Op-ed: The trouble with FIPs when it comes to labor rights

Chris Williams is a fisheries expert with the International Transport Workers' Federation Fisheries Section. Jessica Sparks is an assistant professor of antislavery economics at the University of Nottingham, and the associate director of the university’s Rights Lab’s ecosystems and the environment program.

Chris Williams is a fisheries expert with the International Transport Workers' Federation Fisheries Section. Jessica Sparks is an assistant professor of antislavery economics at the University of Nottingham, and the associate director of the university’s Rights Lab’s ecosystems and the environment program.

The recent addition of a social component and remit to fishery improvement projects (FIPs), as currently constituted and reported on through FisheryProgress.org, will not be an effective part of the fight against labor exploitation and abuses in fisheries.

FIPs adding social concerns about labor to become a fundamental objective of FIPs – on equal footing with improvement in stock biomass or fishing gears used – may sound like a necessary change. But the whole foundational premise is wrong and FIPs cannot deliver on these outcomes as currently constituted.

Sustainability relies on three equal pillars: social, environmental, and economic. Sustainable fisheries also require all three of these pillars to be covered, but to-date the three pillars have been given unequal attention, with human and labor rights added in the eleventh hour to project designs which have environmental objectives – a concerning situation and one which requires remedy, so that the current gap around the social pillar (i.e. working conditions) is filled appropriately and effectively. Only recently have social dimensions been considered a fundamental component of sustainable fisheries. Demand for sustainably caught fish – that considers the rights and conditions of those doing the work - is shaping the global seafood industry. Voluntary seafood certification and labeling has emerged as a private-sector alternative to regulation but has yielded little or no improvements for workers. Other MSIs and voluntary labels or certification standards show little promise in terms of addressing these issues from a workers’ perspective.

Decent work in fishing

In contrast to the situation for seafarers, there is no ILO minimum basic wage for fishers, and many countries exclude fishers for minimum wage legislation. Many of the issues making fishers vulnerable stem from these traditional agreements regarding remuneration for labor, which is conditional on successful fishing trips and the pressures (e.g. long working hours and working in difficult conditions) that this entails.

Global landings data show that on average, fishing wages in 36 percent to 67 percent of the countries assessed (which are home to 69 percent to 95 percent of fishers globally), are likely below the national minimum living wages. This accounts for the costs of food, shelter, clothing, health, and education, and is fundamental to having a decent life.

Effective management of fishing vessels and fisheries that focuses only on ecological sustainability threatens the goals around human well‐being and decent work, that broader social policy aims to address - trade-offs between the three pillars (social, economic, and environmental) of sustainability are unacceptable. Decent work means fairly paid, productive work carried out in conditions of freedom, equity, security, and human dignity.

FIPs and social improvements

FIPs differ from certification schemes in that market access is conditional on a fishery making progress towards sustainability, as opposed to meeting qualifying environmental standards.

Efforts to incorporate a “triple-bottom line” approach (including social, economic, and environmental performance) in FIPs have emerged in recent years, but with little evaluation in terms of the impact on working conditions. The range of social issues in fisheries span human rights abuses to wider labor issues as well as wider wellbeing, food security, or health impacts at the community level.

To improve ratings against criteria related to social aspects, FIPs have been encouraged to seek expertise in the field of human and labor rights, to understand the regulations and risks of human trafficking and modern slavery in seafood supply chains. These include national labor unions and international federations, some NGOs involved in human rights, and legal and academic experts.

Focusing only on risks, rather than structural drivers and systemic issues behind labor abuse (e.g. poverty, lack of opportunity, racism, or discrimination) will not drive the necessary transformation that must occur. Focusing on risks will create change, but this will be mainly through “profiling” specific vessels according to characteristics (ownership, gear, etc.) rather than dealing with the causal structural drivers in seafood supply chains. Workers and their representatives have frequently been excluded from FIP development to date, limiting the impact workers organizations can have on how FIPs take shape and what (social) outcomes they hope to achieve.

FIPs do not currently seek to contribute to a decent work agenda in fishing, nor to mirror standards in the ILO C188 Work in Fishing Convention – the main question is: should they? FIPs seek to incentivize environmentally sustainable fishing through enhanced market access, effectively to benefit retailers, importers, processors, and others in seafood supply chains - but with no involvement of workers or labor unions. So, the beneficiaries are the private sector and also producers with direct links to the supply chains, rather than those working on board the vessels. NGOs also benefit through reputational gains if FIPs are successful.

Therefore, there is no current mechanism for the inclusion of the needs or necessary improvements in conditions for workers, a decent work agenda or the input of labor unions into the improvement of the fishery from a labor perspective that are legally binding. Instead, all businesses need to engage in human rights due diligence in a way that is meaningful for and inclusive of workers.

Certification schemes fail to drive improved labor conditions in capture fisheries or to deliver remedy or recourse for the worker. Without a body (such as a trade union) that can protect and support the interests of the worker, during a grievance procedure (e.g. over unpaid wages) then those fishers who are most vulnerable due to their poverty, ethnicity, or education would not have the power to stand up to the vessel owners and recoup their unpaid wages.  

The lack of comprehensive audits at sea, low levels of assurance from labor audits in port, as well as the high resource requirements to attain acceptable levels of assurance, mean the positive outcomes for workers will be marginal at best. Self-declarations may provide an opportunity for a large-scale, standardized overview of the state of play and a first step to build on for further action, but little else.

The ITF also believes that a sustainable utilization of all living marine resources creates a stable basis for the employment of fishers on decent terms and conditions, as well as making a valuable contribution to the world food supply and coastal communities.

The ratification and effective implementation of relevant international instruments (including the ILO work in fishing convention, C188, and ILO convention on private recruitment agencies, C181) proper consultation with workers and worker’s representatives, formal social dialogue and implementation of collective bargaining agreement (CBAs), either at national, sectoral, port, fleet, vessel or company level, are all essential parts of this convention that cannot be sidestepped through voluntary standards.

Photos courtesy of New Economics Foundation and University of Nottingham


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