. About 20 hours later, two of the crew were picked up in a life raft by an Irish Coast Guard helicopter that had seen their flare while searching for the Pere Charles.

“What happened in Ireland last January can happen anywhere. Fishing is one of the most hazardous occupations”, says the ILO expert for the fishing industry, Brandt Wagner.

In Viet Nam and other South-East Asia countries, tropical storms hit the fishing industry several times last year. In Viet Nam, nine storms sank 808 fishing vessels causing numerous casualties, according to a government report.

According to the ILO expert, in a number of countries the fatality rates for persons in the fishing sector are many times greater than the national average or in other sectors – for example higher than those for fire-fighters or police. These rates may exceed 150 to 180 per 100,000 workers, rivalled only by such other hazardous occupations as forestry and coal mining.

New standards reflect changes in the fishing industry

Much has changed in the sector since the last ILO standards were adopted some 40 years ago. Among other things, the sector is increasingly globalized. A new ILO standard would reflect these changes, and provide protection for a greater portion of people, particularly those working on smaller vessels.

The new fishing Convention would cover more than 90 per cent of workers in the world’s fishing industry, the vast majority of whom work on small vessels in developing countries. The existing Conventions cover only a fraction of all fishing industry workers.

“It is clearly important that no fisher slips inadvertently through the protective net of labour standards”, says Wagner. “For the 30 million fishers in the world – most of whom are now excluded from coverage by existing labour standards – the new Convention and Recommendation, if adopted, will mean conditions of work that will enable them to continue to earn a living in decent conditions and in safety”.

The instruments aim to address a variety of aspects of fishers’ lives, from their initial recruitment through when they return home, from when they are young until they retire.

“In keeping with ILO’s tripartite mandate and traditions, not only Government delegates but also delegates representing fishing vessel owner and fishers’ representative organizations are shaping the form and content of international labour standards. This is very important to ensuring that the instrument is appropriate for this unique sector”, says Elizabeth Tinoco, chief of the ILO’s Sectoral Activities Branch.

If adopted, the new standards would reflect changes in the fishing sector that have taken place over the past decades, which have seen rising consumption of fish as an animal protein source. Fishing contributes some US$ 50 billion a year to international trade in fishery commodities.

The new standards would provide broad coverage for all those working in the fishing sector, including the self-employed and those paid on the basis of the share of the catch; have the flexibility to ensure wide-scale ratification and implementation; and include new provisions on safety and health to reduce the high rate of accidents and fatalities highlighted in earlier ILO reports.

The standards would also include new provisions on compliance and enforcement to ensure decent working conditions on fishing vessels. The member State under whose flag the vessel sails would retain primary responsibility for the implementation of the standard through national laws and regulations. Specific provisions of the proposed instrument also clarify the role of fishing vessel owners and skippers in ensuring that these requirements are met.

“The new measure perfectly fits into the ILO Decent Work agenda: promoting opportunities for women and men to obtain decent and productive work in conditions of freedom, equity, security and human dignity”, concludes Tinoco.