Divisions over protecting conditions in the fishing sector

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An April 1997 Government directive regulating the Portuguese fishing sector has unleashed major protests by ship-owners and fishing workers, although for different reasons. The trade unions are trying both to protect fish stocks and to defend living conditions. The central problem is that, as a consequence of collective bargaining in the sector, wages and other income depend directly on the amount of fish caught. In addition, under an agreement between Portugal and Spain signed in 1985, the Spanish fleet can still fish without restrictions in Portuguese waters.

Employment relationships in the fishing industry

In Portugal the fishing industry employs 36,689 people ("Estatísticas da pesca", INE, Portugal (1995)). Representation of employees and ship-owners is very fragmented, with no fewer than 14 unions and 12 employers' associations.

Industry-wide negotiations on working conditions are fairly diverse. There is a collective agreement for each of the various kinds of fishing, which are divided into two main blocs: industrial fishing and small-scale fishing. At the start of 1997, there was a certain degree of conflict while negotiations were taking place. The most controversial question involved the way in which pay is structured and how to determine the level of certain payments, such as Christmas bonuses. These issues were raised in negotiations across all five of the industry's subsectors, including deep-sea trawling and coastal trawling. In the fishing industry, one proportion of wages is fixed whilst the other is variable according to the amount of fish caught.

In the case of industrial fishing, the Federation of Fishing Unions (Federação dos Sindicatos do Sector das Pescas) - affiliated to the CGTP (Confederação Geral dos Trabalhadores) union confederation - made an opening claim for an increase in basic monthly wages of at least PTE 10,000 (an increase of about 60% on the current figure) and a Christmas bonus equivalent to the weighted average of pay actually received, rather than the fixed wage component. According to the union, ship-owners are able to afford this. Moreover, the wages structure has not been discussed for many years. The increase of PTE 1,500 (in line with the 3% proposed by the tripartite Economic and Social Council, corresponding to inflation) proposed by the Association of Industrial Fishing Ship Owners (Associação dos Armadores da Pesca Industrial, ADAPI) was rejected, as it set basic monthly wages at PTE 24,000 (half the rate of Portugal's national minimum wage - PT9702102F), and retained the same meals subsidy and the same percentage on the sale of fish (1.2%). As with agriculture and domestic service, the fishing sector is exempt from the national minimum wage as it has its own specific regulations.

ADAPI notes that although basic wages are low, employees do not earn less than PTE 150,000 (2.8 times Portugal's minimum wage) a month, since they also earn catch bonuses related to the profitability of the ship and the price of the fish caught. ADAPI says that the CGTP claim involves an increase in costs which cannot possibly be borne by boats, and that the employers' offer also includes improved repatriation, insurance, fixed wages and Christmas bonus conditions.

The trade union representing Northern fishing workers has rejected the position taken by the Secretary of State for Labour, which follows the same line as the employers' association concerning the means to decide the Christmas bonus. The union is asking the Government and Parliament to apply the general labour law governing Christmas bonuses to the fishing industry, and to comply with electoral promises to ensure the fair regulation of labour relations. Fishing workers should be treated the same as other Portuguese people and employees, and the general law should be applied, making allowances for the specific nature of the sector.

Plenary meetings of workers were held, and in May 1997 trawler workers staged a five-day strike, called by the Federation of Fishing Unions. Meanwhile, ADAPI signed an agreement with the fishing unions affiliated to the UGT (União Geral de Trabalhadores) confederation.

As regards small-scale fishing, the Northern fishing workers' union turned its attention to the Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries, noting that employees had accepted the structural adjustments arising from the European Union Common Fisheries Policy to deal with excess fleet capacity, in order to make the best use of marine resources. Fishing workers accepted the decommissioning of vessels involved in certain areas of traditional fishing, for which they would receive compensation and a bonus in certain situations. However, many crew members have still not received the payments. There has also been a lack of control over alternative forms of fishing in winter, and the support promised to small-scale fishing operations has still not materialised, specifically for buying the larger-mesh fishing nets required. Furthermore, restrictions on the catching of young fish and certain forms of selling have resulted in discrimination in comparison with other types of fishing.

The Federation of Maritime Workers' Unions (Federação dos Sindicatos do Mar, FESMAR) - a CGTP affiliate - laments what it sees as the lack of political will on the part of governments to deal with the problem of foreign competition, which has led to the decimation of whole sectors. It has launched an appeal for action to stave off the destruction of the Portuguese fishing fleet and the unemployment that will result.

Controversial directive

In April, the Government issued new regulations (directive 281-C/97, 30 April) to govern the sector. Those regulations ignored some of the matters that had been discussed with the social partners in the Consultative Council for Fisheries. The content of the directive was regarded by some of the social partners as controversial as, in their view, it had misunderstood the real state of affairs in the sector, and contained serious technical errors. The main objective was to preserve marine fauna stocks off the Portuguese coast.

The point which caused most debate was the intention to prohibit fishing from 18.00 on Saturdays to 18.00 on Sundays throughout the year. However, although Portuguese boats were prevented from fishing within the 12-mile limit, Spanish boats could continue to do so under the agreement signed in 1985, as could registered anglers. The directive is also intended to cover fleets operating outside the 12-mile limit.

Fishing depends on many things, including the weather and fishing grounds. It is difficult to set inflexible non-fishing periods without fishing workers losing a substantial part of their income.

The directive also raised other questions relating to the nature of the catch. The European Union accepts a minimum weight per fish of 500 grams, whereas the Portuguese Government insists on a 750-gram minimum - although the Spanish fleet can continue to fish to the 500-gram minimum under the terms of the 1985 agreement. Also, shellfish boats are banned from fishing in the peak month of June, when the stoppage could be made at any time of the year between July and November.

Ship-owners say that, although they have an interest in preserving resources in which they have a vested interest, they intend to ask the Government to suspend the directive. To that end they have been exerting pressure by convening 12 fishing associations to a blockade in Lisbon in protest against the directive, as well as blockading several other Portuguese ports and preventing the unloading of fish lorries from Spain trying to supply Portuguese markets.

The Government refers to negotiations being carried out with Madrid, and talks of a new agreement between Portugal and Spain, as Spanish boats are not covered by the law, with the aim of placing both countries' fishing fleets on an equal footing.

The unions' positions

The ship-owners' protest was strongly supported throughout the country, and some ports were completely paralysed. Despite this, the stances taken by several unions were different, and although they were present they were opposed to the Lisbon protest. The reasons bringing them together are different, because the type of fishing in which they are involved is different, as are the distances at which they operate. According to some UGT unions, if the directive obliges them to take a fixed day's rest, in addition to the days lost to repairs, bad weather and selling their catch, they will end up unable to work for half the year. The fishing industry employees' union says that if the directive becomes law each fishing worker will see a fall in income of PTE 80,000.

The Central Region fishing workers' union's representatives say that it is possible to negotiate the same restrictions with the Spanish, by convincing them to fish Portuguese waters at the same time as the Portuguese. The union supports the Government, and feels that the small-scale boat-owners' blockade of Lisbon was "blackmail". As regards the directive, it believes that it is a good measure to preserve stocks and to prevent the disappearance of species, although there should be special regulations for certain types of fishing to make the fleet economically viable, as it would virtually cease operating if the directive were implemented.

The Northern fishing workers' union's representatives accused ship-owners of operating a lockout, and called on the Government to penalise them - given that in Portugal lockouts are unconstitutional - and to force ships back to sea. They regard the measures themselves as just and necessary, because they provide a weekly break for fishing workers. Furthermore, the argument that Spanish vessels will not comply with the directive is pure speculation, bearing in mind that Portugal still retains sovereignty over its own waters. The union advocates mechanisms to ensure that the law is observed and for subsidies to be payable to boats when they are unable to leave port.

The Southern fishing union's representatives and theFree Union of Fishing Workers and Affiliated Professions (Sindicato Livre dos Pescadores e Profissões Afins) accused ship-owners of hypocrisy and blackmail, by allegedly exploiting workers to the point of exhaustion while receiving substantial subsidies and applying pressure to have the law altered in their favour. They feel that the lockout should end, that stocks should be protected and that they have no business being dragged into disputes that are none of their concern.

FESMAR regards the law as hastily drafted, and believes that it fails to solve problems faced by those working at sea.

The Communist Party has called for the controversial measure to be suspended for 30 days, owing to the fact that it is not based on scientific data.

Following the blockade, the fisheries Minister said that the compulsory weekend stoppage may be partially amended, although he said that it would be difficult, because he understands the impracticality of long-distance fishing vessels returning to port for a single day. However, he could not accept suspension of the directive, nor consider its restriction to within the 12-mile limit, given that in such instances small-scale fishing and owners would be penalised. A meeting has been arranged with ship-owners.

The Federation of Fishing Unions will request a meeting with the Minister. It believes that repeal of the directive will benefit only those fishing beyond the 12-mile limit, which is unacceptable favouritism: although resources are limited, the restrictions should apply to all. It claims that the Government is giving way to large ship-owners. It also sees ADAPI's position as strange, as the employers' body agreed to a 48-hour stoppage at the consultative meetings on fishing in October 1996 and March 1997. It then requested a 24-hour stoppage, and now wants no stoppage at all. It finds it odd that the Minister has not called a meeting with unions.


All the social partners in the fishing sector note the need to protect natural resources, and have all spoken of their commitment to ensuring that a balance is retained.

Negotiations in the sector are taking place under the cloud of a negative outlook for the survival of the sector as a whole. This has resulted in the need to establish a balance between the development of economic activity and the economic needs of employees, given that flexible wages mean that employees' survival depends directly on those resources. That clash has led employees to turn to other bodies. For instance, their representatives have appealed to Parliament to guarantee equal rights and for fishing workers to be covered by the general labour law. The sector does have one example of dialogue and involvement in the collective organisation and regulation of protection for the sector, known as the Consultative Council for Fisheries. However, its effectiveness is being placed in jeopardy. (Maria Luisa Cristóvam, UAL)

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