Welcoming and warm-hearted, Fijians and other Pacific Islanders can be lured into the dark side of commercial tuna fishing. “Would you buy a can of tuna that you knew had been caught by slaves and canned by slaves?” asks Dr Patricia Kailola, CEO of Fiji-based NGO Pacific Dialogue Ltd.
HRAS spoke to Patricia to find out about the often-unreported abuses occurring on fishing vessels in the Pacific Ocean.
HRAS: What is happening to the Pacific islanders that are being exploited in the commercial tuna fishing industry?
Many of the problems we see mimic those reported in other fisheries, such as the South-east Asian long-haul fishery. Trickery, illegal contracts and debt bondage (where crew members are obliged to “pay off” the cost of their travel and papers) and non-payment of wages, are common.
On board, the men can be expected to work 18 hours or more a day. They may face beatings for not understanding instructions and monetary penalties for “transgressions” or for not following instructions to the satisfaction of ship officers.
We know of captains withholding plane tickets and papers from hard-working crewmembers who have completed their tenure; they have attempted to blackmail them into working several more months without pay.
Yet even more fundamental transgressions of basic human rights occur. The food on board can be inadequate, and there are instances where clean drinking water is not available. When at rest, the men can be forced to share and rest in inadequate, cramped and filthy sleeping areas.
A lack of first aid equipment on board heightens the risk of health problems and accidents with fishing gear, and, as a result, deaths at sea occur. Arguments, fights and even murders among crewmembers emanate because of prolonged time at sea, frustration over work conditions, lack of news of families and an inability to communicate with fellow crew from diverse language groups.
These are the problems we are aware of, but we do not know the true levels of fairness or abuse and wretchedness in the Pacific offshore fishing industry where there are more than 3,000 vessels known to be operating, of which just 15 percent carry fisheries observers.
HRAS: Pacific Islanders are often recruited because of their perceived strength. What makes them vulnerable?
Pacific Islanders are, as a group, welcoming and warm-hearted. They are largely ignorant of the pitfalls of modern life and certainly of trafficking. People in settlements and disadvantaged rural areas grasp any opportunity that may come their way to make just that little bit more money.
Youth are particularly vulnerable. Children sent from outer islands or remote rural areas to live with relatives in towns to access better schools may be made to stay home instead and perform chores. Young people can become involved in begging or prostitution, and they may accept low wages in order to support their families.
Fiji attracts traffickers because of its dependence on the tourism industry, and Fiji’s geographic position makes it a transit point in the Pacific Ocean. There is a high level of poverty (40 percent), an under-resourced police force and high numbers of youth and unemployed people. Liberal visa requirements allow nationals from more than 130 nations to enter the country without a visa.
HRAS: You have indicated that international conventions on labour rights are practically impossible to enforce on the high seas. What drives the industry to treat people so badly?
Human rights abuse in the fishing industry stems from several inter-related characteristics: the overall decrease in fish stocks, too many boats (including illegal, unregulated and unlicensed vessels), the increasing costs of fuel and bait, access to increasingly regulated markets and distance. Any savings are a bonus.
Access to large human populations, long periods at sea, largely unregulated recruiting agents and under-resourcing of relevant government agencies in manpower-supplying countries are parallel ingredients.
These issues have led to sloppiness and disregard of crews’ rights in some fleets and by some captains. We therefore believe there is a strong need for Pacific Island nations to demand and implement serious sustainable fishing practices and to penalise fishing companies that continue to exploit workers and ignore their basic rights.
HRAS: Pacific Dialogue is beginning to speak out in two directions: advocating for the rights of fishing vessel crews on the one hand and protection of the resource on the other. What sparked this duality in approach?
Pacific Dialogue is speaking out – and we are speaking out with surprise that the industry, including its managers, has known about the poor conditions on some vessels for years but has allowed the status quo – yet has not identified the crews’ ownership in a managed and sustainable fishery. Surprise too that international human rights organisations have so far failed to speak out for the Pacific. Despite the Pacific Ocean’s size, the tuna fishery it supports cannot continue without scrutiny for much longer.
The commercial Pacific tuna fishery is immense. It is worth billions of dollars and has thousands – perhaps millions – of stakeholders. It is important to realize that three resources make up the fishery, not two: the fish, the vessels and the manpower. The industry’s willingness to recognize this third resource can be the missing key to resource sustainability and national food security.
To Pacific Islanders, the tuna that move through and within their ocean are hugely important: they represent the Islanders’ common heritage, their being, their ocean – and they are the Pacific Islands nations’ common, single tradeable item. The need to secure the resource, and with it the Pacific peoples’ history and well-being, is crucial.
HRAS: Pacific Dialogue formed as a non-profit company in December 2009. What are you doing to bring about change?
Initially, a group of us, active in other NGOs, got together, because we were dissatisfied with what was being done. Human rights and democracy advocacy has been on-going in Fiji – the country has experienced five military-inspired coups since 1987 – but we felt there was a lack of serious connection between urban-based human rights NGOs and the sustainable resources development concerns of people at a grass-roots level. Our aim is to link their concerns with the international human rights and environment conservation agenda so they can develop their own, local programs under their own initiatives and controls.
We will be advocating at the forthcoming Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission meeting in December. A crucial launching pad for our extended advocacy, however, will be a workshop to be held in Suva next year. This workshop will bring together a suite of stakeholders including legal experts, representatives of relevant organisations, crewing and fishing companies, former crewmen and fisheries observers.
The purpose of the workshop will be to identify the legal and administrative handicaps that impede the rights of crews (if they do) operating in the Pacific Islands region and to identify a course of action to overcome them while, at the same time, establishing the Pacific tuna fishery as a reputable and sustainable industry.
HRAS: Thank you.
Funding to cover this workshop is being sought. Pacific Dialogue hopes it will attract sufficient financial support to enable it to demonstrate that human development is indivisible from human rights, equality, peace, security and sustainable development.
HRAS fully supports the valuable work undertaken by Pacific Dialogue.