- African fishers, mostly from Senegal and Ivory Coast who work on dozens of EU vessels that operate in West Africa and the Indian Ocean, took part in a strike that lasted from June 5-8, alleging wage violations.
- Vessels owned by EU companies are allowed to fish in foreign countries’ waters through agreements between the EU and the host nations. However, a third of such vessels operating in West Africa use flags of other countries and evade labor rights provisions agreed to under these pacts.
- Fishers who participated in the strike told Mongabay they were fighting for more than fair wages, saying that African sailors were not treated with respect on European boats despite doing some of the most arduous jobs.
- Seafarers’ unions called off the strike after the Senegalese government initiated negotiations with vessel owners and unions. Talks are expected to conclude in five months.
A four-day strike by nearly 2,000 Senegalese and Ivory Coast fishers who work on vessels owned by European companies operating in West African waters pulled back the cover on unfair and exploitative labor practices that plague the industrial fisheries sector.
“The conditions are very tough, and we don’t get paid what we deserve,” Aliou Ngom, 44, who works as a mechanic on Via Alize, a French-flagged tuna purse seiner that operates off West Africa and in the Indian Ocean, told Mongabay. “We don’t work to buy a car or build a house. We work just to eat.”
The seafarers allege they are not paid the International Labor Organization minimum wage of $658 per month, set under the EU-Senegal and EU-Ivory Coast Sustainable Fisheries Partnership Agreements (SFPAs).
Some of the EU-owned vessels that employ the striking workers are flagged to EU nations and subject to the provisions of the SFPA. Others, however, while owned by EU-based companies, fly the flag of a different country and thereby evade labor regulations as well as sustainability provisions in the SFPAs. More than a third of EU-owned vessels operating in the region use such “flags of convenience.”
The strike, which lasted from June 5-8, was backed by the International Transport Workers’ Federation headquartered in London and local unions in Senegal and the Ivory Coast. Fishers who were already on board vessels for the fishing season stopped working, bringing fishing to a halt on those boats. The unions called off the strike after the Senegalese government intervened and started talks with the ship owners.
“We’re demanding that the provisions of the partnership agreements signed between the European Union and our respective countries be applied. … Nothing is being respected,” Yoro Kane, deputy general secretary of the Autonomous Union of Seafarers of Senegal, told Mongabay. Kane said that while African sailors did much of the hard labor on board the vessels, hiring them was less costly for the owners than hiring Europeans for the same jobs.
SFPAs are agreements between the EU and non-EU states. They allow boats flagged to EU states to fish in the other states’ national waters. Many of these deals are with less-industrialized African countries. The EU says the deals benefit both parties. However, critics characterize them as unfair and exploitative.
While the ILO minimum wage does not always apply to fishers, its inclusion in the agreement between the Senegalese government and the European Union makes it “compulsory,” El Hadji Aboubacar Faye, a senior official at Senegal’s Agence Nationale des Affaires Maritimes (ANAM), told Mongabay.
“The wage conditions granted to the seamen shall not be lower than those applied to crews from [the vessels’] respective countries and shall, under no circumstances, be below ILO standards,” reads the EU-Senegal SFPA. A similar provision is included in the EU-Ivory Coast pact.
“The Commission deeply regrets the situation and is following closely the issue,” a spokesperson for the European Commission (EC), the executive branch of the EU responsible for negotiating and upholding the SFPAs, told Mongabay in an emailed statement. “We are liaising with the relevant EU administrations and using the Joint committee meetings set up in the framework of SFPAs to follow the implementation of SFPA provisions.” The EC spokesperson declined to be named citing commission policy.
But for Ngom, it was more than a question of low pay and little benefits. “We don’t get much respect. It’s about the consideration we’re given compared to our European colleagues. We’ve noticed that Africans are considered less than others,” he said. He described how during arguments between African and European seafarers, “it’s always the African colleague who’s at fault,” and ends up getting reprimanded or fired.
The EU fleet allowed to operate in Senegalese waters under the SFPA comprises 45 vessels, 29 of them flagged to Spain and 16 of them flagged to France. Most are large purse seiners that catch tuna; the rest are pole-and-line vessels (10), longliners (5) and trawlers (2).
However, there are at least another 23 vessels operating in West African waters that are owned by EU companies but fly the flags of countries like Seychelles, Mauritius and Panama and so need not abide by the SFPAs.
The EC representative said the commission was “aware” of the problem but that the EU has “no competence to regulate flagging issues and is therefore not in a position to take any action towards these vessels.”
Atlantic tuna species migrate across the Atlantic, traversing the high seas and territorial waters of countries that border the ocean, including African countries like Senegal and Ivory Coast. A majority of the European tuna fleet plying West African waters also operates in the Western Indian Ocean, where the EU has agreements with countries like Seychelles, Mauritius and Madagascar to fish Indian Ocean tuna species.
In Senegal, EU boats are allowed to catch 10,000 tons of tuna every year under the SFPA. In return, Senegal receives compensation amounting to €1.7 million or $1.9 million per year, along with variable fees paid by vessel owners for fishing authorizations and the promise of jobs. Though recruitment of Senegalese workers is encouraged, the EU-Senegal agreement only requires that a fifth of the crew be from African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) states.
There are similar requirements in other SFPAs, and so Africans have come to form the largest contingent of workers on EU tuna vessels operating in African waters and in the Indian Ocean.
Jobs on fishing vessels that are at sea for months on end are some of the hardest and most dangerous in the world. Nationals from the ACP countries usually occupy the lowest-paying jobs on such boats.
Ibra Diop, 50, a Senegalese fisher who spent 18 years working on European vessels, described it as “endless hours of work.” He quit last year after being diagnosed with osteoarthritis in both feet. His last assignment was on board the Txori Argi, one of the largest tuna purse seiners in the world, owned by the Spanish company INPESCA and flagged to Spain.
Diop was also stung by the lack of respect for fellow Africans. He said the crew came from several countries.“There are Africans of Senegalese, Ivorian, Ghanaian and sometimes Malagasy origin. There are the native Spaniards, but the Africans do the physical work,” he said. “We do hard work, I wouldn’t say dirty work, but it’s the kind of work that white people can’t do. So they have to respect us for what we do.”
Diop said that African workers are “belittled while working” and face verbal abuse on European ships.
Workers on board at least seven INPESCA vessels participated in the June strike. The company is a member of the Spanish Association of Tuna Freezing Vessels (OPAGAC), a trade group. OPAGAC also represents Albacora, another large Spanish fishing group with crew members who participated in the June strike.
“OPAGAC vessels operate under the EU SFPA with Senegal, complying with all the legal requirements under the agreement, including labor conditions,” Julio Morón Ayala, OPAGAC’s managing director, told Mongabay in an emailed response. “All the African seamen on board the OPAGAC fleet have wages that exceed the minimum ILO wage of $658/month.”
The ILO-set minimum wage is set to increase to $666 in 2024 and $673 in 2025.
Many EU-flagged vessels still rely on an outdated minimum wage figure of less than $658/month and include a host of bonuses, dues and other benefits to arrive at the final wage, as per contracts seen by Mongabay. The fishers Mongabay spoke to say the additional monetary benefits should be added on top of the minimum wage.
“Fishers working on board EU vessels [vessels flagged to EU countries] are indeed entitled to be paid at least the ILO seafarers’ minimum salary. Any fisher who wouldn’t receive such minimum salary has the right to bring the action before the competent court,” the EC spokesperson said.
Fishers Mongabay interviewed offered several possible explanations for the wage discrepancies, among them that crewing agents commissioned by vessel owners to hire crew members could be taking a cut for helping them secure jobs. Almost all fishers in Senegal are engaged through agents and not directly by ship owners.
However, such wage cuts are also against ILO rules. “The fishers should not have to pay for a job. If the fisher is not paying, it implies that the fishing owner has to,” Brandt Wagner, a senior fisheries specialist at the ILO, told Mongabay.
The practice of using flags of convenience also casts a shadow on the sustainability principle enshrined in the SFPAs. EU companies that own vessels flagged to other states can fish above the 10,000 tons per year agreed upon under the EU-Senegal SFPA, a target established with the goal of maintaining healthy tuna stocks. This is also happening in the Indian Ocean, as earlier reporting from Mongabay showed, where stocks of all three commercially important tuna species are under threat.
Some of the striking fishers were, in fact, on tuna boats in the Western Indian Ocean when the strike took place.
The unions called off the strike after the Senegalese government initiated negotiations with vessel owners and labor unions. The unions pushed for sailors to be paid a minimum monthly wage of 300,000 CFA francs ($513) for the six months (from June) that the talks are expected to last. Shipowners agreed to pay 250,000 CFA francs ($427). It is unclear why shipowners are negotiating salaries despite OPAGAC claiming its companies already pay the ILO minimum wage.
“The aim is to reach the 405,000 FCFA wage stipulated by the ILO,” Kane said, adding that the Senegalese authorities supported this demand.
The backing of the Senegalese state is important because fishers themselves appear to have little bargaining power. Diop said maintaining a strike when fishers are already on board vessels is challenging, and so is demanding better working conditions. “We’re already on the high seas, and there are things we can’t refuse. If you resist, you’ll be replaced by those on the waiting list. So we’re forced to accept.”
Kane from the Senegalese union alleged that vessel owners cut internet services on ships during the strike to prevent fishers from receiving word of the strike. Some seafarers who took part in the strike later found they had been fined €75 ($84) a day, he said, and a handful were removed from the ships at least two of which are flagged to Spain (the rest are owned by Spanish companies) in Seychelles and given return tickets to their countries. If these allegations are true, they would appear to violate the SFPA, which includes language expressly recognizing the right of fishers to collective bargaining.
The existing EU-Senegal SFPA is set to expire in 2024. Faye at ANAM said the labor dispute would not jeopardize a future agreement. But overlooking fishers’ rights and welfare could mean further trouble.
“If after six months nothing has changed despite the intervention of the director of the merchant navy, we’ll certainly be taking further action,” Diop, who now works closely with the union, said.
Banner image: The Txori Argi, one of the largest tuna purse seiners in the world, owned by the Spanish company INPESCA and flagged to Spain. Image © Greenpeace
Lawon Olalekan contributed reporting from Dakar, Senegal.