A Spanish fisherman’s life on the high seas: harsh, risky and badly paid

"It's very tough, you make a lot of sacrifices and they don't pay you what they should," shrugs Jeronimo Martínez, a fisherman from Marin, home port of the shipwrecked Spanish trawler.

A Spanish fisherman's life on the high seas: harsh, risky and badly paid
Spanish fisherman Jeronimo Martinez, poses for pictures with his dog in the port city of Marin, northwestern Spain. (Photo by MIGUEL RIOPA / AFP)

The tragedy — Spain’s worst fishing accident in nearly 40 years which claimed 21 lives and left only three survivors when their ship foundered in stormy waters off Newfoundland — has thrown into sharp relief the risks and harsh working conditions faced by fishermen.

The death toll has sent shock waves across the northwestern region of Galicia where fishing is hugely important and which accounts for some 10 percent of all of the European Union’s fresh fish landings, regional figures show.

Often these deep-sea fishermen will spend months at sea, far from their families.

“You’re away for so long: you go out to sea when your child’s just been born and when you come back, he’s already doing his first communion,” jokes Martínez as he takes a coffee at a bar popular with fishermen in Marín.

He used to spend six-month stints at sea fishing for cod off Newfoundland but is currently not working after having a hernia operation.

“For most sailors, the head of the family is the mother, who is the one who’s at home. The fathers are all away, working,” said the 51-year-old, who is missing part of a finger due to an accident while working on a trawler.

Long hours, low pay

“This is what happens when you’re a fisherman: you get home and your child doesn’t recognise you anymore,” agrees Makhtar Diakhate, a retired trawler worker who has lived and worked in Marín since 2004.

Originally from Dakar in Senegal, his job on the high seas means he’s only been able to get home to see his wife and kids once a year.

“I felt bad because sometimes stuff happened at home and I couldn’t be there to help out,” admits Diakhate, who is 64.

In Marín, like at other Galician ports, there are other African and Latin American migrants working the fishing trawlers, most of them from Ghana and Peru.

Onboard the Villa Pitanxo which sank off Canada on Tuesday, there were 16 Spaniards, five Peruvians and three Ghanaians.

“Working at sea is a bit dangerous but you have to do it,” shrugs Ghanaian John Okutu, whose uncle Edemon Okutu is one of the missing crew members.

Migrants form an important part of the workforce in a trade that has little appeal for youngsters in Galicia.

Fran Sola, 49, who stopped working on trawlers more than 20 years ago and has since worked as a mechanic, said a crew member can earn around €1,500 ($1,700) a month.

“That’s why young people don’t do it, they prefer to be bricklayers because they earn the same and by 9:00 pm, they’re at home with their families,” he said.

Fishermen haul up the net to catch spider crabs off the coast of Galicia. Fishing is hugely important to the northwestern region, which brings in 10 percent of the European Union’s fresh fish landings, regional figures show. (Photo by MIGUEL RIOPA / AFP)

Hard work and isolation

At sea “you have to work every day, 60 hours a week, there is no respect for the workers, you have to do what the boss says,” said Sola, who almost lost a finger in one of the trailers heavy doors.

Although fishermen earned a good salary in the past, that is no longer the case.

“Twenty years ago, you would go out to sea and five years later you could buy a house, a car,” he said.

Onboard the trawlers, living conditions are cramped with four to eight crew members sharing a room on some boats.

On most boats there is no television reception and Internet and mobile network coverage is patchy, meaning a stint on the high seas can be very lonely.

But although conditions on board are hard, those who have worked on these deep-sea fishing boats say shipwrecks are rare, thanks to the modernisation of trawler fleets.

“You are never completely safe because the sea is the sea,” said Martínez.

He would rather not go back on the boats after recovering from his hernia operation.

“I have no desire to return, although I will if I don’t have a choice. But I’d rather not go back out to sea because it is very hard,” said this father of two young children, aged four and three.

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How to lodge a formal complaint in Spain: Hoja de reclamación

If you’ve experienced bad service in Spain that didn’t meet expectations or bought a product that didn’t do what it promised to, then you may want to fill out an official complaint form in a bid to get your money back. Here’s how to go about it.

How to lodge a formal complaint in Spain: Hoja de reclamación

At some point or another everyone has probably experienced poor service and demanded to be reimbursed, whether it was because a bus had a broken air-con in 40C heat and was two hours delayed or you bought a product from a store that broke a month later. 

The first step is obviously to try and contact the company and sort out the issue amicably, but if this method isn’t producing any fruitful results, you may want to fill out an hoja de reclamación. 

This essentially translates as a ‘claim sheet’ and is an official complaint form you can lodge against a company to try and get reimbursed for your purchase.

READ ALSO: What to be aware of before opening a shared bank account in Spain

According to the Organisation of Consumers and Users (OCU) there are three reasons that a complaint form of this kind can help. It can:

  • Let the Consumer Administration know about your case, so they can investigate it.
  • Try and get the company to reach an agreement with you.
  • Sanction the company if it has breached any of its obligations.

What are the advantages of filling out an official complaint form?

Sometimes, just the threat of filling out an official complaint form is enough for the company to give in or propose an acceptable agreement.

Companies obviously don’t want to have lots of negative reviews and have complaints filed against them, so by filling one out, you are actually helping them improve their customer service. 

If the company still won’t do anything after you’ve submitted the form and later you go to settle the matter in court, having filled out the form will be proof that you tried to find a solution first.

Can you use this type of form for all companies?

The OCU explains that there are companies in some sectors that you shouldn’t fill out an hoja de reclamación for in the first place. Instead, you must contact the customer service department of the company itself.

This is true for banks, insurance providers, investment companies, telecommunications services, transportation companies, airlines and energy companies.

“If they do not respond in a month or respond but do not provide a satisfactory solution, then you should go down the specific dispute route that their company proposes,” the OCU states.

How do I fill out this type of complaint form?

If you are dealing with a business or service provider that does not have a specific claim channel such as a bar, store, supermarket or hotel, you can ask directly for the claim form.

The form has three copies – one for you, another for the administration and another that you must deliver to the establishment itself. 

Make sure to make photocopies of any supporting documents that serve as evidence such as contracts, tickets, invoices, guarantees, advertisements or photos.

Once completed, you must give your forms and evidence to the Municipal Consumer Information Office (OMIC) or by mail or by electronic means to the General Directorate of Consumption of your region.

Each region will have its own forms you need to complete. If you don’t ask for them from the business itself, you can find them online. The one for Catalonia can be found here, for Valencia here, for Andalusia here, and for Madrid here. For other regions, you can simply type into an internet search engine: hojas de reclamaciones + your region.

Once completed, your case will be studied and you may be presented with a resolution. If it is not successful but the administration finds that the company has breached any consumer regulations, it will open a case starting a disciplinary procedure that usually ends in a fine.

Remember that, it is not guaranteed that you will get compensation, even if the company ends up being fined.