GSA spotlights “Worker Voice” in fight to ensure fair labor standards

Published on
December 14, 2020

A new white paper commissioned by Global Seafood Assurances (GSA) is offering a comprehensive look at the tools and resources that exist to ensure social welfare on board the world’s fishing vessels.

The paper, Worker Voice on Fishing Vessels, documents the initiatives, organizations, and projects available around the world that offer fishing crews a means to voice concerns, have influence over matters that affect them in the workplace, and have access to third party advice and grievance mechanisms for remediation. It also identifies common definitions and terms used to describe these concepts.

The work, carried out by Portsmouth, England-based seafood sustainability consultancy Key Traceability, brings together the opinions, experience, and knowledge of numerous organizations and individuals working in the sector, and has a global reach. It prepares the ground for a second project in 2021 that will seek to build collective consensus on the definitions and global best practice currently available, according to GSA Director of Strategic Engagements Melanie Siggs.

The paper is essential reading for the seafood supply chain as a stand-alone, with useful insights into current practice, and recommendations for areas of collaboration and improvement, Siggs said.

“GSA recognizes that it is critical to have robust systems in place for fishers, so they can have safe access to third-party support when needed,” Siggs told SeafoodSource. “Numerous initiatives have been piloted or are in place, some more applicable to the at-sea sector than others, but no one has sought to document them and the wider understanding of these mechanisms.”

The white paper was funded by the David and Lucille Packard Foundation, and Siggs said it is a first vital step towards understanding what we must expect for those working on fishing vessels and improving future conditions.

Siggs said although the concept of worker voice has been around for a long time and is a well-accepted concept in the labor rights field, the global fishing sector has not adequately recognized it as a means to monitor and regulate standards of labor onboard fishing vessels. The issue is potentially massive, Siggs said, with around 4.6 million active fishing vessels around the world, and more than 27 million people working in capture fishing, according to the International Labor Organization (ILO).

Progress on amplifying worker voice in the fishing industry is being made, but slowly, according to Siggs. A number of organizations have been working on modern slavery and worker rights issues in recent years and several international standards have emerged that address crew welfare, worker rights, and other social issues on fishing vessels in some measure. GSA’s own Responsible Fishing Vessel Standard (RFVS), for example, aims to provide assurance that fishing crews are treated fairly, trained appropriately, and work in safe conditions – with payment, food, water and rest time in line with global conventions such as ILO C188.

Challenges to improving conditions for fishers include the remote operations of many fishing vessels, which means that workers can be out of sight and abuses may be hard to track or prove. In many cases, other barriers to more thorough reporting on worker abuse include low literacy levels, particularly among migrant workers frequently employed on fishing vessels; a lack of access to telephone, internet, or other means of communication; and, in some cases, a potential desire both on the part of employer and employee for anonymity. Vessels need to be at sea earning money, so spend limited time in port.

As a result, workers have limited opportunity to access land-based authorities or mechanisms – if they are allowed off the vessel at all. Another challenge faced by those attempting to improve the availability of methods of communication for fishermen is persuading hard-pressed and sometimes unscrupulous employers that the costs associated with putting effective mechanisms in place should be an integral part of good labor relations.

Complicating the matter is the white paper’s finding that while there is an increasing level of familiarity with the term worker voice, there is little consensus on what constitutes adequate representation of worker voice or available grievance mechanisms for fishers. Interviewees said forging this common understanding will be essential, with the proviso that when determining standard terminology, different fisheries and fishing methods should be considered.

Another roadblock, Siggs said, is the current lack of fishing industry-specific, government-led initiatives, with most of the projects documented in the white paper having been initiated, and developed by civil society organizations and private companies. Of these, nearly all operate exclusively in domestic waters, not the high seas, and few go beyond pilot phases. Siggs said this disconnect between governments and the citizens they are ostensibly supposed to be protecting is troublesome.

“Authorities seem not to be trusted by fishers to resolve grievances effectively, especially where migrant fishers are concerned,” Siggs said. “It seems in many places that current regulations protecting fishers are insufficient, and regulations to enable fisher voice are non-existent.”

Additionally, Siggs said there is little guidance as to what constitutes current best practice, or how to achieve and monitor meaningful worker voice on fishing vessels.

“What does ‘best’ look like? What is safe? How can we measure the effectiveness of worker voice and grievance mechanisms for fishers? Why do we need them? It is these questions and more that our work seeks to answer, so that we can develop detailed guidelines which can make a real difference,” she said.

GSA is now scoping and seeking funding for the follow-on project, the outcomes of which will hold relevance for regulators, skippers, seafood buyers, NGOs, standard holders and funders, Siggs said.

Photo courtesy of Kevin Hellon/Shutterstock

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