3 June 2020
“‘Once I was transshipped [the action of transferring fish or crew between vessels]. I was put into a steel crate (the one they keep fish in) along with my belongings and my papers in a plastic bag. They put floats or buoys around the crate so that it would float; they gave me a torch. It was 5 o’clock in the afternoon when they dropped me over the side with my gear but it wasn’t until nearly 10 o’clock before the second vessel came and picked me up: I was all alone, wet and floating in a steel crate, in the black ocean.“
London, UK. With permission from the author, Dr. Patricia Kailola, of the NGO Pacific Dialogue based in Fiji and partner to Human Rights at Sea, the following article covers the appalling and exploitative working conditions of some fishers in the Pacific region, as told by the individuals and their families.
The article was first published in The Fiji Times on 30 May 2020.
After working as crew, there are no savings to fall back on
“In this time of Covid‐19 and the lay‐offs it has induced, there are many difficulties and ‘hard‐luck’ stories from or about people who have been laid‐off, or had their hours ‘cut’. Not to mention the businesses who are independently and negatively affected by the lack of regular income.
Over the past three months the media has kept us informed about this nation’s difficulties – of farmers, hotel workers, Fiji Airways workers (recently) … so many others affected by the Covid‐19 restrictions.
Yet to date there has been no mention of the sea and the nation’s tuna fishery. According to a media report last year (6 March), the annual value of the catch by Fiji’s tuna fishing fleet was worth approximately US$73m (almost $F156 m) and the sector was estimated to employ approximately 3,800 people – administrators, workers in processing plants, engineers, drivers, and crew.
Some vessels (which freeze their catch) are still operating, but most (which supply ‘fresh chilled’ tuna) are lying at anchor because they are unable to fly fresh chilled tuna to overseas markets. And like so many companies the world over, staff have been laid off; terminated.
Those of us who have land‐based jobs find it hard to imagine what it is like to work on a fishing vessel. Probably we imagine it romantically – moonlight on the water, tropical nights, leaping flying fish … . Maybe the young men who take up the job as their first picture it thus. And to be fair, there are many men who, after 20 years, still thrill to the sea wind in their hair and on their face, the chug of the engine, the hard work, the freedom, and the buzz when the catch is brought on board.
When their work is low‐paid however, there are no savings to fall back on.
Friends and I have talked with many people in Kalekana, Wailekutu and Waiqanake about work on the vessels; we talk with the men, and with their wives. You may like to read some of their stories, told by Fijians ‘in their own words’. They tell it like it is, and in their telling there is no anger ‐ simply tolerance and stoicism.
But it doesn’t have to be like that.
Some of Salote’s story
‘My husband’s wage was $15 a day, or $105 a week. I was given $100 advance as his salary for the whole month. It was all that was left after a gross of cigarettes (value of $150) and other deductions (for his on‐board food, and clothing such as boots and jacket) were taken off his salary. … After every three months his vessel would return, and then he would have to unload the fish at the wharf before he was paid.
‘Deductions for pay were decided by the captain of the vessel. The captain deducted the cost of feeding the crew from their wages, including the cost of cigarettes and ‘discipline’. My husband didn’t smoke before he joined as a crewman.
‘The Fijians were employed only as deck‐hands. And as they are physically stronger than the Asian crewmen, they did the heavy work of line hauling, stacking fish, unloading, restocking ice and equipment.
In other words, the Fijian crew were given the heavy tasks.
‘My husband always shared with me the difficulties the crewmen faced while at sea: they slept for only three‐four hours after working 18‐20 hours each day, their clothes were always wet, food was often short so all they had to eat was fish.
‘You have to be strong to take up this kind of work: cold weather, sleepless nights, lack of food, cramped and dirty conditions, bed‐bugs and cockroaches; the men were always tired.
‘There are a lot of young men in Kalekana who are keen to work on fishing vessels, despite the harsh conditions and low pay. My husband and sons worked on eight Taiwanese longliners over thirty years.
Some of Pate’s story
‘Pay slips were never given; when we were paid the boss would just throw the money to us – not even in an envelope.
‘Different to before, the crew are now paid on a daily basis; the rate kept reducing until by early 2019, we were paid only $28 /day.
‘We were allowed four hours’ sleep but there was only 15 minutes for meal times, and if we were even late by one minute, the punishment would be no sleep. They would even try to get us to make mistakes so that our pay would be deducted.
‘There are a lot of fights – probably because the crew are mixed [different Asians, and Pacific Islanders]. And also because of lack of sleep, there are more accidents and also fights.
Some of Inoke’s story
‘I was given a written contract – which I signed – but I was not given a copy. The contract only stated how long the trip would take; it didn’t say what the wage would be, whether there would be health insurance, other allowances, but it did say that I’d work for 12 hours each day.
‘We would go out for two weeks, come back to port, unload; and straight out again. A few years ago, the companies and the Health Ministry got together – after that we were allowed one day’s break between each trip.
‘In the end, I would work for 15 to 18 hours each day, but my pay never changed: it was always between $28 and $32 per day. I have certificates from Fiji Maritime Academy for First Aid, Fire Fighting, OHS at Sea, and Sea Safety – Even though I was given the task of Bosun, that is all the pay I was given.
‘Every day we would have rice or noodles to eat except on Sundays when we were given either dalo or cassava. On some vessels the food had been cooked before the vessel sailed and then frozen – kept in the same freezer as the fish. Each day the cook would take out a portion of the frozen food, thaw it out, and serve it up as our meal; over the weeks it tasted worse and worse so we all got stomach aches. Also, the drinking water was ‘diluted’ with sea water – you could taste it.
‘Once I was transshipped [the action of transferring fish or crew between vessels]. I was put into a steel crate (the one they keep fish in) along with my belongings and my papers in a plastic bag. They put floats or buoys around the crate so that it would float; they gave me a torch. It was 5 o’clock in the afternoon when they dropped me over the side with my gear but it wasn’t until nearly 10 o’clock before the second vessel came and picked me up: I was all alone, wet and floating in a steel crate, in the black ocean.”
Dr Patricia Kailola is a fisheries scientist and a visiting fellow at the Institute of Applied Sciences, USP.