As an occupation and a source of livelihood, fishing is fraught with problems. This is mainly due to the special nature of work in the fishing sector. Fishing is an inherently hazardous vocation. While the labour process in fishing is unique, the fisheries sector itself varies vastly from country to country. Fishermen working in small-scale and artisanal fisheries—who make up the majority of the world 's fishermen—ace special problems that call for specific, targeted measures.

As a result of the special nature of fishing, fishworkers face several important labour issues. More often than not, these impinge on the fundamental principles and rights at work that are supposedly applicable to all workers, as laid down in the Declaration of Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work of the International Labour Organization (ILO).

These labour issues range from workplace-related problems and employment relationships to seasonality of employment and the effects of fisheries management measures to reduce fishing effort. Paramount though they are to the lives of fishworkers and fishing communities, they have remained unexamined and largely neglected, even as the world 's fisheries have undergone significant and far-reaching changes over the last 40 years.

During this period, laws and regulations covering other workers have been modified or updated to recognize and accommodate changes. But very little has been done for those working in the small-scale and artisanal fisheries sector. The ILO itself last developed a standard for the fishing sector four decades ago.

At the 92nd Session of the International Labour Conference (ILC), the Committee on the Fishing Sector debated the issue of a new fishing standard. This was within the context of revising pre-1985 ILO Conventions (binding for countries that ratify them) and Recommendations (not binding, but providing guidance), in order to update and strengthen the standards-setting system of ILO. The ILO Conventions relevant to fishing were adopted in 1959 and 1966, while the relevant Recommendations were adopted in 1920 and 1966. These seven outdated Conventions cover only 10 per cent of the industry's 15 million workers. The new fishing convention would potentially cover majority of fishers working on board fishing vessels the world over.

At the 93rd Session of the ILC, when the proposed Convention and Recommendation came up for final record vote, the required quorum of 297 could not be attained for lack of just one vote. This was despite the fact that there were 288 votes -- an overwhelming majority -- for the draft Convention, and just eight against.


The Governing Body of ILO placed a corresponding item on the agenda of the 96th Session of the Conference in 2007. The Conference adopted the new ILO instruments on work in the fishing industry. Delegates gave overwhelming support to the new standards designed to improve the conditions of millions of men and women working in the fishing sector. The new standards contain provisions designed to ensure that workers in the fishing sector have improved occupational safety and health and medical care at sea; that sick or injured fishers receive care ashore; receive sufficient rest for their health and safety; have the protection of a work agreement; and have the same social security protection as other workers.

The Convention, to be known as The Work in Fishing Convention, 2007 (No.188) and the Recommendation (No. 199) will come into effect when they are ratified by 10 (including eight coastal nations) of the ILO's 180 member States (for further details see ILO press release ILO/07/37).

(Please visit the 96th session of the ILC)


Need for Ratification

It is high time that countries ratify the ILO Work in Fishing Convention No. 188 so as to ensure better social protection for fishers

It is nearly six years now since the adoption of the Work in Fishing Convention No. 188 (C.188) by the International Labour Conference of the International Labour Organization (ILO). Only two countries (Argentina and Bosnia and Herzegovina) have ratified it so far, thus delaying its entry into force. This delay underscores the widely held view that fishers and fishworkers still do not receive the kind of attention they deserve when it comes to securing their social protection.

Why does it take such a long time for countries to ratify C.188? There are several reasons for this holdup. First of all, in most countries, especially in the developing world, there are hardly any requirements under current legislation to provide social protection for fishers. As a result, there is not much independent information on how fishers are hired, under what conditions they live and work, and what benefits they receive on leaving fishing due to injury or death or retirement. Information on issues such as child labour and forced labour in fishing and fishery-related activities is under-reported and anecdotal. For instance, while observing that existing laws are too fragmented or inadequate to provide sufficient social protection, the gap analysis of Indian legislation in relation to transposing C.188 has recommended legislating a new legal instrument. Many new elements in national legislation have to be developed to make them consistent with C.188. This is turning out to be a time-consuming process, which is holding up ratification of the Convention.

Secondly, in many countries, a new-generation sectoral labour instrument such as C.188, which has unprecedented elements with a sliding scale of standards on multiple axes such as the size of the vessel, days at sea, and distance from baselines, falls within the purview of different ministries. In many countries, for instance, various elements of C.188 fall within the jurisdiction of the labour authority, the fisheries authority or the maritime authority at different levels. It will take time to achieve some extent of coherence across these authorities.

Thirdly, while governments and trade union representatives are in support of ratifying C.188, sections of fishing vessel owners remain sceptical and insist that ratification would lead to non-viable fishing operations. According to some vessel owners, fishing operations would become less flexible and financially impracticable if improved labour standards are introduced on board fishing vessels. Separation of work hours from living hours on board fishing vessels is challenged on the basis of fishing operations being essentially different from land-based jobs and that fishers are, in fact, paid higher wages in compensation for their flexible hours of work. It is, however, moot if higher wages should be seen as justifiable compensation for poor, or fatigue-inducing, working and living conditions.

In seeking the urgent ratification of C.188, we should remember that labour standards can lead to fishers’ developing a long-term, real interest in fishing, reducing fatigue-related accidents at sea, improved compliance with fisheries conservation and management, and potentially provide better international market access, thus protecting the long-term economic viability of fisheries. Better labour standards in fishing can also lead to greater transparency in recruitment of fishers to work on board distant-water fishing vessels in the high seas and in waters under the jurisdiction of different coastal States. Labour standards in fishing can also help labour-supplying States to meet the employment conditionalities of flag States.

Above all, however, as pointed out by a trade union leader, ratification of C.188 would confer labour rights to a hitherto unorganized workforce. It would help to bring fishers into the mainstream labour movement. It would also complement welfare measures with a rights-based framework for social protection. Such a move is particularly relevant in the light of globalization and the unprecedented commodification of labour in fishing. Labour authorities should take the lead to ratify C.188 with the active collaboration of maritime safety and fisheries authorities, within a time-bound framework. The ILO Work in Fishing Convention No. 188 should, hopefully, soon enter into force. Only then will fishers receive the kind of attention they deserve in terms of enhanced social protection.


96th Conference concludes with adoption of new standards on fishing sector, approaches to sustainable development and measures to promote decent work, For an overview of the Convention and Recommendation, please visit Fishing -ILO Activities ICSF Guidebook: Understanding the Work in Fishing Convention, 2007 (En, Fr, EspArPortugueseBahasa(Marathi, Gujarati, Telugu, MalayalamEU Parliament Report on Work on Fishing Convention, 2009 Report on the ILC in SAMUDRA Report No. 47, July 2007A useful toolkit:Editorial in SAMUDRA Report No. 47: 

 Comment in SAMUDRA Report 64