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Danger at sea - Working in the fishing sector

As fish and shellfish become increasingly important as a source of protein, the fishing industry has grown considerably. This growth, however, hasn't come without a cost - in terms of working conditions and occupational safety - to the estimated 35 million full and part-time workers in the fishing sector. To address this, delegates to this year's 92nd International Labour Conference took the first steps toward adopting new international labour standards for what is one of the world's most dangerous professions. Here, in question and answer format, are basic facts about the fishing sector and what the ILO can do to improve conditions there.

Article | 02 July 2004

How many people work in the fishing sector and where?

The fishing industry employs some 35 million people worldwide, including an estimated 27 million people who work in capture fishing (including full-time, part-time and occasional fishers). The vast majority live in developing countries (Asia, 83 per cent, Africa 9 per cent and South America, 2.5 per cent), with the rest divided among fish exporting countries in North America, Europe and the former Soviet Union. The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) estimates that the global fishing fleet consists of about 1.3 million decked vessels and 2.8 million un-decked vessels, 65 per cent of which have no mechanical propulsion systems.

Why is fishing important?

Fish is an important source of protein for many communities, some of which depend on fish for their food security. What's more, the fishing sector is an important part of global trade. According to the (FAO), total capture fisheries production reached over 94.8 million tons in 2000, the highest level ever. Marine capture fisheries had an estimated first sale value of US$76 billion. The fish trade is worth over US$50 billion, with developing countries accounting for 50 per cent of the total.

Which countries lead in fisheries production?

China had the highest marine and inland "capture fisheries" production in 2000 with more than 17 million tonnes. The next largest producer was Peru with 10.7 million tonnes followed by Japan (more than 5 million tonnes), and the United States, Chile, Indonesia, Russian Federation, India, Thailand, Norway, Iceland and the Philippines.

Which countries are the main exporters of fish?

According to the FAO, Thailand earned the most from the export of fish products in terms of value during 2000, followed by China, Norway, the United States, Canada, Denmark, Chile, Taiwan (China), Spain, Indonesia, Viet Nam and India. In some countries - Greenland, the Seychelles, the Faeroe Islands and Iceland - fish accounted for two-thirds of the total value of commodities traded.

And which countries are the top importers?

The FAO says that in 2000, the top importing countries were Japan, the United States, Spain, France, Italy, Germany, the United Kingdom, Hong Kong (China), Denmark, China, Canada and the Republic of Korea.

Why is the ILO working on new standards for the fishing sector now?

Much has changed in the sector since the last ILO standards were adopted some 40 years ago - and a new set of standards will reflect this. They will also provide protection for a greater portion of people in this growing sector - particularly those working on smaller vessels -while also addressing issues such as occupational safety and health and social security protection. The ILO is keenly aware that people in the fishing sector often face harsh or difficult working conditions: they may spend long periods at sea and are frequently exposed to unpredictable and dangerous conditions. In a number of countries, the fatality rates for persons in the fishing sector are many times greater than the national average, for example higher than those for fire-fighters or police. These rates may exceed 150 to 180 per 100,000 workers, rivalled only by such other hazardous occupations as forestry and coal mining.

What provisions already exist to protect those working in the fishing sector?

Currently seven ILO instruments cover working conditions in the sector - five Conventions (minimum age, medical examination, articles of agreement, accommodation and competency certificates) and two Recommendations (vocational training and hours of work). These were adopted in the years of 1920, 1959 and 1966, and are in many ways outdated. The ILO also has standards for seafarers in general. However, these are often aimed primarily at persons working on cargo or passenger ships, and their application to the fishing sector has been left to the discretion of member States. (Furthermore, these standards will shortly be consolidated in a single instrument that will not apply to fishers.) Finally, because of the special nature of fishing operations, certain ILO standards applicable to all workers, such as those concerning occupational safety and health have often provided the possibility of excluding the fishing sector from their application. A goal of the new instrument under consideration is to mend these "holes in the net" of labour protection for fishers.

Who will benefit from the new standards?

The new labour standards would extend coverage to more than 90 per cent of the world's fishers. Existing Conventions cover only about 10 per cent. New labour standards would also take into account the difficult working conditions in the sector as a whole, fishers working on smaller vessels in coastal waters and those working on larger vessels operating for longer periods at sea. A goal of the new instrument will be to provide appropriate labour protection to these persons, in line with the ILO's goal of ensuring Decent Work for all.

How will the new standards be enforced?

The member State under whose flag the vessel sails would retain primary responsibility for the implementation of the standard through national laws and regulations. Specific provisions of the proposed instrument also clarify the role of fishing vessel owners and skippers in ensuring that these requirements are met. An innovation foreseen in the standard is the inclusion of a provision that would promote intervention by port States when conditions aboard fishing vessels visiting their ports are found to be clearly unsafe or unhealthy. The new measure is also designed to fit into the ILO Decent Work agenda: promoting opportunities for women and men to obtain decent and productive work in conditions of freedom, equity, security and human dignity.