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New International Fishing Standards

Many readers will recall the tsunami of 2004 which led to so many thousands of deaths. Among them was an unknown number of Burmese fishermen working on Thai boats and in many cases unregistered and illegal. Remaining Burmese migrant labourers preferred to flee from officials rather than seek medical aid or other assistance. The exact number of people involved is unknown and will almost certainly never be known. Even without the disaster, the lives of those working on fishing boats is rather grim, with extremely difficult and dangerous working conditions combined with low pay and regular threats of violence and other abuse in the workplace.

There are around 30 million fishermen working around the world, many of whom work in the ASEAN region. Globally, thanks to the power of retailers, there is downwards pressure on food prices and this affects fish too, notwithstanding the rapidly diminishing stocks of so many types of fish. Retailers squeeze distributors who squeeze wholesalers who squeeze fishing boat captains who in turn squeeze the workers. The result is ever declining working conditions and ever more compromised safety standards on board boats. Labour migration means that only the poorest and most desperate are taken on board, trained or not and forced into very long hours for very long pay – working on a fishing boat means a more or less endless working day. Workers mostly lack official documentation and thus are completely reliant on their captains and are unable to land at any port. They are often cheated and have no recourse.

Recognising this situation, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) has made the fishing industry one of its focal points of this year’s International Labour Conference in Geneva, which draws to a close today.

The ILO has announced new guidelines for the fishing industry which are aimed at ensuring workers:
• have improved occupational safety and health and medical care at sea, and that sick or injured fishers receive care ashore;
• receive sufficient rest for their health and safety;
• the protection of a work agreement; and,
• the same social security protection as other workers.

It has not been easy to enforce acceptance of these standards as many countries, ASEAN states notable among them, were unconvinced that they would be able to provide necessary facilities without forcing their own industries to become uncompetitive. A further issue has been the nature and design of boats in the region, many of which cannot easily be converted into vessels on which appropriate medical facilities in particular may be provided. However, diplomacy seems to have won the day and the agreement has been put through – of course, making an agreement such as this also requires individual states both to ratify it in their own parliamentary system and then to implement it. In the case of the fishing industry, one of the principal issues will be to police the industry, which is difficult because of the place where work occurs and the ease with which officials can be offered ‘tea money’ to look the other way in the event of violations. The provision in the agreement to allow inspection of boats in overseas ports should be helpful in this regard. In any case, some standards are better than no standards and that is what most ASEAN fishermen have had to face up to now. AseanAffairs

More details on the ILO’s fishing agreement may be found at:

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