Blue Growth blog

Gearing up for the Vigo dialogue on decent work in the seafood sector

Approximately 1 in 10 people rely on fisheries and aquaculture for their livelihoods, and discussion at the Vigo Dialogue will address ways to improve work conditions in the sector.

The upcoming Vigo dialogue on decent work in fisheries and aquaculture is an important opportunity to bring a broad range of partners around the table to discuss an extremely pertinent issue.

Unfortunately, human rights and labour abuses, including poor working conditions, have recently become front-page news in the mass media.

Even as efforts are being made to improve the environmental sustainability of the seafood products reaching the plates of the consumers, those same consumers are demanding assurances that those products have been harvested not only in a manner that is environmentally sustainable, but also ensuring decent working conditions for all workers along the seafood value chain.

At the decent work side event to the Celebration of 20 years of the Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries last year in Vigo, Spain, participating governments, international organizations, the seafood and retail sectors, labour unions and fisherfolk associations called for better collaboration to ensure that human rights, labour issues and decent work be adequately addressed along the entire seafood value chain.

Working together to achieve this objective would help to ensure that consumers’ fish is harvested and processed in an environmentally and socially sustainable manner.

We spoke with Mariaeleonora D’Andrea, FAO Consultant on decent work in fisheries, Nicole Franz, Fishery Policy Analyst, and Uwe Barg, Aquaculture Officer, who work on issues of decent work in the seafood industry, to ask more about this event and the work being undertaken by FAO in this area and what they expect from this year’s Vigo Dialogue.

Too often, the seafood sector is connected with labour abuses and instances of child labour.
This post-harvest worker at her job at a fish processing plant in Nicaragua. Women comprise the majority of post-harvest workers in the seafood industry.
Increasingly, consumers want to know that the seafood they are bringing home for dinner is not only fished in an environmentally sustainable way, but with an eye to social sustainability by supporting decent work for those who work along the seafood value chain.
Over the twenty years since the introduction of FAO’s Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries, environmental sustainability of the fish we consume has increased markedly. Many consumers would like to see the same guarantee that workers along the seafood value chain have decent work.

What were some of the findings that came out of last year’s decent work event?

Seafood retailers and producers expressed significant interest to include and further promote labour issues into their sourcing and production operations and to cooperate with FAO on decent work issues.

Participants also recognized the rapidly growing public  attention focused on social standards and certification for better and fairer practices in the sector (i.e. social labels with focus on ethical issues in fisheries including in particular on labour conditions). 

The meeting agreed on:
(i) the high priority of  ratifying the ILO Work in Fishing convention (C188),
(ii) the needs and opportunities of employment creation and enterprise development, increased investment in training and skills development, and occupational safety and health of fish workers, (iii) the need to support institutions building and fish workers organizations for effective  social dialogue and collective bargaining power, and
(iv) the need to address conditions of migrants and foreign fish workers who are often lacking legal protection. It was recommended that the Vigo Dialogue be developed into a multi-stakeholder platform, possibly facilitated by FAO.

What are you hoping will emerge from this year’s Vigo dialogue? How will the broad range of participants add to the discussion?

Approximately 50 stakeholders representing civil society, NGOs, unions, seafood industry (production, processing, retail, etc), consumer goods associations, certification initiatives and governments will present efforts already undertaken and planned actions designed to further promote decent work in the sector.

Stakeholders participating are keen to learn about innovative approaches and solutions, and to explore opportunities of collaboration.

A major additional focus of discussion will be on human rights-based due diligence instruments such as the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights as well as the OECD/FAO Guidance on Responsible Agricultural Supplies Chains, as these call for corporate accountability and responsibility including proactive commitments by companies to protect and ensure human rights and labour rights in their supply chains.

Certainly, through reporting on the Vigo Dialogue discussions, FAO will continue to raise awareness and stimulate exchange and collaboration on commitments to more decent working conditions for workers in fisheries, aquaculture, fish processing and distribution.

Consumers have grown used to ecolabeling helping to guide them in purchasing seafood certified as having been caught in an environmentally sustainable manner. Is this type of product labeling feasible to certify the social sustainability of the seafood workers who have harvested and processed the fish?

A rapidly growing number of initiatives is working on social labelling in the seafood sector. Such approaches are identifying reference frameworks, which are most often based on human rights provisions of existing relevant international instruments. Examples include  FAO’s Small-Scale Fisheries Guidelines, as they do recognize human rights as well as ILO’s calls for decent work and International Labour Standards.

The FAO Technical Guidelines for Aquaculture Certification also make explicit reference to social commitments, in particular, established labour standards. 

At present, however, there is still no agreed common framework on social sustainability in seafood supply chains, which would serve as internationally recognized reference framework providing for specific social standards, regular monitoring and auditing/verification procedures in seafood supply chains.

Nonetheless, the interest and the demand for such social standards, including seafood-specific labour criteria, is growing very significantly within international fish trade, generally,  and in many markets, among buyers and consumers. FAO is collaborating with a range of partners who are working on the identification of social criteria and standards applicable in seafood supply chains.

It may be argued that it is only a matter of time until commitments of social sustainability of seafood workers who have harvested and processed the fish will be recognizable on seafood labels. 

At the same time, the issue is extremely complex. There are some legitimate concerns about how credible, transparent, efficient and inclusive such labelling schemes might be, especially when companies are only “cherry-picking” or pretending to observe human rights standards or when and seafood operators and their fish workers are excluded from access to markets.

How are FAO and the International Labor Organization (ILO) working together on issues related to decent work in the seafood sector? Who are the other key partners?

FAO works with ILO on the promotion of ILO’s decent work agenda in all agriculture sectors, including fisheries and aquaculture, and has mainstreamed decent work in its strategic programme framework, policies and activities, at the request by, and for the benefit of FAO’s Member Countries, who are the main partners of collaboration. 

A range of activities are being undertaken jointly with ILO, and in collaboration with other concerned UN agencies. In fisheries, an example is the Joint International Maritime Organization IMO/FAO Working Group on IUU fishing and related matters, which over decades has promoted safety onboard fishing vessels, in close consultation with ILO.

In its most recent meeting,  the Joint Working Group called for continued inter-agency collaboration among FAO, IMO and ILO, to promote ratification of ILO’s Work in Fishing Convention (C188) as well as to strengthen and promote efforts to combat both illegal fishing and labour abuses together.

Another example is the development of the ILO/FAO Guidance on addressing child labour in fisheries and aquaculture. FAO has contributed to the 2015 ILO Conference on Labour Exploitation in Fisheries. ILO is a key partner in the Vigo Dialogue on decent work in fisheries and aquaculture. Other partners include international CSOs, NGOs and unions as well as seafood industry associations and certification and benchmarking bodies.

Is this an issue that affects primarily developed or developing countries? Or do we find concerning practices in both?

Unfortunately, issues of human rights and labour abuses including poor working conditions in the seafood sector are widespread and have been reported widely, for example, cases of forced labour, for Southeast Asia, Oceania, the Pacific, Indian Ocean and the Atlantic. It is recognized as a global problem concerning industrial fisheries, aquaculture, small-scale fisheries as well as seafood processing, and is affecting domestic fisheries as well as many international seafood supply chains.

How have you seen discussion around this issue change in recent years?

Clearly, the issues of human rights and labour abuses in the seafood sector are increasingly recognized by the general public, including both media and consumers, as well as by the seafood sector, including industry and seafood suppliers and buyers, governments, CSOs, NGOs, fish worker representatives and their unions.

While there is still considerable need for awareness raising and policy mainstreaming within the sector, there are now more efforts underway focusing on better governance, enforcement of existing labour standards, commitments by different stakeholders, recognition of representatives of small-scale fisheries and fish workers’ unions, and capacity development of concerned institutions.

The call is out for good and better jobs with decent and fair working and living conditions for those whose livelihoods depend on sustainable seafood supply chains.  This is also a focus area for FAO’s Blue Growth Initiative, promoting “Blue Jobs in fisheries”.

FAO will be present in Vigo, Spain and hosting the Vigo Dialogue on 4 October 2016, following the FAO Conxemar World Congress.

Follow our live tweeting from the event from @FAOfish, and by following the hashtags #Vigo16 and #decentwork.

These women in Haiti wait for the fishing boats to come in so they can collect the fish, clean it and sell it at the market.
This year’s Vigo Dialogue on Decent work in the seafood sector follows two successful side events at the annual FAO-Conxemar meetings in Vigo, Spain. The events bring together international organizations, governments, the seafood sector, retailers, fisherfolk associations and labour unions.


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