Fishermen’s Union ‘Pleased’ to See End of Rights Auctions

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FF Chairman Jan Højgaard (Maria Olsen Photo)

The Faroe Fishermen’s Union (FF) says it’s ‘fairly satisfied’ with the Faroe Islands’ revised fisheries reform; but the introduction of a compulsory health insurance for fishermen is ‘long overdue’ according to chairman Jan Højgaard.

Unlike for other workers and officers in the Faroe Islands, there is no government-mandated health insurance for fishermen, according to Jan Højgaard, chairman of the Faroe Fishermen’s Union (FF—Føroya Fiskimannafelag), who argues that the “untenable situation” should be addressed by the Faroese government.

Mr. Højgaard nonetheless expressed approval of the current government’s revisions to the fisheries reform introduced by the previous administration.

“We’re fairly satisfied with much of the new fisheries legislation,” he said. “First off, we’re pleased that the auctioning of fishing rights has been scrapped. This was a major issue for our members, and it had become obvious to many of us that the rights auctions did not serve the industry well, nor the community, and many of our members’ wages were beginning to shrink as a result of those auctions. We need a decent degree of stability—not the kind of extreme uncertainty and volatility that comes with auctioning off fishing rights in a tiny society that is so dependent of revenues from the fish industry. We were told the rights auctions would eliminate or reduce unwanted financial speculation; but it did the opposite, so we’re glad to see the back of it.”

Another key victory for the FF is seen in the reversal of the ‘rights holder’ concept introduced in the previous government’s fisheries reform, which effectively blocked the unions from validating contract compliance on wages from fishing trips commissioned by rights holders with no vessels of their own.

“Under the collective labor contracts, the unions have, for many decades, retained access to sales data for each fishing trip as relevant to the calculation of members’ wages,” Mr. Højgaard said.

“But then the authorities, against our explicit advice, started to allocate fishing rights, so-called development quotas, to entities that were neither vessel owners nor operators. So all of a sudden we had this new class of actors that were not bound by the labor market contracts. These new rights holders would simply hire existing fishing vessels including their crews to fish their development quotas. But as non-fishing entities are not party to the labor market contracts covering the fishing industry, the unions had no way of getting access to relevant data to verify whether or not the salaries they were paying were contract compliant. We warned strongly, several times, against this issue but they still went ahead with it. And it opened the door wide to destabilizing speculation and potential corruption—it threatened to undermine decades of hard earned rights. If that arrangement had continued, I’m afraid it could have caused more and more damage to the very foundation of all our progress so painstakingly negotiated over all these years. Luckily the new government rolled back that arrangement to make sure fishing rights are invariably attached to actual vessels whose owners are parties to the labor market contracts in the Faroe Islands.”

Extreme exposure

With those items sorted out to the satisfaction of FF, another challenge remains: fishermen, unlike most other categories of workers and officers in the Faroe Islands, have no legally mandated health insurance.

“Seafarers other than fishermen enjoy such insurance by international law,” Mr. Højgaard noted. “If, say, publicly employed managers or office clerks become unable to work due of illness or injury sustained at work, they’re entitled to receive their salary for six months. But not fishermen, although it happens time and again that FF members are unable to work for months on end because of illness or some accident at sea. So this is an untenable situation.”

Fishing vessels berthed in Tórshavn

As per FF, the premiums for fishermen’s health insurance are up to 21 times the rate of those, for example, of office workers—fishermen’s working environment is considered extremely dangerous, even life-threatening at times.

According to Mr. Højgaard, the government should get involved in working out a solution that could be enforced by way of law and by way of funding.

“It’s difficult to negotiate a contract in this regard with vessel owners and fishermen sharing the cost of excessive insurance premiums. Considering the extraordinary economic activity generated by our fishermen and the personal sacrifice they make by regularly getting exposed to a high-risk working environment, it’s only reasonable to expect the government to look into this. Indeed, it’s long overdue they make appropriate health insurance for fishermen compulsory under Faroese law, and they should also consider ways to help foot the bill.”