They left their homes with a single purpose – to work hard on the Marine Vessel (MV) Comforter II and provide a comfortable life for their families.
Unfortunately, it became a journey of no return that brought home a discomforting life and a lingering feeling of despair.
A year on, the families of the fishermen lost at sea are still engulfed in a state of emotional uncertainty.
They are grasping onto a tightrope of hope, trying to navigate through the dark clouds of despair that loom overhead, with each passing day bringing them closer to the edge of hopelessness.
Until six more years, they cannot mourn to find the level of emotional closure that funerals bring to bereaved families because legally, their relatives are not dead, although they could not be found anywhere.
The official search ended months ago, but these 10 families are still searching for this emotional closure, which remains as elusive as the missing men.
On May 7, 2022, while attempting to haul a net with a bumper catch in heavy seas, the MV Comforter II, a fishing vessel carrying 26 crew members, capsized 57 nautical miles from Takoradi and 43 nautical miles off the coast of Elmina
The incident occurred amidst heavy downpour, thunderstorms, high current.
According to the Ghana Maritime Authority (GMA) the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (MRCC) received distress calls from the crew of MV Mengx reporting the incident.
The rescue operation resulted in the retrieval of the Chinese captain’s body and the rescue of 14 out of the total 26 crew members.
Unfortunately, 12 crew members are still missing. They include two Chinese citizens and 10 Ghanaian fishermen.
After some days of search, the Western Naval Command ended the mission due to high tide and visibility issues, hoping that the missing persons may be washed ashore.
The Evidence Act of 1975 (N.R.C.D. 323) allows for a person to be declared legally dead if they have gone missing and have not been heard from for a period of seven years, despite diligent efforts to locate them.
Section 33 of the Act, titled “Death after seven years absence,” states that a person who has not been heard of for seven years, regardless of whether attempts to find them were made during that period, is presumed to be dead.
“It was a harrowing experience. I will never forget.
Our lives flashed right before our eyes. I thought I could not make it. Even now I get flashes of the event from time to time”, a survivor who pleaded anonymity, told the Ghanaian Times.
He confirmed that the bumper harvest and recalled that the attempt to haul the excessive fish, in response to instructions from the senior crew members, resulted in the capsizing of the vessel.
“For almost more than 20 hours, we were atop a floating oil drum until they rescued us,” he said.
The survivor, while acknowledging the compensation he received, expressed the view that it was inadequate in alleviating the physical and psychological toll the incident had taken on his life.
Despite attempts to reach out to other survivors and families of the missing persons, the Ghanaian Times was met with fruitless responses as they were unwilling to speak on the matter.
However, a reliable source close to the families and survivors revealed to the Ghanaian Times that their reluctance to engage with the media was rooted in their fear of victimisation.
The source elaborated that many of the survivors and families worked in the same industry, and were concerned that speaking out would result in being ostracised and potentially losing future employment opportunities.
It said the families of those still missing were distraught and hoping against hope that their breadwinners would miraculously return home although a part of them feel they were lost forever.
Response from GMA
In a written response to queries from the Ghanaian Times on the matter, the GMA said the service and working conditions of the fishermen were guided by Part 4 of the Ghana Shipping Act.
It said the fishers had contracts with the fishing vessel company which has since been reviewed following the GMA’s establishment of a tripartite committee to oversee the welfare of fishers working on Ghanaian registered vessels.
On the issue of compensation, the Authority said the survivors had been compensated through the company (Boatacom Company) and its insurers, Hollard Insurance Company Ltd.
“How much compensation given was dependent on the degree of injuries determined by the doctor, so the compensation varies from one person to another,” it said.
The GMA said the insurance company was waiting for the stipulated time of seven years as required by the law for the missing persons to be officially declared dead before compensation would be paid to families.
Regarding the family of the reported missing fishers, it said they had been given an amount of 16,000 cedis each, comprising GHc10, 000 for children of the missing fisher and GH¢ 6,000 for the family of the missing fishers.
As of the time of filing this report, the leadership of the National Union of Seamen, Ports and Allied Workers (NUSPAW) was yet to avail itself for an interview on the matter.
However, a source familiar with the arrangement told the Ghanaian Times that the Union could have negotiated a better compensation for the fishermen but they signed documents for the money on the blindside of the Union .
In the view of the source, the GMA should have also sanctioned the owners and managers of the vessel for the incident because it was as a result of greed and negligence for the safety of the crew.
Working conditions of fishers
Ghana’s fishing industry is a significant contributor to the economy, generating about US$1 billion in revenue annually, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).
With 135,000 fishers employed in the marine sub-sector, the fishing industry contributes 4.5 per cent to the country’s GDP while the livelihoods of about 2.2 million people, or 10 per cent of Ghana’s population, are indirectly supported by the industry.
This highlights the importance of the fishing industry in providing income and employment opportunities, reducing poverty, especially in the coastal communities, and promoting economic growth in the country.
However, working conditions for fishermen are often difficult, with low wages, long working hours, and inadequate safety measures.
There have been reports of Ghanaian fishermen working long hours for low wages, often without adequate safety equipment, navigating rough waters and being subject to poor living conditions while at sea.
At a workshop in Accra in January on working conditions and detection of forced labour on board fishing vessels, a principal Officer of Maritime Services at the GMA, Mr Awudu Enusah, confirmed the terrible conditions on some vessels, which lead to unfortunate deaths of fishers.
“You have about 25 people using one toilet so sometimes it is so disturbing that you have people squatting to defaecate in the sea and there are dangers that the person may slip into the sea. There are times that someone will be missing and there was a report that he went to defaecate, but they did not find him,” he said.
A report by the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) delved deeper into the issues. It said at least 90 per cent of industrial trawlers in Ghana are owned by Chinese corporations, which is in violation of Ghanaian laws on vessel ownership.
The report focuses on China’s Distant Water Fishing fleet and describes the severe and inhumane working conditions experienced by crew members on these vessels.
Among the 36 interviewed, 94 per cent had received inadequate medicine or witnessed verbal abuse, 86 per cent reported inadequate living conditions, 81 per cent had witnessed physical abuse, and 75 per cent reported seeing serious injury at sea.
The findings of the report underscore the need for stronger regulation and enforcement to protect the human rights of workers in the Ghanaian fishing industry and to prevent illegal fishing practices.
Laws and conventions
Part 4 of the Ghana’s Fisheries Act (Act 625) provides guidelines for minimum wage, working hours, and safety standards in the industry. Despite regulations, the high rate of accidents and fatalities among fishermen in the country remains an issue.
The International Labour Organisation (ILO)’s Work in Fishing Convention (C188) seeks to address these issues by setting out international standards for working conditions in the fishing industry.
Ghana has ratified the convention, which requires governments to ensure that fishermen have decent working and living conditions, fair wages, safe working conditions, and access to health care.
The convention aligns with SDG 8.7, which aims to promote sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment, and decent work for all. It specifically targets the elimination of forced labor, modern slavery, human trafficking and child labor.
Improving working conditions
The Minister of Fisheries and Aquaculture Development (MoFAD) in Ghana, Mavis Hawa Koomson, in an interview, condemned abuse of fishermen and observers, and described the Comforter II incident as an unfortunate occupational hazard.
Acknowledging the challenges in the sector and the need for significant improvement in working conditions for observers in the fishing industry, she said measures were being put in place to address them.
According to her, the Ministry and its associated agencies and departments have launched a new initiative to inspect fishing vessels at ports more strictly to ensure they have the right equipment before they are allowed to fish.
“We will not compromise on the safety of fishers on industrial trawl vessels fishing in Ghanaian waters. Any vessel that would fail to comply with the safety measures would not be allowed to fish on Ghanaian waters,” she stated.
Madam Koomson said efforts were being made to ensure the safety of all fishers operating in Ghanaian waters and as part of this effort, the Ghana Maritime Authority had directed all fishing vessels to refurbish their vessels to meet safety standards, and the Ministry will not compromise on compliance.
The GMA has teamed up with other government agencies and stakeholders to take on the challenge of improving working condition of fishermen.
The GMA has established a tripartite committee to implement international labour standards in fishing, with technical assistance from the ILO 8.7 Accelerator Lab Programme to accelerate progress towards achieving Sustainable Development Goal 8.7. A recent report by the GMA shows that the committee’s efforts are making a difference, with some fishers seeing their pay increase by up to 370 per cent.
The committee has also introduced Fishing Vessel Personnel Work Agreements, medical fitness certificates, and living and working conditions inspections.
In improving the working conditions of the human resource in the sector, it is essential to enforce existing laws and regulations, provide training and education, improve access to credit and insurance, invest in infrastructure, promote collective bargaining and social dialogue, foster sustainable fishing practices, and increase public awareness.
The governments, NGOs, and other stakeholders can work together to implement these measures, which can lead to improved safety, better pay and benefits, and greater economic stability for fishermen.
BY JONATHAN DONKOR & BENEDICTA GYIMAAH FOLLEY
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