Decent jobs? The case of Filipino handline fishermen

GOOD CATCH. Traders sell tuna at a market in General Santos City.

File photo by Edwin Espejo

GENERAL SANTOS, Philippines – While handline fishermen in the tuna exporting industry sail at sea 10 days to 3 months at a time, employers, by customary practice, rarely feel obligated to provide them with law-mandated protection.

Handline fishermen or handliners are almost always recruited only through verbal agreements with the boat captain, who is contracted by the boat owner.

Crew members of a handline boat often change with each expedition, allowing handliners to find work from multiple employers.

Handline fishing is a traditional fishing method:  the fisherman uses a vertical rod or handline with a bait, often a squid, to deceive fish into biting the hook. 

In General Santos City, the country's known tuna capital, handline fishing in the deep sea is among the default income source of many families.

The handliners' catch – often sashimi-grade tuna for export – lands in the plates of high-end restaurants in Europe and the United States.

Municipal fisherfolk from the surrounding region migrate to this highly urbanized city of more than half a million to try their luck as handliners.

Thirty-year-old Raymond Elga is one of them. He migrated from Davao City to General Santos not only to find a productive occupation but also the love of his life.

Part of his struggle to earn a living is being away from his partner Grace for 10 days or a month. 

RENTED SPACE. A fisherman's partner shows Rappler a small space they rent out in General Santos City.

Photo by Buena Bernal/Rappler

In his latest expedition, Raymond had chosen a 10-day trip. Grace said he could no longer bear their separation for a month.

A typical work day for Raymond means hopping from the mother vessel that sailed to sea to a smaller boat called pakura. In each pakura, fishermen catch tuna using their hook and line near a fish aggregating device locally known as payao

Their catch are sold at the city's fish port, a center bustling each morning for traders seeking to buy what are marketed as one of the world's best tuna supply.

Boat owners usually get around 70% of the profit from fish sales, 25% goes to the boat master, and 5% to the fishermen.

More sustainable method

Handline fishing is distinct from purse seine fishing often employed by larger commercial fishing vessels.

Purse seine fishing involves casting a huge fishing net out at sea, catching fish from different layers of the ocean.

Handlines are seen to be more sustainable fishing gears than purse seins, as the latter have juvenile by-catch or young schools of fish not purposely targeted by the expedition. This can lead to overfishing.

Handliners, however, receive less protection as workers than purse seine fishermen.

Labor Undersecretary Rebecca Chato explained that purse seine fishermen are directly hired by the big-time fishing firms, which are more labor law compliant.

PROUD FISHERMAN'S DAUGHTER. Labor Undersecretary Rebecca Chato proudly says she was raised by a fisherman herself.

Photo by Buena Bernal/Rappler

Some firms have opted to finance locals to install their own handline boats and to recruit workers, whose catch will be sold exclusively to the company. (READ: Citra Mina: Joint ventures with local fishers 'customary practice')

The DOLE said such a practice cannot rid an employer-employee relationship between the company and the fishermen; the former will still be liable for unfair treatment of workers. (READ: DOLE: Both Citra Mina, supplier liable for any labor offense)

This practice of continually financing locals who recruit fishermen in the community instead of hiring the fishermen as regular workers is said to be widespread, with companies denying any obligation to the fishermen at sea. (READ: Citra Mina: No direct relationship with 'abandoned' fishermen)

Hazardous conditions

An investigating task force organized by the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) had found that handliners are often subjected to hazardous working conditions, and lodged in cramped quarters with no clean and adequate water.

The DOLE's initial findings – focused in General Santos City – will aid in the creation of new state regulation on the handline fishing industry. 

Chato explained that handliners are covered by the department's decent work agenda. Boat owners who hire them even on a per-expedition basis are obligated to abide by the Labor Code.

Chato herself owes her education to the daily toil of a fisherman – her own father.

The DOLE official explained that handliners often "start at a tender age." They work "months away from home," with "long hours" and "obscure" rest periods.

PROPOSAL. Romy Montefalco, Director of the Department of Labor and Employment Legal Service presents to stakeholders of the tuna fishing industry the proposed regulation on the employment of handliners.

Photo by Buena Bernal/Rappler

Benefits, assured compensation

For many who have spent their entire lives as handliners, they still find themselves at retirement age with nothing. 

Chato said the handliners are not usually covered by law-mandated benefits including premium payments for state-subsidized health insurance under Philhealth and social insurance under the Social Security System. 

This makes handline fishermen vulnerable to "income risks associated with old age, illness, disability, work-related injury, and unemployment." 

She also highlighted the payment scheme currently implemented for handliners, who are paid depending on their volume of catch rather than a fixed wage.

Chato explained that even under the sharing scheme, handliners are "not adequately compensated."

A proposed joint order is currently in the pipeline to change this, she said.

Handline fishermen must be compensated for work rendered even when they come back with little to no catch, especially given the unpredictable conditions inherent to deep sea fishing.

Chato said the compensation must be at least equal to the daily minimum wage in the region, which is P275 a day. In the event the fishermen's share from the catch is greater than the minimum wage, the commissions should apply.

But compliance from all boat owners will be another matter.

UNCERTAINTY. A fisherman's partner recounts the uncertainty faced by handliners.

Photo by Buena Bernal/Rappler


Grace, partner of handliner Raymond Elga, knows all too well the uncertainty of the commissions-based payment system for fishermen.

One month of her partner at sea could mean a meager P5,000 ($112). A month of good catch falls at an income of around P12,000 ($269).

Grace said there are days when Raymond's month-long fishing means zero income, and he comes home deep in debt over the expenses that piled up while he was away.

She added she could have helped increase their joint income by continuing with her old job at a tuna canning factory, but gladly accepted domesticity for the man who makes her smile when she recalls how much she loves him.

She said he had promised to save up for their marriage and urged her to stop work at the factory, insisting that he can work for both of them.

Raymond has not gone home since he left in late March; his partner is unsure how much he'll take home this time.

In the small space – not even double the size of their bed – that they call home, a television set and a pile of clothes are all they have to call property.

Grace eagerly waits for Raymond. She clings on to the promise of a marital future with the man who left his own city for General Santos, hoping fishermen like him are better off in the country's tuna capital. –


US$1 = P44.59