As the Philippines’ top seafood export, tuna plays a significant role in supporting the country’s economy and sustaining the livelihood of families in many of the country’s fishing communities. In General Santos City, the country’s “tuna” capital,” tuna fishing relies heavily on handlining, an ecofriendly but labor-intensive means of harvest in which fishers use baited hooks on a single line.  

Verité’s latest research shows that tuna handliners remain the most vulnerable among workers in the tuna industry. Even as legal advances in the greater seafood industry are made, these are not necessarily evident in the tuna handline sector. Moreover, the informal and unregulated nature of the recruitment and hiring processes in the sector increases workers’ vulnerability to abuse and exposes them to unsafe and exploitative working conditions.  

Verité identified and validated several recruitment and employment practices that violate labor regulations and are inconsistent with standards of responsible recruitment.  

Informal recruitment practices and work arrangements   

Handline fishers are typically recruited via personal referrals, including through relatives and neighbors, or by word of mouth. In many cases, a middleperson acts as a labor contractor and gathers the crewmembers and assigns them to the handline operation. This cabo hiring system, analogous to labor-only contracting, is prevalent in both tuna fishing operations and land-based tuna processing facilities. In these cases, tuna vessel owners can often deny any employer-employee relationship with handline workers. Verité’s research also found that none of these transactions are documented in writing, which increases fishers’ exposure to a variety of labor issues, among which is their ineligibility from receiving state-mandated benefits such as health insurance, remittance, contribution to government housing, or social security programs.   

Most handline operators and vessel owners interviewed did not consider their fishers as employees but as “partners” in a transactional, per-fishing venture basis, to allow the handliners to move freely from one vessel to another. However, most of the handline fishers interviewed in both 2016 and 2019 reported working for the same operator or fishing fleet owner for several years, while others shared that they have worked for the same company for over 15 and 20 years. They also said that while they are on a fishing operation, they are treated and behave as workers answerable to the vessel operator.  

Deception about the nature and location of work   

Interviews with handline crew members, including some handline operators, revealed that within the handlining sub-sector, there are practices by vessel owners that can be considered abusive and corrupt—such as deliberately not specifying the type of work involved, the length of a fishing voyage at sea, or the payment system. All handline crew members reported that they are not always informed of the precise location of fishing operations nor how long they will be at sea. They also have no control over the fishing grounds to which they are assigned. 

This practice often results in handliners unwittingly finding themselves in illegal and unregulated fishing grounds, where they are at risk of apprehension and detention by authorities. The lack of established recruitment procedures and the informal employment arrangements in handline fishing allow vessel owners to deflect their responsibility in the event of apprehension by foreign authorities. 

Lack of formal identity documents   

Most handliners interviewed did not have any kind of formal identification or travel documentation, including birth certificates. This is connected to the lack of mechanism in verifying workers’ age or identity. This absence of identity and age verification mechanisms during recruitment and employment processes puts owners of handline operations at risk of employing ineligible workers, most notably underaged workers, and violating a host of other labor violations. It also makes workers vulnerable to apprehension and detention in foreign territories. Moreover, the lack of proper documentation restrict not only workers’ freedom of movement, but their social mobility as well. Despite their skills and work experience, they are unable to seek employment in commercial vessels or in more formally organized businesses.   

Pay practices and risk of indebtedness to the employer  

Handline fishers continue to be paid through profit-sharing schemes, which often result in unreliable and unpredictable wages for workers, increasing their risk of exploitation. Income from tuna handline fishing is greatly dependent on the size of the tuna catch, and as catches continue to decline, handline fishers grow increasingly dependent on loans.     

Fishers all communities expressed difficulty surviving on a day-to-day basis. Almost all the workers interviewed were in debt, whether to local stores and suppliers, their boat operator, or local loan sharks. The practice of boat owners providing fishers with cash loans at interest rates ranging from zero to 20 percent still persists. Since boat operators and fishers are typically not paid until after the fish have been weighed, valued, and sold —a process that can take anywhere from three days to one month—they often request cash advances from boat owners while they wait, which are later deducted from their income.   

Even worse, some handliners reported incurring a negative balance once all the cash advances are deducted from their share. When this happens, handline fishers often request another advance from the operator, and in turn, have no choice but to join the next fishing venture in order to pay down their debt.   

In an already highly informal, poorly regulated sector, this debt cycle exacerbates the fishers’ inability to leave the job, despite having no written employment contract with the vessel owner for whom they work.  

Moving forward

Many of the issues presented can be prevented by responsible recruitment standards, especially critical in sectors that employ economically and politically disadvantaged groups.  Establishing recruitment and hiring systems that prohibit recruitment fees; provide complete and accurate information about workers’ rights and employment conditions; utilize transparent employment contracts; eliminate deception and coercion; ensure freedom to terminate employment; and provide access to remedy and grievance mechanisms, can prevent and address many of the issues that handline fishers continue to experience.   

The government, the private sector as well as civil society organizations and labor groups, all have a hand in ensuring that the tuna handline fishers are able to work in safe working conditions, documented and protected, receiving wages and benefits that they are due as laborers in the country.   

Read Verité’s full report on the Recruitment and Hiring Practices in the Philippine Tuna Handline Fishing Sector here.