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Migrant fisher repatriation during COVID-19

The Coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19) currently taking place during Jan-April 2020 has caused and is continuing to cause disruption throughout the fisheries sector. A major issue during this time is the ability of migrant fishers to return home, to receive their wages and their wellbeing.

Due to measures being undertaken to stop the spread of the outbreak, sea ports and airports have been closed meaning vessels, goods and people are not permitted to enter or depart. Scheduled flights have been cancelled and travel between countries is either extremely difficult or impossible if the country has completely closed their borders. This has led to a situation whereby fishers are stuck, either in port, at sea or other location unable to get home. Fishers may be working whilst their contract has expired or their contact may be in date but they wish to return home, to be repatriated. The current situation does not allow for the repatriation of these fishers who wish to leave the vessels, port authorities may not even allow the vessel to enter the port and with flights suspended even if the fisher could reach port there may be no means of getting home. It is critical that employers of migrant fishers ensure that the social wellbeing of fishers is managed responsibly and where necessary, vessel owners should continue to provide medicine and medical treatment.

What if the fisher’s contract is valid and in date?

Many people around the world are currently unable to work, travel or are getting sick due to the virus outbreak. With this considered the best outcome for fishers at the moment is to continue working and being paid in full. This is to avoid the fisher becoming stranded, to maintain their safety and income generation for them and their family. Additionally:

  1. During this period vessel it is critical that all fishers are being paid in full and all legal obligations are being fulfilled by the owner of the vessel on which the fisher has been working.

  2. If fishers are normally paid in cash when returning to port but the vessel is continuing to fish rather than returning to port, then the boat owner could offer the fisher the option to send their wages home.

  3. The vessel owner could set up lines of communication whereby fishers can send/receive basic information back home, contact their embassy or trade union.

  4. Vessel owners should explain the situation clearly to the fishers, reassuring them that their contract terms will be upheld and mitigating potential frictions on board. Fishers still have the right to choose not to work at any time but need to be aware of the consequences of that decision.

What if the fisher’s contract is expired or expiring?

The best outcome for the fisher is still to continue working and being paid in full. Even if the fisher is due to go home they would be better off staying on-board the vessel working because otherwise they could become stranded without income or means to go home. In addition to the points above:

  1. Contracts could be extended on a 30 day basis and potentially extended at the end of that 30 day period if the situation is unchanged.

  2. Once the travel restrictions have been lifted, the vessel owner would be expected to repatriate fishers whose contracts have expired.

  3. Financial compensation or bonuses could be offered to fishers for the contract extension.

What if the fisher refuses a contract extension or wishes to quit the contract?

It needs to be recognised that migrant fishers are in an extremely vulnerable situation due to the COVID-19 virus global pandemic. If the fisher is not working and unable to return home then they risk legal implications in the country that they are stranded in. It has been widely reported that it is increasingly difficult to get food and water supplies to migrant fishers stuck in port due to port restrictions. At all stages all of the fishers’ human and labour rights must be respected.

  1. If scheduled flights or other available transportation are available then the fisher can be offered repatriation at the cost of the vessel owner.

  2. The fisher is entitled to be paid for all their work (including back-pay, overtime, bonuses etc.).

  3. The vessel owner is responsible for notifying the local authority, trade unions and the relevant embassies of the situation including the names and details of all fishers involved, their location and any other relevant information e.g. any medical needs.

  4. During this time, regular communication could be offered to the fisher to inform the fishers of updates in the situation and also the boat owner could offer to provide then with communication to and from their home countries.

In an emergency the below International Transport Federation (ITF) contact can be used:

Rossen Karavatchev,

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