At the Deep End: Child Labor in Fisheries

from Malaya Business Insight, PHILIPPINES

FILIPINO children work in extremely hazardous fisheries.

The most notorious and extremely dangerous of deep sea jobs is in muro-ami which employs children as swimmers and divers using nets to fish in reefs.

Called reef hunters, they dive for fish or free snagged nets. The perception is that their smaller bodies are better for diving deeper and that their fingers are nimble to hook and unhook nets.

The job is called by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) extremely hazardous child labor in a country where, it estimates, as much as 5 percent of children work in fisheries.

Child divers risk ear damage, injuries from falls, shark attacks, snake bites and drowning, says the International Labor Organization (ILO).

FAO and ILO recently released the first draft of a document that aims to help policymakers and governments tackle the turbid issue of child labor in fisheries.

Nine of 10 child workers are boys, or one in 10 of the fisheries labor force, according to a FAO study in the Philippines, Bangladesh, El Salvador and Ghana.

Six of 10 of the world’s 215 million who are under-age laborers work in fisheries, forestry, agriculture and livestock-raising.

“They can develop work-related physical and mental health problems because their minds and bodies are still growing, and their lack of awareness of the risks and hazards associated with performing certain tasks often exposes them to diseases, injuries and even death,” FAO says.

Fishing puts children at a greater risk of drowning and of contracting waterborne diseases.

Children fish, cook on boats, herd fish into nets, peel shrimp or clean fish and crabs, repair nets, sort, unload, transport, process or sell catches. They help make boats and nets, work onboard, prepare nets and baits.

They raise, feed and harvest fish, either in the seas or inland, in aquaculture ponds, and sort, process and sell fish.

Fishing at sea is probably the most dangerous occupation in the world, according to the ILO.

The environment where fishing takes place is often hazardous and vessels tend to be in constant motion, even in good weather. In bad, movements can be violent and unpredictable.

Onboard, working and personal time and space are not separated, especially during multi-day fishing trips. Fishers may both work and live on the vessel under cramped and congested conditions. Some times they spend long periods away from home.

Lack of recreation, limited access to adequate food and clean water, and fatigue because of long hours, is a way of life.

Many accidents occur because of poor judgment during fishing operations brought by pressure to increase profits or ensure a decent income, the FAO-ILO document observes. Human factor is estimated to be responsible for 80 percent of accidents.

Because of increased competition for dwindling catch, fishers may be inclined to take bigger risks like working longer shifts, ignoring fatigue, reducing crew sizes, disregarding investment on safety equipment or not paying heed to warnings of bad weather.

On many fishing vessels, especially small ones, crews have to work on deck in all weathers, frequently with hatches open, in order to locate, gather and process their catch.

According to an ILO survey, the most common types of accidents were stepping on, striking against or being struck by an object, falling and overexertion. Accidents are caused by “rough weather, fatigue, poor technical condition of the vessel, inadequate or inappropriate tools, equipment, personal protective equipment and inattention.”


Then there are the occupational health problems. The ILO survey indicated that fishers often suffer from skin and respiratory diseases, and consequences of noise and vibration onboard.

The survey showed diagnoses such as hypertension, coronary heart diseases and cancer of the lungs, bronchus and stomach. Diseases included salt-water boils, allergic reactions to cuttlefish and weeds, fish erysipeloid (a bacterial infection also called “fish handler’s disease”), acute tenosynovitis of the wrist (“fisher’s tenosynovitis”), conjunctivitis and poisonous fish stings.

Particularly in tropical inland waters, fishers can be exposed to waterborne diseases such as schistosomiasis (snail fever) or threatened by wild animals such as crocodiles in lakes and estuaries.

In small-scale fisheries, the increased popularity of outboard engines coupled with the urge to go further offshore to find fish can lead to accidents that did not happen earlier: engine failure or sudden rough weather for which a small craft may not be suitable.

The common characteristics of small-scale fisheries, in particular in remote areas in poor countries, are lack of communication and safety equipment, inadequate search and rescue services, poor port and landing facilities, and insufficient medical care onshore.

In aquaculture, occupational health and safety hazards exist in feedmills, hatcheries and grow-out ponds, pens and cages.

Risks include musculoskeletal injury due to heavy lifting or long hours of repetitive hand feeding; physical injuries caused by slips or falls on wet and slippery surfaces; cuts and wounds from using knives, equipment or machinery.

Direct contact with some chemicals used in aquaculture for disease control or to fertilize fish ponds can lead to burns, skin irritation or allergies. Inhalation of other substances can cause respiratory problems, including asthma.

Risks from handling fish include cuts, bites and puncture injuries from sharp teeth, spines or bones.

Boat builders are exposed to a variety of substances and materials (styrene, resins, solvents, paints, welding fumes and coating systems) that can cause injuries, illnesses or allergies. Direct contact with toxic hard wood and inhalation of wood particles, in particular fine wood dust, can lead to poisoning and wood dermatitis. Those who saw, plane and sand wood are also at risk for asthmas and allergies.

Throughout the tropics, drying is widely practiced. To avoid spoilage, insecticides are sometimes used, including chemical products that are less expensive but do not meet food standards. Skin rashes, allergic reactions and asthmatic symptoms are some of the common ailments among workers in processing plants.

Many women and girls involved in smoking fish are exposed to high heat and dense smoke when inefficient ovens are used.

Fish marketing may involve carrying heavy loads and handling fish by hand, which can lead to musculoskeletal injuries and allergic reactions.

Many children migrate when they go fishing with negative impact on their education.

FAO and ILO are now seeking public feedback (until April 30) on the document: “FAO-ILO Guidance for Addressing Child Labor in Fisheries and Aquaculture: Policy and Practice”. A final version will be circulated in July 2012. Paul M. Icamina