The hazardous environment, in which fishing is carried out, and the uniqueness of the labour process in fishing lead to a host of crucial and largely neglected labour issues that impinge on the Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work as declared by the International Labour Organisation (ILO). Since 1990s, there have been significant changes in [...]

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Decent work for fishers: Towards ratifying the ILO work in fishing convention 188


The hazardous environment, in which fishing is carried out, and the uniqueness of the labour process in fishing lead to a host of crucial and largely neglected labour issues that impinge on the Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work as declared by the International Labour Organisation (ILO).

Since 1990s, there have been significant changes in fishing, with vessels venturing beyond nearshore waters into offshore and deep seas, infiltration of business interests into fisheries and commoditisation of labour. These have implications for the work and living standards of the crew on board. The ILO Work in Fishing Convention 188 of 2007 came as a panacea that aim at protecting the rights of fishing labour and increase the societal gains accrued to fishing. Sri Lanka has yet to ratify this convention.

Commoditistion of fishing labour

The emergence of the offshore and deep sea fishing led to significant changes in labour relations. In small scale fisheries in the past, labour was recruited on the basis of kinship, and labour attachment was more permanent (long-term attachment). The relations between craft owners and crew labourers were characterised by patron-client type of relations which had a high degree of affectivity. The employer-employee relations started to erode with market expansion, population growth and the advent of new technology. New offshore craft were quite expensive, but the attractive profits of the modern fishing technology pulled outside business interests into the sector.

Following the advent of offshore fishing and the rapid development of fishing in distant waters with multiday boats since 1990, there was a tendency to increase the space of the fish hold at the expense of facilities made for the crew on board crafts: accommodation; clean water, sanitary facilities, etc. With high returns to labour from fishing trips, the crew workers did not complain about lack of facilities on board, and opted deep sea fishing against coastal fisheries and other labour work where the returns to labour were comparatively low.

Apart from inadequate onboard space and other facilities, there were problems related to medical care at sea, poor sea safety in crafts, lack of written conditions of employment, and poor or no social security protection (care during accidents, survivor benefits, sickness and disability benefits, insurance, etc.). Even on the part of the owners, there were several issues arising from their poor personal knowledge of the employees. The employees took cash advances prior to trips but did not turn up, some were bad performers or trouble makers, some failed as team players, some were medically unfit, and, even the skippers were found to be incompetent either in manoeuvring the vessels or managing the crew. It is thus quite apparent that all these incidences violated the human rights principle which says that everyone has a right to “just and favourable conditions of work” (Article 23 of Universal Declaration of Human Rights).

The ILO Work in Fishing Convention 188

Taking into account the urgent need to develop a new standard for work in the fishing sector, a convention named “ILO Work in Fishing Convention 188”, was adopted in 2007 at the 96th International Labour Conference of the ILO.

The new standard takes into account the provisions of the 1995 FAO Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries and integrates the work of ILO with that of other international organisations concerned with fisheries and the operations of fishing vessels.

The ILO believes that, it would result in the standard being clearly understood and be found more acceptable not only for Ministries responsible for labour issues but also for those responsible for fisheries management and vessel safety, for vessel owners and for those working on board fishing vessels.

This initiative, which dates back to 2003, was fully supported by Sri Lanka, with several fishworker organisations, especially, the United Fishermens and Fishworkers Congress (UFFC) and National Fisheries Solidarity (NAFSO), joining hands with the Ruhuna University Union of Senior Academics (RUUSA) to organise workshops under the theme of “Improving labour conditions in the Fisheries Sector”, with assistance from the International Collective in Support of Fishworkers (ICSF). Sri Lanka sent its recommendations to the ILO in 2004 pledging its ardent support to the proposed convention.

The major areas covered
by ILO 188

The new convention deals comprehensively with standards for work on board fishing vessels. It has a prescriptive standard (i) for vessels of length 24 m and above, (ii) for vessels that remain at sea for more than seven days, or (iii) for vessels that navigate at a distance exceeding 200 nautical miles from the coastline, or (iv) for vessels that navigate beyond the outer edge of the continental shelf, and (v) for fishers working on such vessels.

Some of the more important issues include, Article 9 on Minimum Age, which limits the minimum age for work on board vessels to 15-18 years. Article 10 makes fitness certificate (medical certificate) a pre-requisite for engagement on board fishing vessels, but allowing countries with a high degree of flexibility in making exemptions (including small scale vessels) where and when required, taking into account the health and safety of fishers, size of the vessel, availability of medical assistance and evacuation, duration of voyage and type of fishing operation, etc.

Article 10 also stresses the need to give regular period of rest to the crew of sufficient length to ensure health and safety. One of the most important issues dealt by ILO 188 is Fisher’s Work Agreement (Article 16 — an employer-employee contract), which shall include, among other things, voyages to be undertaken, nature of employment, methods of calculating wages, protection that will cover the fisher in the event of sickness, injury, or death in connection with service, amount of annual leave, health and social security coverage and benefits to be provided, etc.

Article 25 requires member states to adopt regulations in respect of accommodation, food and potable water for the crew.

Moreover, ILO 188 also requires member countries to adopt measures to ensure that fishing vessels carry appropriate medical equipment and medical supplies for the service of the vessel, taking into account the number of fishers on board, the area of operation and the length of the voyage (Article 29). Among other things, it also requires fishing vessels to carry on board at least one person knowledgeable in the use of medical equipment and first aid.

Occupational Safety and Health and Accident Prevention are dealt in Articles 31, 32 and 33, which demand states to adopt laws to prevent occupational accidents, occupational diseases and work related risks on board fishing vessels.

An aspect which was not covered in the earlier conventions and recommendations but included in the proposed convention is Social Security, and ILO 188 ensures that fishers benefit from social security protection no less favorable than that provided to other workers in their country; and, at a minimum, provides protection in cases of their work related sickness, injury or death (Articles 34-39). Furthermore, as stated in Article 39, fishing vessel owners are made responsible for the provision of health protection and medical care to the crew workers. En masse, the ILO 188 is a very comprehensive standard that ensures the provision of decent wok for fishers.

The applicability to small
scale fisheries

Although the Convention exclusively deals with labour conditions in larger vessels, it also has provisions to extend the various provisions to the small scale fisheries sector. It is more than evident that the proposed convention covers most of the labour issues that have emerged in the offshore and deep sea fisheries sub-sector of Sri Lanka. This does not mean that fishers in the artisanal and small-scale sector do not need other forms of protection.

Needless to say that community-insurance mechanisms cannot adequately deal with issues of old age security, disability, death, etc. Of course such people too need protection. It is worthy of mention that fishing vessels in the artisanal and small-scale sector are quite small, operate day long fishing trips in near-shore waters up to the edge of the contiguous zone of 24 nautical miles. There are also fishing operations that are land based, such as beach seining and, fishing activities carried out in rivers, lakes and lagoons with small vessels, under different set of conditions. These fishers too suffer from social security protection issues and some with sea safety issues.

The benefits of ratifying
the Convention

Ratification of the Convention will definitely benefit all tripartite stakeholders; the fishers, boat owners and the Government. The crew workers working on board fishing vessels will benefit immensely by improved work conditions, such as the provision of sufficient space and facilities for accommodation, water, food, medical care, sea safety, sanitation and social security protection.

The work agreement with boat owners will guarantee them conditions of work; work hours, rest periods, clear responsibilities and obligations, shore leave, remuneration, etc. For boat owners, provisions made in C188 will ensure the presence of a healthy and competent skipper and a team of crew workers to do the job. The boat owner will be minimising the risk of defaulting cash advances by a borrower-crewmember because the work agreement will guarantee that he will be back for work.

Further, the work agreement with the employees guarantees that the latter understand their task and obligations well, which is a protection against disputes that might arise among crew and skippers at sea. By maintaining a well-functioning boat with adequate facilities, manned by a qualified skipper and, offering a good work contract, a boat owner would be able to attract good performers to his fishing unit on a long-term basis, adding to the stability and viability of the fishing unit, while for the employee such a contract will guarantee security of employment, safety, social security protection and income.

The Government is interested in increasing fish production and exports, while ensuring the wellbeing of the people. A healthy and competent boat crew under the guidance of a competent skipper ensures enhanced production and productivity, leading to increased landings and income. Registration of fishers, work agreements, competency and medical certificates allow the relevant authority to effectively manage the fishing fleet along the lines of the fisheries development goals of the country.

It is to be noted that, about 18 countries have so far ratified the ILO 188 Convention, including seven members of the European Union; France, Estonia, Lithuania, Portugal, Poland, Denmark and the Netherlands. It is likely that the Convention will come into force in these countries by early 2021, while more and more countries are likely to adopt the convention by this time because the EU has asked its member countries to ratify the Convention.

This puts pressure on Sri Lanka which exports fish to them to ratify the convention, because the EU countries would like to see that they buy fish from countries which provide decent work conditions for their fishers, as laid down in the C188 Convention, which has been ratified by them. Therefore, it is obvious that, if Sri Lanka wants to send its fish to the European market and to other developed nations, it would make sense to ratify the Convention and show the world that it upholds all its responsibilities as a flag state (the country under whose registration ships operate).

Into the future…

In early January of 2020, the ILO Sri Lanka made an effort to initiate a process of ratification of the ILO 188 Convention. This task was undertaken by the Centre for Poverty Analysis (CEPA) in Colombo, assisted by the ILO. A comprehensive desk and field studies were conducted by CEPA in many parts of the country, which produced a detailed document with an in-depth analysis of issues related to ratifying the Convention.

This study strongly recommended ratification of the Convention due to its immense benefits to the fishers, boat owners, the government and to the fisheries sector in general. The findings of the study were presented to the Ministry of Fisheries and Aquatic Resource on the 30th of September 2020, with the participation of the ILO representative in Sri Lanka.

The Ministry showed a prodigious interest in moving forward and requested the ILO to prepare a ‘gap analysis’ to show what interventions are required from the government in the process of ratification of the convention.

Appreciatively, a few important steps have already been taken by the Government in manning Sri Lanka’s high seas fleet and labour conditions. Need for skippers to possess competency certificates issued by either CINEC (Colombo International Nautical and Engineering College) or NIFNE (National Institute of Fisheries and Nautical Engineering) and the prohibition to recruit crew below the age of 18 are two such steps.

Yet, the country has failed notably in providing fishers with effective social security protection measures (pension/insurance). This is an area where, the Government could immediately turn its attention as a pre-requisite to ratifying the convention.

(The writer is President of the
Sri Lanka Forum for
Small Scale Fisheries)


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