Industrial relations in the fishing industry

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In 2000, the Portuguese fishing industry is contracting and facing problems such as falling catches, modernisation requirements, an ageing workforce and restrictions imposed in order to preserve stocks, particularly arising from EU policies. Here, we examine industrial relations in the sector, which is marked by the existence of several types of fishing, governed by very different regulations.

The fishing sector in Portugal is facing structural problems in terms of both the volume of its business and its working conditions. Both turnover and the number of people involved in the sector are falling. The fishing fleet dropped from 12,299 vessels of all kinds in 1994 to 10,933 in 1999, while the number of registered fishing workers fell from 31,721 to 27,191. The volume of imported fish increased by 31% from 1990 to 1999, whereas exports decreased by 0.4% over the same period (Pescas Portuguesas e Datapescas nº 43, December 1999, Ministry of Agriculture, Rural Development and Fisheries). In 1997, 4,932 people were registered as employees in the fishing sector (Quadros de Pessoal, 1997).

As laid out in its Common Fisheries Policy, the European Union is seeking to: establish a policy that determines priorities which will contribute to a sustainable balance between fisheries resources and their exploitation; increase the competitiveness of fishing enterprises and organisations; and develop viable enterprises. The EU has been paying special attention to the situation in Portugal both because of the characteristics of the Portuguese coastal area and the type of vessel used there, and because of the failure in May 2000 to reach a fisheries agreement with Morocco– a fact which has hurt both Portuguese and Spanish fishing. Franz Fischler, the Commissioner for Agriculture, Rural Development and Fisheries, has noted that the social situation in the sector has not improved. Even after the payment of substantial subsidies, there has not been much progress towards a solution to the industry's problems, particularly when it comes to creating alternative employment for fishing workers. Many of them are fairly old, given that many of their younger colleagues prefer to move to Spain or France (PT9911169F).

Working conditions and industrial relations


The Portuguese fishing sector is divided into various subsectors, which in turn are divided between industrial fishing and artisanal fishing. According to trade union sources, 80% of fishing workers work in the artisanal area. There are a variety of trade unions and employers' organisations representing sectoral and regional interests (PT9706122F).

Working conditions

The industrial and artisanal parts of the fishing industry face different situations. The artisanal sector in particular is experiencing problems related to fuel price policy, the taxation regime applicable to the industry and the social security contribution regime, which is seen as prejudicial to those working in the area. Inasmuch as their salary or income depends directly on the volume of fish they catch, the situation experienced by artisanal fishing workers is tending to worsen. Given that their income is directly dependent on their haul and is partly paid in kind, the issue of falling catches is more pressing in artisanal fishing. According to the trade unions, over the past few months the haul of fish like sardine has fallen by around 40%

It is only recently, through Law nº 15/97, dated 31 May 1997, that employees aboard industrial fishing vessels have become covered by the law and regulations governing employment contracts and have thus won the right to holidays, sick leave, Christmas bonuses, obligatory rest periods and insurance against death and permanent invalidity. These terms and conditions do not apply at all to workers in artisanal fishing.

Although fishing workers' claims and complaints vary from region to region, they are currently generally focused on:

  • the absence of a stable income, especially in the closed season;
  • improved health and safety conditions and vocational training ;
  • the improvement of social security cover for accidents at work; and
  • improved life insurance.

Given the specific characteristics of the sardine sector, and in order to compensate workers in this sector and more generally all those who work with seine nets, workers are asking for access to a fund which would guarantee their wages during the closed season. The Northern Fishing Workers' Union (Sindicato dos Pescadores do Norte, SPN) considers that the government's proposal to provide vocational training financed by the state during this period is only a provisional solution and will not solve the problem. The state is also proposing lines of credit and incentives for improvements in fish quality. At its recent eighth congress (PT0005193F), the General Workers' Union (União Geral de Trabalhadores, UGT) called for urgent interventions in the fishing sector

Collective bargaining and industrial action

The Association of Industrial Fishing-Vessel Owners (Associação dos Armadores das Pescas Industriais, ADAPI) has negotiated a variety of sectoral collective agreements for the industrial fishing sector with a number of trade unions. They include agreements covering high-seas fishing, coastal trawling, high-seas trawling/crustaceans, tuna-fishing and cod-fishing. The Association of Algarve Fishing Companies (Associação de Empresas de Pesca do Algarve, AEPA) has also negotiated collective agreements covering sardine-fishing, while the Propeixe northern fishing cooperative has negotiated collective agreements for seine-fishing (sardines), which have since been extended by labour regulation directive (portaria de regulamentação de trabalho, PRT)

These agreements seek first and foremost to define the quantities of fish included in employees' remuneration and their Christmas bonuses. In some cases, the agreements last for a single season, while others have a longer term. Some agreements set up commissions charged with resolving conflicts and differing interpretations of the terms governing specific working relationships.

The sector is dominated by artisanal fishing, in which strikes or other forms of industrial action are quite frequent. In 1999, the coastal trawler sector experienced a two-month strike, one of the longest strikes to have occurred in Portugal in recent times (PT9905145N). At the end of June 2000, fishing workers in Matosinhos, near Oporto, carried out actions against the import of sardines from Spain; their reasons for doing so included the failure to resolve problems in relation to the organisation of the way fish is sold.


The fisheries sector is going through a phase in which it is being affected by a number of factors: the need to preserve natural resources requires a degree of restraint in relation to the ways in which fishing might be developed; while the Portuguese industry is to some extent dependent on other countries' fisheries policies (eg that of Morocco and northern cod-fishing nations). Inasmuch as fishing is a profession that is not attractive to young people, the stock of human resources is either not being renewed at all, or is losing its new recruits to emigration.

At the same time, whereas the regulations governing employment contracts and other working relationships in industrial fishing are tending to become more similar to those in other industries, artisanal fishing retains a large number of special characteristics. A large part of workers' remuneration depends directly on the volume of fish caught and the price achieved when it is sold – the risk involved in artisanal fishing is thus shared by employer and employee, an element which constitutes a key factor in the whole relationship between them. This situation places substantial limits on the introduction of major social innovations. (Maria Luisa Cristovam)

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