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Fishing among the most dangerous of all professions, says ILO

GENEVA (ILO News) - As many as 24,000 fishermen and persons engaged in fish farming and processing are killed every year putting fishing and related occupations among the most dangerous of all professions, according to a new report released by the International Labour Office (ILO).

Press release | 13 December 1999

GENEVA (ILO News) - As many as 24,000 fishermen and persons engaged in fish farming and processing are killed every year putting fishing and related occupations among the most dangerous of all professions, according to a new report* released by the International Labour Office (ILO).

In the United States, says the report, the fatality rate for the fishing industry in 1996 was 16 times higher than for fire-fighting or police work and 40 times the national average. In Denmark, the rate from 1989 to 1996 was 25-30 times higher than for those employed on land. In Guinea, a west African country with some 7,000 artisanal fishermen, it is estimated that, each year, every 15th canoe has an accident and that one of every 200 fishermen dies in a canoe accident.

"To examine these and other sector-specific issues and problems, the ILO is holding a Tripartite Meeting on Safety and Health in the Fishing Industry from 13-17 December in Geneva. The meeting brings together representatives from governments, employers and trade unions from countries including Argentina, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Chile, China, Côte d'Ivoire, Cuba, Denmark, El Salvador, France, Ghana, Iceland, India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Mauritania, Morocco, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Nigeria, Norway, Pakistan, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Philippines, Republic of Korea, Russian Federation, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Spain, Surinam, Thailand, Ukraine, United Kingdom and United States.

"Fish, including shellfish, is a critical food resource. In 1996, according to the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the amount of fish available for human consumption was almost 16 kg per person. Fish consumption, as a percentage of total animal protein consumption ranged from 6.6% in North America to 27.8% in the Far East (figures for 1989). Fish and fisheries exports reached a total value of US$52.5 billion in 1996. Production continues to grow as a result principally of the increased popularity of fish and other seafood in wealthier countries. In 1995, 85% of all fish imports ended up on tables in the developed world.

The industry has experienced considerable growth in recent years. The number of persons engaged in fishing and fish farming has doubled from roughly 13 million to 28.5 million between 1970 and 1990, says the FAO. Of these 28.5 million, some 15 million are employed on fishing vessels of which more than 90% are less than 24 metres in length.

Consumer demands for fresh, high quality products coupled with pressures resulting from declines or sudden disappearances of certain stocks of fish due to overfishing and other factors are leading many fishing companies and fishermen to change their methods of work. And while many have registered improvements in their living and working conditions, "many others still serve on vessels where conditions remain poor", says the ILO report, adding that "unfortunately, a significant number of fishermen suffer substandard conditions, and violations of basic human rights are not uncommon".

"The traditional system of remuneration in the fishing industry is the sharing of the catch", notes the report. This naturally encourages the crew to improve productivity by operating with as few crew members as possible and working very long shifts. "The lack of a minimum wage for fishermen and the vagueness associated with fishing income may (...) lead some fishermen to fish harder and take unnecessary risks." Such long hours also lead to fatigue, a chronic problem in many parts of the industry.

"Many fishermen, particularly from Asia, are employed on distant water fishing vessels registered in countries other than their own". It also appears, says the report, that "there may be a lowly growing trend towards placing some larger fishing vessels in open registers, some of which have had historically high casualty (...) rates for merchant ships. This may in part be done to avoid safety and other regulations".

Compounding the problem in many countries, regulations concerning safety are only applied to larger vessels and smaller crafts are rarely if ever inspected. This is partly due to limitations in resources, but not infrequently comes from resistance from fishermen themselves, often out of concern for the cost of safety measures or out of suspicion that regulations may not be appropriate.

The ILO report points out that while sea-fishing largely continues to be carried out by men, "women have been much more active in fish processing and marketing". This includes processing lines onboard large vessels at sea. "Many children are working in the fishing industry" also says the report. The phenomenon is widespread in South East Asia but can also be found in developed countries. ILO's International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC) is helping to make improvements in the conditions of some of these children in Indonesia.

While acknowledging that increased attention is being paid to safety and health issues in the fishing industry by both public and private organizations, the ILO report calls for better coordination between public authorities, workers' organizations and fishing vessel owner organizations. Improved international exchange of information, suggests the report, will help to bring health and safety benefits to those workers suffering from substandard conditions or simply unaware of certain safety measures.

The ILO meeting this week will allow participants to exchange views on safety and health issues in the fishing industry, to assess the work done in this field by the FAO, the ILO and International Maritime Organization (IMO), to review ILO standards adopted specifically for fishermen and to identify relevant follow-up activities. The meeting aims at improving, at the international level, "social dialogue" in the fishing industry. Such dialogue would strengthen the voices of fishermen - and fishing vessel owners - in all debates concerning not only safety and health but also the welfare of themselves, their communities and their families.