Convention 188 helping to fight labor abuses on the high seas

More scrupulous fisheries companies with brands and reputations to protect are increasingly distancing themselves from the abusive practices and non-compliance of rogue players in the industry.

Despite that, with global fish stocks tightening, laborers have suffered at the hands of unscrupulous operators seeking to retain a competitive advantage.

Western retailers have been turning to certification bodies and inspection agencies to assess the labor issues in their seafood supply chains. Yet even as labor issues become more prominent in the seafood industry, countries in both the West and in Asia appear reluctant to ratify and enforce the one global accord providing protection for fishermen.

Introduced by the United Nations, the 2007 Work in Fishing Convention (also known as Convention 188) requires that all vessels under the flag of a country that ratified the convention must meet the minimum requirements on decent working and living condition on-board fishing vessels. 

Drawn up by the U.N.-affiliated International Labour Organisation (ILO), Convention 188 – if implemented widely – would help cut high rates of accidents and labor abuse at sea, according to the Pelagic Freezer-trawler Association (PFA) Secretary of Labor Affairs Cor Blonk. The PFA represents the interests of nine European pelagic freezer-trawler companies from France, Germany, Lithuania, the Netherlands, and the U.K.

Article 41 of the convention requires parties that ratified the convention to issue a valid document of compliance with Convention 188 in regard to living and working conditions for fishing vessels remaining at sea for more than three days that are 24 metres in length or longer (or normally navigate at a distance exceeding 200 nautical miles from the coastline of the flag state or navigate beyond the outer edge of its continental shelf, whichever distance from the coastline is greater).

To date, only 14 countries have ratified Convention 188. By contrast, the Maritime Labour Convention (for merchant seafarers) has been ratified by 93 countries. Yet the ILO estimates the number of commercial fishermen on 38 million, compared to 1.65 million seafarers involved in international merchant shipping according to the International Chamber of Shipping.

“The numbers show that countries have little appetite to ratify [the convention],” he said. 

The countries that have ratified Convention 188 include Angola, Congo, Morocco, Argentina, Norway, and South Africa. From the E.U., France, Estonia, Lithuania, and the U.K. have also ratified it, bringing the convention into force in 2020. Thailand has also pledged to enforce the convention from 2020 onwards, and Liberia and Senegal will bring it into force this September.

Once a country has implemented the requirements of the Convention 188, it must organize and detail procedures for inspection and enforcement. 

“These instruments will cover the whole fleet and even foreign-flagged vessel once they enter port of this country due to the ‘non-favorable treatment’ clause in the convention,” Blonk said. “This applies to the good guys and the bad guys.” 

By contrast, voluntary certification and labeling schemes will usually only cover the “good guys,” Blonk claimed. 

“The disadvantage of labeling is the numerous labels that all cover just parts, and most of the time different parts, of decent working and living conditions and will cause lack of clarity and confusion by costumers. Also, the effect of inspection and nonconformities are limited. But I understand; labeling is big business,” Blonk said. “Inspection and enforcement shouldn’t be that difficult while many countries have implemented the minimum standards of shipping convention, including inspection and enforcement. These existing instruments/infrastructures can also be used for the fisheries-related conventions. This situation can be changed and one way to change this is to publish about it. Make the public, policymakers, and politicians aware of the situation.” 

Getting Convention 188 implemented is a matter of life and death – and life certainly appears to be cheap on the high seas, Blonk said. An 24,000 fatal accidents were recorded by the ILO in the global fishing industry in 1999. 

“Even if – and I don’t think we have – improved safety in the fishing industry that would decrease these number by 50 percent, the number of fatal accidents and injuries would be horrendous,” he said. 

The ILO has frequently stated its belief that more countries will ratify and implement the convention. Those efforts appear to be gaining traction after a number of high-profile incidents of labor abuse that have caught the attention of the world’s media.

A recent BBC TV news report on illegal fishing off the West African coast revealed squalid living conditions for Sierra Leonean workers aboard Chinese trawlers, who were being paid USD 100.00 (EUR 89.60) per month. The trawlers appear to be suppliers of seafood to European customers, based off information on the boxes and packaging filmed in the freezing facilities on board.

Last year, the detention of a Taiwanese vessel by South Africa (which has ratified the convention) on suspicion of labor abuse.

And The New York Times and the Associated Press have done extensive reporting on labor issues on the high seas, aided in part by investigations done by the Environmental Justice Foundation.

Blonk said, as a first step to making a change in how fishermen are treated on the high seas, retail giants should seek to source from countries that have ratified and implemented Convention 188.


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