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Distant-Water Fishworkers in Philippines

Chandrika SHARMA

12 / 1997

According to a Filipino saying: "Angtaong nagigipit, sa patalim man ay kakapit" (A person who is in extreme need is forced to tread on dangerous ground). Driven by poverty, many Filipinos brave inhuman and unsafe conditions of work aboard distant-water vessels. They are often employed illegally, making them highly vulnerable to unjust and oppressive treatment.

The Philippines Anti-illegal Recruitment Campaign Programme can be traced back to 1990. During its Conference in Bangkok, the International Collective in Support of Fishworkers responded to a request of the Taiwanese delegation for an exposure to a Philippine fishing village. This was expanded to include a three-day seminar and workshop with the theme `The Conditions of Fishworkers on Distant-Water Vessels’.

At the workshop, the stories of seven fishworkers on board Taiwanese fishing vessels gave a graphic description of the gravity of the problem. These stories were about their quest for a better life for their families. To find work on distant-water vessels they had paid high recruitment fees- ranging from Peso 14,000 to Peso 24,000. To pay the fees all of them had either borrowed money or mortgaged their house.

However, on the ships their dreams for a better life were soon pulled down. They were beaten by officials of the vessel, kicked when they did not understand instructions and `stoned’ with huge tuna fish every time they began to feel sleepy. They could get only four hours of sleep. Food was insufficient. Drinking water was rationed and very limited. On top of these, they were short-changed in their salaries, if they were lucky enough to receive their pay envelopes at all.

Moved by the testimonies of these seven Filipino fishworkers who had jumped ship in Mauritius, the Philippine delegates to the workshop, along with an Italian priest based in Taiwan, convinced the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines to call for a press conference to highlight the plight of fishworkers employed on distant water vessels. The success of the press conference moved the Philippines’ President to send a mission to Taiwan to look into the reported abuses of Filipino fishworkers.

On 17 July 1994, the National Anti-illegal Recruitment Consciousness Year Programme was launched in Manila. It was put together by the programme’s core group composed of the Apostleship of the Sea, Manila, the Asian Social Institute’s Family Centre, the Free Legal Assistance Group, the Friends of Filipino Migrant Workers, the Philippine Research Foundation for Migration and the Secretariat for Social Action. It can be said that Proclamation No. 422 declaring 1994-1995 as National Anti-illegal Recruitment Year was the result of the core group’s efforts to fight illegal recruitment.

The media gave the launch extensive coverage. These initial efforts encouraged victims of illegal recruitment to come forth to tell their stories, exposing, in the process, the links between local government officials, police and military personnel or their relatives and such illegal recruitment practices. These findings were the subject of news items in national media programmes. As a result of the campaign, at the regional level, several cases of illegal recruitment were filed with the National Bureau of Investigation in different parts of the country. In order to expedite the solution of cases, a tie-up with the Department of Justice was institutionalised.

For the government’s part, the Department of Labour, along with the Philippine Overseas Employment Agency, launched its own campaign and subsequently, a crackdown on illegal recruiters. A bill was put before Congress seeking to declare illegal recruitment as a crime against the state. Another bill, which was approved by Congress on third reading, provided for a 24-year prescriptive period for the crime of illegal recruitment which was recognised as economic sabotage.

Undoubtedly, the programme made some gains in terms of raising the consciousness of the people. It also encouraged the government to become serious in implementing the anti-illegal recruitment law.

Palabras claves

condiciones de trabajo, pesca, empleo

, Taiwán, Filipinas


Workers recruited illegally to work on board distant-water vessels often face inhuman conditions of work. Such workers are from countries like the Philippines, Burma and Thailand, which have high levels of poverty and limited avenues for income and employment within the country. Forced by poverty and in the hope for a better life, workers are even willing to pay high fees to recruiters to find employment outside the country. This they do even though they are aware that they may face exploitative conditions of work and an uncertain future. While campaigns to draw attention to the plight of such workers and to stop illegal recruitment of workers are necessary, this approach by itself is inadequate. Alongside this campaign should be a long-term plan to provide avenues for local employment and to re-direct labour policy from export orientation to local entrepreneurship. Till this happens local people will continue to hanker after overseas employment, even as illegal and immigrant workers, as long as it brings in some income. It is about time that governments and other organisations come up with a common agenda to resolve this complex issue of overseas contract workers.


Artículos y dossiers

CURA, Nenita, Treading on dangerous waters in. Samudra Report, 1995/10, 13

ICSF (International Collective in Support of Fishworkers) - 27 College Road, Chennai 600006, INDIA - Tel. (91) 44-2827 5303 - Fax (91) 44-2825 4457 - India - - icsf (@)

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