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Apostleship of the Sea
"The challenges in the care of fisher families"
Maria Cristina de Castro Garcia
Apostleship of the Sea Advisory Team
Coordinator of National and International Relations of the “Rosa dos Ventos” Association
Vigo, Spain
The challenges in the care of fisher families
As we begin this meeting, I would like to thank Cardinal Turkson for the deference he has extended by inviting me to participate in this Congress, which allows me to present the reality of the families of sea workers, with the desire that this reflection serve as an stimulus to making progress in addressing this serious situation.
My commitment to improving the lives of sea workers covers the entirety of my life’s journey dedicated to serving the Apostleship of the Sea. I’ve always carried out this mission with hope, throwing myself into all areas of responsibility where I might be able to find relevant solutions through responsible responses in favour of justice, which have not been forthcoming.
We only have the strength of the word when we face those who have the power: the people who create, know about and permit the existence of this situation. Even so, while we understand the difficulties that we face, we continue on this journey with hope, because it is the only glimmer that we have left, confronted with a reality that does not respect the dignity of the human person, each one of them God’s children.
We will be talking about industrial fishing, which we need distinguish from the work of coastal, or artisanal fishermen, who are at sea for a day or a week at a time.
Industrial fishing involves long stays – months - at sea, and the circumstances and consequences of this life are different. Here we highlight the working conditions and their consequences on family life.
Industrial Fishing’s business model was conceived clearly aiming for materialistic gain, to take full advantage of catching the most fish in the shortest possible time, without taking into account the wear and tear on fishers, given the work schedule they have to endure, difficult to calculate in monetary terms and the arbitrary nature of their salaries.
It is necessary to point out a number of aspects, where limited legal protection is skilfully circumvented by those who wish to disregard it.
Contracts are often made with serious anomalies: unrealistic workdays, contracts that are unsigned or signed as a “blank cheque”, migrants with even more restricted conditions and the circulation of fake Seaman’s Books that sail without their holders.
Social security contributions are not always rigorously respected and are paid with irregularities. This is all the more serious in the case of joint ventures or under flags of convenience, with its consequent effects in the event of illness, accidents on the job or retirement.
The working day is unlimited. The aim is to fill the hold as soon as possible. All this translates into working days of more than 20 hours without rest, during long stays at sea that can run up to 7 months. This practice triggers fatigue, which greater exposes fishers to accidents and, in the worst cases, death.
Salaries are never paid for the hours worked, overtime or weekends, nor is there any provision for “bonuses” for exposure to danger or length of voyage.
There has been some progress in the training requirements for fishers, but their working hours expose them to fatigue, diminishes their ability to react and slows their physical and mental reflexes. There is also a lack of the necessary safety and rescue facilities on board.
The family, a community in which the most intimate human bonds must develop, is incompatible with seafarers’ lives. They do not have this option during their lifetime, due to their lengthy periods at sea and very short stays ashore.
The workers’ separation from the family in industrial fishing undermines family dialogue. When seafarers return home after an absence of up to 7 months, they have to renew the coexistence that has been interrupted for such a long time. In their absence, life has taken on a rhythm and customs in which they have not been able to participate. In the few days of home leave, they do not interrupt the tasks that their wives have had to perform alone.
In the survey carried out by the Apostleship of the Sea, these families were asked: what is the couple’s main problem in being separated? They answered: -the lack of dialogue and coexistence 39%; -the difficulty in getting along together 9.1%; -the lack of conjugal relationship, 12.9%; - loneliness 12%; -infidelity and doubts 7.9%.
These are women who bravely face the difficulties of their husband's absence and discuss the main shortcomings of this life.
It is necessary for them to assume the dual role of mother/father in the education of their children throughout the developmental process and they always ask themselves in the absence of their husbands: what would their husband do?
The problems of their husbands’ lives are considered more serious than their own. They know the conditions in which they works, although they do not let it show. They welcome back their husbands, who are affected by and resigned to a situation that does not change. Their husband's short stay at home gives rise to a hectic life, on one hand wanting to live the short time of family life to the full, while facing the difficulties of adaptation that the long separation creates.
This is another distorted aspect of family life, because it is not possible for seafarers to carry out their part in the education of their children. Having only a few days ashore, it is very difficult to take up "the thread" of family dialogue and as such they prefer not to interfere with the mother's work.
It cannot be said that they are marginalized, because they are disconnected from the daily experiences and this can produce affective deficiencies among the children: the father can be seen as a stranger and when he returns home, they feel displaced vis-à-vis the mother, which causes a feeling of jealousy, since the children principally depend on her.
The survey carried out by the Apostleship of the Sea gave the following answer: If the father were at home longer, would the children be better educated? 71.2% answered yes.
Fishers are a people "without a voice" in society and are powerless to assert their rights because, due to their distance at sea, it is difficult to find bonds of solidarity and any individual claim can mean the loss of their job. All that is left for them is to resign themselves to a situation that does not change, in which their dignity is not respected.
Women are integrated into society as regards the educational, civil and economic tasks that they undertake for the family. They do not feel marginalized and have no desire to demand equality with men, because their self-esteem is high, given the work they do on her own.
Children have a different integration into social life. They cannot refer to their father in the same way as their classmates or groups of friends do.  Their fathers are not present at important moments of their lives: events, successes or difficulties in school, sports, etc. and always without the warmth of their company.
We have to consider the existence of the silence of the sea, where seafarers have no voice.
Seafarers’ incorporation into home life is not easy, neither for the returnee or for those at home. Due to their long stays at sea and short stays ashore, a gap is created in their life. In addition to the disconnect from the family, there are two other factors that make it difficult to return: isolation on board in small crews, often of different languages, and their social isolation in general. Both of these factors affect them, undermining their ability to successfully resume family and social relationships.
Another difficulty may be to having to face the household economy, as retirement benefits may be low, due to possible irregularities in social security contributions!
The message that I have transmitted, through its analysis, should be headed by a sentence that reflects this reality: “The Silent Slavery of the 21st Century”.
All of this is marginal, typical of a mentality from the Middle Ages. Only global solidarity can save the situation. It will be necessary to work with dedication and intelligence to ensure that there is a real liberation in the lives of seafarers and their families.
is essential.
The marginalization experienced in the silence of the sea is well known
This is the big step
-          The absence of inspectors to verify and denounce creates a situation of uncontrollable permissiveness.
-          Workers cannot defend themselves: due to the distance and its consequences...
-          Their wives, who are members of the Association, try to be the "voice" of their husbands ashore making demands and defending the rights of their husbands with politicians responsible for marine affairs.
-          Politicians do not address this marginalization nor envisage on-board surveillance for the fishing fleet, by means of inspectors or Internet Protocol cameras with black boxes.
-          After the women’s long and continuous experience, the limited possibilities for addressing these issues gave rise to a new initiative which offers immediate personalised solutions for workers.
-          The Seafarers' Rights Centre was established as a service to offer personalised free legal assistance.
-          The Seafarers' Rights Centre requires further economic contribution to be viable.
We try to open doors by demanding answers from those responsible for these affairs, who know about the situation and the laws which are applicable to address the great injustices suffered by seafarers and their families. We will once again present this experience during this reflection.
Our volunteers’ continuous work to achieve respect for these people’s dignity for over 15 years has a profound meaning, because the motive that promotes our insistent demand is the defence of human rights.
The creative driving force behind our commitment is the certainty that all people are entitled to the same rights. We are all dependent on each other to contribute to the well-being of society. We must act without selfishness and without the manipulation of economic power, with the consent of those who have responsibility for monitoring compliance with the law, which is so necessary when it comes to the exploitation of human beings, as are these workers, who are distant and unknown to our society because of the silence created by their remoteness.
The European, Spanish and Galician governments are aware of this situation. In response to our request for an audience and our denunciation of this situation in person - in which the problem of extended family separation was highlighted - the European Parliament stated that in the last century all groups had made progress on social rights with the exception of the maritime sector.
In 2005, a working meeting was held with representatives of the Spanish Ministries of Fisheries, Labour and Development, with the participation of the "Rosa dos Ventos" Association of Fishers’ Wives, in which important demands were made, highlighted in the presentation of a petition entitled "For Labour and Social Protection of Seafarers' Families", backed by more than 30,000 signatures. This situation was the topic of interest for the working committee, also considering that the fact that Spanish fisher families enjoy the worst quality of life according to research by the European FEM (European Seafarer Families)  coordinated by "Rosa dos Ventos" in collaboration with the associations of seafarers’ wives of France, Germany, Belgium and Finland. Despite the interest shown in this situation, no response has been received from the Government.
The Autonomous Government of Galicia, which is home to the majority of the industrial fishing families, and where the greatest exploitation takes place, has not assumed its responsibilities, which were pointed out by the National Government after the first session of the working meeting.
The work and relations with associations of seafarers' wives' in European countries were an incentive for promoting international relations, which were supposed to be a link to future resources. Here, the absence of the important task of coordination led to the breakdown in relations, but there was another attempt to open up other avenues.
The Need for a Seafarers' Rights Centre
The effect of having direct relations with the institutions of government had a decisive influence as we understood the need to seek operational solutions to defend the labour and social rights of seafarers and their families in the Courts of Justice. Vindicating their rights called for the creation of a Seafarers’ Rights Center to provide free legal assistance, in light of these families’ economic situation as well as the uncertainty around eventual settlements in favour of seafarers.
Postal Address:
Abbazia S. Maria di Finalpia
17024 Finale Ligure Pia (SV) Italy
Telephone +39 019 602 301  Fax: +39 019 604 9940
updated 10 February 2024
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