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Help needed for PH tuna industry workers


GENERAL SANTOS, Philippines – Dionito Isil, 55, knocks on his neighbors’ doors when there is no food on their dining table.

Isil’s house – a rented kubo made of light materials – lies on a rectangular patch of land in a small community near the fish port of the country’s known tuna capital General Santos City.

The community is made up of families whose breadwinners are handline fishermen.

Every few weeks or so, it is a neighbor’s turn to bid goodbye to the head of the family. It is their family head’s turn to join a days- to months-long deep sea fishing expedition to catch sashimi-grade tuna weighing around 30 to 40 kilograms each.

In those days and months, the family left behind is more often than not without cash. The cash – at best P12,000 ($255)* a month – will arrive once the handliner returns from the fishing expedition. But this can go on for as long as 3 months.

At the worst of times, a handliner can come home with nothing at all. 

This community sharing of by-catch helps each household put food on the table. They call it tabang, a vernacular term meaning help. It is the Filipino spirit of bayanihan in practice. 

It’s during these times when a neighbor whose family head just arrived from another expedition provides by-catch – fish caught with the main catch sold at the port – to other families who are currently without cash. 

Detentions and seizures

Isil’s two sons are handline fishermen, who work in hazardous conditions, with “long hours” and “obscure” rest periods, lodged in cramped quarters with no clean and adequate water. 

They are often recruited by boat operators funded by, and exclusively providing catch to, big-time tuna companies. (READ: Hazards in labor contracting: What about the PH tuna industry

The Isil brothers were among hundreds of Filipino handline fishermen detained in Indonesia in 2015 for allegedly illegally fishing in Indonesian waters.

The predominantly Muslim state under the leadership of President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo is on an aggressive crackdown on illegal fishing, with its navy either blowing up or sinking seized vessels. (READ: Filipino wives appeal for fishermen-husbands detained in Indonesia

In August 2014, a Philippine fishing vessel with 43 crew members was seized in Indonesia for having an expired permit. At that time, 100 more Filipinos were in the same jail facility, said the Department of Foreign Affairs

In late March 2015, at least 3 Filipino-owned boats carrying 7 to 9 fishermen were also seized by the Widodo government.

Repatriations at gov’t expense

Repatriations – one batch after another – of Filipino fishermen apprehended in Indonesia have been among the concerns of the foreign office and even local governments in the past months.

On February 25, 2016, 136 were expected to return to the country after being jailed in Indonesia for illegal fishing, reports said. 

On May 19, 2015, the DFA repatriated 17 of these fishermen, upping the number of repatriated since January of that year to 139. On May 25, 2016, 35 Filipino fishermen returned to Davao. 

On June 2, 2015, media reports said 52 Filipino fishermen – some of whom endured mauling while in detention – were repatriated. On June 16, 2015, the DFA announced it was repatriating 4 more fishermen arrested on April 30 that same year. 

General Santos City Mayor Ronnel Rivera has sought state intervention in the repatriation of the remaining Filipino fishermen still locked up in Indonesian jails for poaching, reports in March said. 

These are minor stories in national broadsheets and mainstream media, but the collective costs of negotiating for these fishermen’s release as well as their return are borne by government. 

The money, for example, used to buy the plane tickets of 43 fishing crew members detained in August 2014 came from state funds supposedly meant for the repatriation of Filipino migrant workers in strife-torn Libya.

While dwindling catch as a result of climate change is certainly a factor in why Filipino fishermen are forced to go farther out into the sea in their expeditions, tuna exporting giants who fund these fishing expeditions almost always end up scot-free during these boat seizures.

Tracing accountability when vessels cross borders and enforcing the use of sustainable fishing methods requires clear supply chain links, demanding better regulation of the Philippine tuna industry.

The industry, after all, is among the top revenue-earners and job generators for Southern Philippines. The tuna industry in General Santos City employs some 200,000 workers and is said to generate 65% of the country’s over-all tuna catch.

The hazards of handline fishing

Handline fishing as a method of deep sea fishing is seen as more sustainable for the seas than purse seine fishing, as the targeted method of the former is more likely to avoid juvenile by-catch. Younger fish are needed to propagate the sea’s tuna population.

Yet these fishermen are often vulnerable due to the lack of social protection accorded them by current arrangements with boat operators.

They are often contracted on commission with no safety and protective equipment, among others. Boats are hardly inspected for compliance with occupational safety and health standards, as they are not considered "workplaces" on paper.

Long-term help

Before former labor chief Rosalinda Baldoz left her post, she provided long-term help for these fishermen via a department order (DO). 

That DO seeks, among others, to hold tuna exporting giants to account when labor violations are committed against these fishermen.

It also mandates a fixed wage with added productivity-based incentives, aligned with the mandated regional minimum wage determined by the regional wage board. It likewise assures them of regular employee benefits such as social and health insurance and 13th month pay, among others.

Yet, industry players are holding hostage the implementation of the DO by demanding further consultations not just in General Santos, but also in other fishing areas, before the order is issued.

Government and labor sources in these closed-door meetings attested to alleged “delaying tactics” used by employers’ groups.

During a sortie in General Santos City last January, the Duterte-Cayetano tandem promised to handliners in the tuna industry fixed wages amounting to twice the minimum wage, hazard pay, and safe working conditions. 

"Our fishermen are paid based on their catch. If they have no catch, they have no income. Even worse, their lives are put in peril even without an assured income. This is unacceptable," Senator Alan Peter Cayetano said in Filipino.

If President Rodrigo Duterte wants to deliver on his pro-labor promises last elections, regardless of who gets adversely affected, steering the Philippine tuna industry into the direction of fair labor practices will send a clear message. 

A Duterte-ordered audit to implement the long overdue department order on the industry is called for, as one of the major steps to move forward. –

$1 = P47