A growing recognition of the ocean as a workplace

The UN Ocean’s Conference provided a unique opportunity for the social and economic pillars of sustainable development to be seen as critical to the achievement of the environmentally-focused SDGs and chance to improve conditions of work for those who derive a living from its bounty.

News | 22 June 2017
With over 6,000 participants, the UN’s first-ever summit on the ocean's health concluded with a far-reaching 14-point Call for Action on conserving and sustainably using the planet’s oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development.

For many governments, the adoption of the Call to Action and its follow-up actions will have a tremendous impact on economic viability and environmental sustainable in their countries. A wide range of topics, including plastic pollution in the oceans to acidification and illegal fishing, were intensively discussed as well as their potential impact on reducing poverty, ending hunger, promoting health, and ensuring access to water and sanitation.

In his opening address to the Ocean’s Conference, the Fijian Ambassador Peter Thomson, as President of the General Assembly, stated that this was the “best opportunity we will ever have to reverse the cycle of decline that human activity has placed the Ocean”.

“The central conclusion for humankind at this time is clear: if we want a secure future for our species on this planet, we have to act now on the health of the Ocean and on Climate Change” said Ambassador Thomson.

In her statement to the plenary of the Ocean’s Conference, Alette van Leur, ILO’s Director, Sectoral Policies Department, stated that an important focus for the ILO was a message: The ocean is a workplace and seafarers and fishers, as all other workers, have the right to decent work.

The ILO has established – with its member Governments, workers’ and Employers’ organizations – two important standards for the people you derive their living from the ocean, directly and indirectly. The Maritime Labour Convention (MLC) is a comprehensive set of standards that govern the living and working conditions of seafarers. The MLC, ratified by 83 member States and covers around 90% of the world fleet by gross tonnage, has helped direct impressive efforts in the shipping industry, seafarers’ organizations and governments to promote decent work.

Similarly, the Work in Fishing Convention sets out standards governing conditions of work on fishing vessels. With over 38 million people working in one of the most dangerous of all professions, the lack of decent work has put these people at greater risk.

As part of the ILO’s contribution to the Ocean’s Conference, it had convened a special event entitled “Working the Oceans: decent work in the blue economy” with its co-hosts the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) and the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF).

The meeting focused on the links between the blue economy and decent work as well as to raise awareness of the ILO Conventions concerning seafarers and fishers and how they contribute to achieving both decent work and a sustainable blue economy.

Panellists had agreed that decent working conditions and inclusive growth in the blue economy are paramount considerations in the recognition of the ocean as a workplace and that by creating healthier oceans and improving the livelihoods of seafarers and fishers in the economy it will lead to a net creation of jobs.

Following are the main points from the speakers participating in the side event:

Mr. Mattias Landgren

State Secretary to the Minister for Infrastructure, Ministry of Enterprise and Innovation (SWEDEN)
  • Mr. Landgren stated that decent work is one of the priorities of the Swedish government on a global, European, and national level in effort to improve individual well-being and combat unfair competition in the maritime sector.
  • Decent work is also essential for human health in order to secure a healthy marine environment. Sweden launched a strategic vision to achieve a competitive and sustainable maritime sector.
  • To ensure success, multi-stakeholder partnerships are important to enhance social dialogue for sound industrial relations.

Hon. Inia Seruiratu

Minister for Agriculture, Rural and Maritime Development and National Disaster Management and Climate Change Champion (FIJI)
  • The Hon. Inia Seruiratu stated that Fiji is currently promoting decent work at the national level as a collective goal to build a just and fair society as well as ensuring social justice for all.
  • The work in the maritime sector must respect the work consistent with ILO conventions which has a proven record for fishing management. Fiji developed a trade policy framework from 2015 to 2025 to incentivize stewardship and improve compliance with fishing regulations.
  • Among the key priorities for improving the maritime sector include: the need to study the sector better through consultative processes; improve existing knowledge by gathering sufficient data; and, recognize the potential in existing partnerships.

Ms. Alette van Leur

Director, Sectoral Policies Department, ILO
  • Ms. van Leur stressed that the ocean is a place of work, with approximately 350 million people around the world relying on the oceans for their livelihoods.
  • Decent work is a substantive contribution to sustainable development and the best way to end poverty. The decent work agenda is about the aspirations of people around the world who are looking for freely chosen, productive employment that respects their rights.
  • Social dialogue is a critical contribution in developing a body of international labour standards.
  • Oceans offer opportunities for livelihoods in transport, fishing and tourism, yet they can also be a dangerous workplace laden with hazardous conditions, long working hours, low wages, non-payment of wages, and forced labour.
  • All of these situations are a violation of human rights and diminish the reputation of the entire sector and industry. The Maritime Labour Convention and the Work and Fishing Convention are key instruments in preventing these violations.
  • She announced that the ILO is organizing a large tripartite event on migrant workers in the fishing industry in Geneva in September.

Mr. Simon Bennet

Director, Policy and External Relations, International Chamber of Shipping (ICS)
  • Mr. Bennet stated that ICS is essentially the first truly global industry in the sea transport, and it recognizes the Maritime Labour Convention has an instrument that covers a wide range of matters with respect to contraction issues, responsibilities, work hours, health, safety, and crew accommodation.
  • One important aspect the convention is that it follows inspection of recognized organizations appointed by flag to maintain the declaration of the maritime labour compliance.
  • ICS is unique in that it heavily depends on ILO standards, and the Maritime Labour Convention is a model that could be emulated by other industries.
  • Another unique aspect about ICS is that it is the only industry that has an agreed recommended minimum wage for seafarers, and how this is achieved is that ICS has a mechanism called the Joint Maritime Commission, in which members sit down periodically to review the ILO’s guidelines on minimum wages in the industry.

Mr. Andrew Hudson

Head, Water and Ocean Governance Program, Bureau for Development Policy, UNDP
  • Mr. Hudson stated that in his recent work for the Journal of Environment and Development, he looked at issues of global actions to implement the SDGs across the board, and not only will achieving sustainable development in the blue economy create healthier oceans as well as improve the livelihoods of fishers and seafarers in the economy, but the results will guarantee a net creation of good paying and safer jobs.
  • The key ocean threats are invasive aquatic species, nutrient over-enrichment and hypoxia, overfishing, plastic pollution and ocean acidification.
  • He added that recycling plastics creates good jobs, creating a revenue 6.4 times greater than waste management ($235 billion vs. $37 billion).
  • The recycling and reuse industry employs over 4 times as many people as the waste management industry (1.1 million vs. 250,000), and the average recycling and reuse wages are 10% higher than for waste management.
  • He added that there was a study revealing that if the US achieved the municipal solid waste (MSW) 75% diversion rate by 2030, 1.1 million jobs will be added and 515 million metric tons of CO2 emissions from 72 coal plants would be avoided.
  • He stated that by moving from fossil fuels to renewable energy (wind, solar, biomass), there would be 2.5-9.25 times as many jobs as jobs for fossils fuels for every $1 million contribution to the GDP.
  • He also stated that small scale fisheries create far more jobs per unit fish. In fact, small scale fisheries create 44 times more jobs per unit fish than large scale fisheries, and small aquaculture fisheries create 23 times more jobs per unit fish than large scale fisheries.

Ms. Luz Baz

Inspector, International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF)
  • Ms. Baz said that ITF is an international trade union federation of transport workers’ union and was founded in London in 1896. The some 700 unions of the ITF represent over 4.5 million transport workers from about 150 countries.
  • ITF ensures protection of seafarers through the Maritime Labour Convention and ensures protection of fishers through the Work in Fishing Convention.
  • Fishing is one of the most challenging and hazardous occupations, with more than 30 million fishers engaged globally, and sustainability is not complete and achievable without decent working conditions.
  • The main challenges toward achieving decent working conditions in the sector include:
    • Forced and child labour and discrimination against migrant workers.
    • Isolation, long-term employment, fatigue, unsafe practices, substandard vessels.
    • Worthless or non-existing employment contracts, fake certificates, blacklisting, poor pay and systematic cheating by owners and their agents of the fishers’ well-deserved wages
    • Inadequate food and unsanitary and precarious living conditions
    • Physical abuse, human trafficking, violence, murders, and abandonment
  • Therefore, there is a need for ILO 188 and other international rules to be ratified due to the lack of regulation in the fishing sector. Other key actions toward solutions include:
    • Effective implementation and enforcement of regulations by flag and port states;
    • Collective bargaining activities and guarantee of freedom of association;
    • Combat unfair competition.