An upcoming world congress by the Catholic organization Apostleship of the Sea will focus on the plight of fishermen, who frequently face exploitation in carrying out their work, according to one Vatican official. He lamented that no ‘Fair Trade’ certification exists for their product.
“We have to be educated,” Fr. Bruno Ciceri told CNA Sept. 20. “Frozen food here is cheap, but it’s because people are exploited, because there is forced labor, because there are trafficked people that work aboard these fishing vessels.”
Referring to the label given to products from developing countries that adhere to ethical standards of trading, he said, “We talk a lot about ‘Fair Trade.’ I don't know the day when we will have ‘fair trade’ also in fishing. That will make a difference.”
Fr. Ciceri is a member of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development. He is also the Vatican delegate for the Apostleship of the Sea, which provides pastoral care for seafarers and their families. He also worked for the Apostleship of the Sea in Taiwan for 13 years. Their next World Congress, which is held every five years, will take place in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, Oct. 1-7. Notable attendees will include Cardinal Peter Turkson, prefect of the Dicastery for the Promotion of Integral Human Development, Cardinal Charles Bo of Yangon, and Archbishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo, chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences.
Taiwan was chosen for the 25th congress largely because the majority of the world's fishing fleets are concentrated in the island nation; about 36 percent of tuna fishing fleets in the world are Taiwanese. When it comes to the fishing industry Taiwan faces several grave challenges, Fr. Ciceri said. For one, because Taiwan is not a member of the United Nations it is not obliged to follow UN conventions on the fishing trade.
In general though, the challenges are the same affecting the whole of the industry, he pointed out, including poor working conditions and wage and labor exploitation, such as what happens between fishermen and brokers.
For example, Fr. Ciceri said one situation that is common is when a broker will contract fishermen with a promise of a certain salary. Of this, maybe only 20 percent is given directly to the fisherman and 80 percent will be held by the broker, only to be given over after the fisherman has completed a three-year contract. If he leaves before this, he loses everything. So the fishing industry needs to “clean up their act,” he said, but so does the buyer — the big companies that buy the fish to import.
One thing the Apostleship of the Sea tries to do, he said, is ensure that big companies are checking their supply lines and guaranteeing that they are not profiting from forced labor or other violations. “Often these companies just make sure that there are all of the hygienic things… but they don't consider the people,” Fr. Ciceri said. “While for us as the Church, people are important. Fish are important, but people are more important.”
Sometimes you will read on cans of tuna that it has been caught without “hurting any turtles or without killing any dolphins,” he said. “Thanks very much, but what about the fishermen?” “But that is not considered. I think there should be a sort of balance on these things. It's true that we have to worry about the fish and other things, but we have to worry also about the people.”
For the average person who wants to do something, he continued, even the awareness of these practices, and why the products may be so cheap, is a good first step. “It's true that we would always like to save money,” but maybe sometimes we could consider buying the more expensive product that we know pays people justly.
Cardinal Turkson sent a message July 9 for “Sea Sunday,” reflecting on these issues, saying that at the congress in October “we will strengthen our network with the objective to increase cooperation between the Apostleship of the Sea of the different nations; we will share resources and best practices to develop specific skills, particularly in the fishing sector.” “Let us ask Mary, Star of the Sea, to sustain our service and dedication to seafarers, fishermen and their families and to protect all the people of the sea until they reach the ‘safe port’ of heaven.”