Due to strong trade unions working within the ITF International Transport Workers’ Federation, seafarers normally sign written agreements detailing the wages, leave and journey, among other items, before going to sea. However, for fishers such written agreements exist only in a very limited number of instances.The fishing industry also has nothing equivalent to the shipping industry’s tripartite standard setting and enforcement structures within the International Labour Organization. Whether contracts are verbal or written, their lack of enforcement affects fishers daily.
When it comes to abuses, migrant workers are the most likely to suffer, beginning with fraudulent and deceptive contracts, if there are any contracts at all.
Both written and verbal agreements can be dubious in veracity or downright deceptive. Sometime recruits are required to sign blank pages of so-called contracts to be filled in later. Others sign very detailed contracts, but these may have unfair clauses that are not fully explained to, or understood by, the fishers.When there is a mismatch between promised and actual work
and conditions, fishers can receive lower wages and face unannounced charges for items such as food and amenities, as well as penalties for early release.
Verbal agreements are common in cases where agents or middlemen recruit young men in poorer regions to work on foreign vessels. Such agreements frequently amount to little more than promises of good wages, food, opportunities to save and guarantees of repatriation at the end of a given period. Such promises are usually unspecified and untrue.
Form of Trafficking
The applicant may have to make an informal payment to get on the list of an agency, with the family often expected to provide funding in support of the applicant. Under international conventions, such payments to recruitment agents to obtain a job are illegal. Once an agreement has been fixed, any advances or expenses provided to the employee are covered by a promissory note, and later deducted from earnings.
This system ties in the future fishers through collateral against their not meeting all the employment terms and conditions. It can, and in many cases does, become a form of trafficking. One author of a major report on trafficking of fishers in Thailand said he was “unable to identify a single fisher who had ever received a written contract.” The lack of information and deceptive practices of agencies renders recruits vulnerable to slavery on fishing vessels.
The experience of Yusril (not real name) is a case in point.
On 25 March 2011,Yusril was hired by an Indonesian agency to work on a South Korea flagged fishing vessel. He had put his name on a waiting list nine months earlier and paid an agent a US$225 fee that he borrowed from his brother-in-law. In addition to the agent’s commission,Yusril would surrender 30 per cent of his salary. He would be paid nothing for the first three months, and if the job was not finished to the fishing company’s satisfaction,Yusril would be sent home and charged $1,000 for the airfare. The meaning of “satisfactory” was left vague. His family would owe nearly US$3,500 if he were to run away from the ship. He had already submitted title to his land as collateral for the bond. In addition, he had provided (the company) with names and addresses of his family members.
Yusril was 28, his wife was pregnant and he was locked in. He was in desperate need of work and had no option but to join the ship under these conditions, which amounted to modern slavery.
Even if they are not trafficked, when fishers join a ship, they often will not know how long it will be away and they will usually have to surrender their identity documents to the skipper before sailing.This is mainly to deter them from jumping ship when in a foreign port.
Conversely, fishers are at risk from being abandoned against their will in a foreign country.This can occur when vessels are seized for illegal fishing, when a company declares bankruptcy, after a marine accident or when the fisher is ill or being difficult. Crews can be left in port without food, water and wages, and with few prospects of returning home.When skippers are taken into custody, fishers may not be allowed to go ashore if they do not have official identity papers. In the event of legal wrangles involving vessels and their owners, fishers sometimes manage to recoup wages. If in the interim the crew has been deported, however, there is little chance of receiving remuneration.
A recent example involved seven vessels seized by South African authorities in October 2013 for illegal fishing. A patrol brought the vessels into Cape Town and the skippers were put in custody.The 75 Indonesian fishers were confined on board for several months in atrocious conditions. It was only through efforts by the ITF International Transport Workers’ Federation,Apostleship of the Sea, the Islamic charity Nakhlistan and local people that the crew were kept alive.The owners were unknown, but believed to based in Taiwan. Eventually immigration officers raided the boats and removed the fishers to an inland detention centre to be deported as illegal immigrants.A similar story ensued with the other fishing vessels belonging to the same owners.
Abuse of children
Even more helpless in the face of abuses are the children who work as fishers, either in poor coastal communities or after being forced into slavery on foreign distant-water fishing vessels.
In small-scale fishing, children under 12 years old often dive on reefs to collect shellfish, and some make deeper dives to herd small fish into nets known as purse seines.While these activities can boost the incomes of poor families, they can damage ears and eyes and open children to the risk of shark attacks and drowning.
Older children between 14 and 16 years old have been found in crews of vessels fishing in distant waters. A study by the Environmental Justice Foundation documented child fishers from Senegal on vessels including freezer trawlers from Korea. Some of these fishers were below 15 years old, but had changed the date of birth in their identity cards. After fishing up to midnight, these children spent the night in cramped sleeping facilities.They had poor quality food, inadequate drinking water, and unhealthy living conditions and were denied treatment ashore even when urgent medical care was needed.
Children also can be abducted or abused sexually. In 2003, Kiribati banned all Korean fishing boats entering ports after reports in the Korean Herald that 30 to 50 girls, who were mostly underage, were servicing the Korean fishers.The UN Office on Drugs and Crime reported on owners hiring children aged 9 to 14 for US$7 to US$21 per month for deep-sea fishing voyages of two to three weeks on Pakistani vessels, where they were used for sexual purposes.