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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Spanish government divided over proposed menstruation leave bill

Talk of abortion policy reform and proposed menstrual leave has dominated Spanish discourse this week, but it’s also dividing Spain’s coalition government.

Spanish government divided over proposed menstruation leave bill

Spain’s PSOE-fronted coalition government recently outlined proposals that have dominated public discourse in the country.

But the legislation, which would allow women over the age of 16 to get abortions without the permission of their parents and introduce ‘menstruation leave’ for those suffering serious period pains, has not only divided Spanish society but the government itself.

The proposals would make Spain a leader in the Western world, and the first European Union member state to introduce menstrual leave, and changes to abortion law would overturn a 2015 law passed by the conservative People’s Party that forced women aged 16 and 17 to obtain parental consent.

The wide-ranging bill would also end VAT on menstrual products, increase the free distribution of them in schools, and allow between three and five days of leave each month for women who experience particularly painful periods.

READ MORE: What are Spain’s abortion laws for foreign residents and visitors?

Menstrual leave

Ángela Rodríguez, the Secretary of State for Equality, told Spanish newspaper El Periódico in March that “it’s important to be clear about what a painful period is – we’re not talking about slight discomfort, but about serious symptoms such as diarrhoea, fever and bad headaches.”

“When there’s a problem that can’t be solved medically, we think it’s very sensible to have temporary sick leave,” she added.

Cabinet politics

The proposals are slated for approval in cabinet next week, and judging by reports in the Spanish media this week, it is far from reaching a consensus. It is believed the intra-cabinet tensions stem not from the changes to abortion and contraception accessibility, but rather the proposed menstrual leave.

The junior coalition partner in government, Podemos, largely supports the bill, but it is believed some in the PSOE ranks are more sceptical about the symbolism and employment effects of the proposed period pain policy.

Vice President and Minister of Economic Affairs, Nadia Calviño, said this week: “Let me repeat it very clearly: this government believes and is absolutely committed to gender equality and we will never adopt measures that may result in a stigmatisation of women.”

Yet Second Vice President and Minister of Labour, Yolanda Díaz, who is viewed as further to the left than President Pedro Sánchez and other PSOE cabinet ministers, is reportedly “absolutely in favour” of the measure to reform Spain’s “deeply masculinised” labour market.

Sources in the Spanish media have this week also reported that some PSOE cabinet ministers feel the proposed paid leave not only plays up to stereotypes of women, or stigmatises them, like Calviño says, but also places them at a disadvantage in the world of work.

Minister of Inclusion, Social Security and Migration, José Luis Escrivá, stated that while the government should seek to improve women’s employment protections, it should also seek to boost their participation in the labour market under “better conditions.”

In that vein, some feel menstrual leave could be used a form of of employment discrimination similarly to how pregnancy has been historically, and the policy would, in that sense, actually be more regressive than progressive in enshrining women’s workplace rights. 

READ MORE: Spain eyes free contraception for under-25’s

Trade unions

Trade unions are also sceptical of the menstrual leave legislation. Cristina Antoñanzas, deputy secretary of UGT, one of Spain’s largest trade unions, has echoed those in the cabinet who feel the proposals could “stigmatise women.” She added that “it does women a disservice.”

Public opinion

A survey run by INTIMINA found that 67 percent of Spanish women are in favour of regulating menstrual leave, but also that 75 percent fear it is “a double-edged sword” that could generate labor discrimination.

The survey also found that 88 percent of women who suffer from disabling and frequent period pain have gone to work despite it. Seventy-one percent admitted that they have normalised working with pain.

Cabinet showdown

The proposed menstrual leave policy will be debated in cabinet next week when the Council of Ministers debates and approves the broader abortion and contraception reforms. According to sources in the Spanish media, and many cabinet ministers themselves, it seems a consensus on menstruation leave is a long way off.