In the Philippines, Skoll Awardee Visayan Forum Foundation has made progress in improving working conditions for deep-sea fishermen. Visayan’s experience holds lessons for others engaged in similar initiatives.

Pa-aling is a form of deep-sea fishing practiced in the Philippines, where fishermen dive 100 feet into the ocean with the aid of breathing tubes attached to a compressor, which is sometimes old and rusty. The fishermen drive fish out of coral reefs into a net laid out on the ocean floor, which is then sealed and reeled to the surface.

A pa-aling fishing ship usually has about 250 fishermen and an expedition can last 40 days, with fishermen diving for over half an hour at a time. The practice is classified as hazardous but legal work. Violations of labor standards are well documented in the pa-aling industry, such as disproportionately low salaries, non-payment of social security benefits, illegal deductions, and poor health and safety standards.

Pa-aling fishermen usually do not receive protective gear like swimsuits, gloves, or flippers. Some of them supply their own masks and homemade fins. There is a risk that fishermen may drop their breathing tubes or that they may get hurt while on the ocean floor.

Even worse, fisherman can die from decompression illness as they ascend from the depths. There are reports of fishermen being drugged to stay awake and beaten when they refuse to follow instructions. Some vessel owners keep as much as 80 percent of the net income, leaving a meager 20 percent to be divided among the fishermen. Philippine law restricts fishing areas and the number of licensed pa-aling operations. However, the standards for recruitment of fishermen and proper compensation remain hazy.

Around the city of Dumaguete, Visayan Forum has been working closely with local communities and government agencies to manage the risks associated with pa-aling fishing. “We don’t want to stop the pa-aling industry,” said Romualdo Seneris, Visayan Forum Regional Coordinator. “Fish is food and people need jobs. We want to engage business owners to be part of the solution. We want communities to hold business operators accountable.”

Some strategies that have proved effective for Visayan Forum include:

Massive community work and sensitization

In 2011, the National Labor Relations Commission required a fishing company, Pesca Maharlika Marine Resources, to pay 278 fishermen from Negros Oriental province 13.4 million pesos in back compensation for their services in a 10-month fishing expedition in 2008. The case is on appeal, and the fishermen are waiting for justice to this day.

Visayan Forum used the case to build traction against exploitative practices in the pa-aling industry. The Philippine Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) and the Visayan Forum team visited the families of fishermen in Ayungon, Negros Oriental, a hotspot for vulnerable fishermen and the hometown of the complainants, to inform them of their rights and the risks of pa-aling fishing. The team encouraged families to draw up a cost-benefit calculus of sending their male relatives to work in pa-aling operations without insurance and with meager pay, especially in light of recent accidents and fatalities.

As a result, the community became vigilant and pa-aling operators had a harder time dodging their responsibilities.

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Visayan Forum Foundation community workers conducting an information session with Pa-aling fishermen.
Photo: Visayan Forum Foundation.

Assisting government in implementing alternative livelihood opportunities for vulnerable fishermen

In communities mired in poverty and where there are little to no livelihood alternatives, people are vulnerable to exploitation. Even if individuals know they are being abused, they are likely to accept the unfair conditions, described in the local language as kapit sa patalim (‘hanging on to a dagger’).

To address this need, DOLE granted 524,000 pesos to the 38 main complainants in the case against Pesca Maharlika Marine Resources, even as litigation was ongoing. Visayan Forum was the implementing partner for the project.

The grants allowed the beneficiaries to purchase motorized boats, engage in profitable small-scale agriculture, and receive training. As a result the fishermen increased their yields, assisted in monitoring activities in municipal waters, and developed pride and confidence in their work. This reduced their vulnerability to further exploitation.

Strategic monitoring of pa-aling fishing operations

DOLE and the Visayan Forum closely monitor pa-aling recruitment in the region to ensure that recruits are registered for social welfare benefits and are over 18 years of age. A verification process is conducted on the day of a vessel’s departure.

Visayan Forum does not have the capacity for on-site monitoring of pa-aling operations, but the team keeps in touch with the fishermen’s families to stay updated on possible violations and mistreatment, which is swiftly reported to authorities.

Collaboration between committed local public officials and the Visayan Forum team on the ground ensures that problems are acted upon and operations are suspended, if necessary.

Next steps

Visayan Forum plans to push for stronger official occupational safety and health regulations and mandated salary and social security benefits for pa-aling fishermen. Visayan will also develop strategies for service providers and law enforcement officials dealing with male victims of human trafficking, especially in deep-sea fishing, who have often been less visible in anti-trafficking discourse and policy.

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Life on board a Pa-aling fishing boat. Photo: Visayan Forum Foundation.