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Wage-related abuses in fishing industry exacerbated by pandemic response

A migrant fisherman in Thailand.

A migrant fisherman in Thailand. Image by ILO Asia-Pacific via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

  • The COVID-19 pandemic left migrant fishers in Asia, already a highly vulnerable section of the workforce, with less income and at higher risk of labor abuses, a new report says.
  • The brief, commissioned by the International Labour Organization and authored by Cornell University researchers, looked at workers’ experiences in the fishing and seafood-processing industries of Japan, South Korea, Thailand and Taiwan from March 2020 to March 2021.
  • Common issues they uncovered included employers paying wages below the legal minimum, making illegal wage deductions, deferring wage payments, and not paying wages upon termination of employment.
  • Labor shortages caused by border closures due to the pandemic should have given workers more leverage in wage negotiations, but this wasn’t the case, the researchers found.

Lower incomes and loss of employment were among the most urgent issues faced by fishing and seafood-processing workers in Asia and the Pacific during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to an April 2022 brief by the International Labour Organization (ILO).

In some countries, employment and hours worked fell by 10-15% in the first months of the pandemic, leaving many of the already vulnerable workers and their families without financial support.

The brief, authored by Cornell University researchers for the ILO’s Ship to Shore Rights South-East Asia project, examined how workers were impacted by the pandemic in the fishing and seafood-processing industries of Japan, South Korea, Thailand and Taiwan, which employ an estimated 125,000 migrant workers from Cambodia, Indonesia, Myanmar, the Philippines and Vietnam. The brief analyzed workers’ experiences during the period from March 2020 to March 2021 based on recent literature, trade and employment data, and interviews, although the authors acknowledged that Thailand, South Korea and Taiwan were oversampled due to a greater availability of information.

Although some sections of the fishing and seafood-processing industry experienced growth during the pandemic, such as seafood for pet food, the researchers found that such growth did not translate into increased wages for workers.

The proliferation of wage-related abuses was exacerbated by the pandemic — but not created by it. Reports by the Environmental Justice Foundation on the distant-water fishing fleets of China, Taiwan and South Korea have found that more than 90% of workers had experienced or witnessed withholding of wages in all three fleets.

“The industry, both fishing and seafood processing, has pre-existing weaknesses which did not necessarily do well under the stress test that is the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Mi Zhou, chief technical adviser for the Ship to Shore Rights South-East Asia project, in a webinar accompanying the brief.

In some countries, employment and hours worked fell by 10-15% in the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic, leaving many of the already vulnerable workers and their families without financial support. Image by ILO Asia-Pacific via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Longer hours, but no wage increase during early pandemic

Although COVID-19 posed difficulties for workers across various sectors, border closures and decreased demand for seafood during the initial months of the pandemic triggered wage-related problems for many migrant workers in the fishing and seafood-processing industry, as they returned home in a rush or were stuck at sea.

Common issues included employers paying wages below the legal minimum, making illegal wage deductions, deferring wage payments, and not paying wages upon termination of employment, according to the brief.

In Thailand, for example, nearly 200,000 migrant workers across various industries left the country during a two-week period starting in late March 2020, according to an estimate by the International Organization for Migration. Remaining workers were forced to cover for the labor shortage.

“Those who were left in the fishing industry had to work long hours with all the physical hardship,” Ye Thwe, a migrant fisher from Myanmar working in Thailand and elected president of the Fisher Rights Network, said during the ILO webinar.

He added that the migrant fishers were “basically being abused” in these working conditions. In Ye Thwe’s experience, migrant fishers usually did not receive benefits like their non-migrant counterparts if their employment was terminated.

The ILO brief says migrant workers remaining in Thailand reported earning less than a third of the average monthly income in 2019.

Rossen Karavatchev, fisheries coordinator for the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF), said he has received a number of wage-related complaints from fishers in Asia or their families since the pandemic began. Like the ILO brief, he sees wage-related problems as an end result of decreased demand for seafood during the initial months of the pandemic.

If a seafood company gets in financial trouble, Karavatchev said, they might “try to cut corners, starting from the fishers because they are the most vulnerable.”

Additionally, the ILO brief found that in some cases migrant fishers were not given the wage increases offered to their non-migrant counterparts.

Jason Judd, a professor at Cornell University and one of the report’s authors, noted in the ILO webinar that labor shortages caused by border closures might have given workers more leverage in wage negotiations as the labor market tightened. However, in reality there was “very little evidence of that,” Judd said.

In South Korea, for example, labor shortages caused by border closures prompted vessel owners to recruit South Korean nationals as fishers, offering them higher compensation and bonuses. Migrant workers already employed in the industry, however, reportedly were not offered increases in benefits and wages, according to the ILO brief. Migrants make up 73.8% of fishers in South Korea’s distant-water workforce, and 42% of the workforce in larger coastal-water fishing vessels.

Labor shortages caused by border closures due to the pandemic should have given workers more leverage in wage negotiations, but this wasn’t the case, the researchers found. Image by Brian Evans via Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0).

Assistance hampered by isolation at sea, insufficient complaint mechanisms

Although already vulnerable due to their migrant status, migrant fishers’ wage-related abuses are compounded by factors such as being isolated at sea, being often excluded from minimum wage and overtime pay regulations, low union density, and the lack of a cross-border mechanism to recuperate lost salaries, the ILO told Mongabay.

“Now that these weaknesses have been made clear, it’s an opportunity for us, moving forward, to build systems that address these weaknesses,” the ILO’s Zhou said in the webinar.

The brief called on authorities to strengthen legal frameworks for wage protection and to implement more robust prevention and enforcement measures. Such measures could include issuing notices or commencing legal proceedings, the ILO wrote in an email to Mongabay.

It noted that labor authorities should also have the “power to interview workers in a safe environment to minimize the risk of retaliatory measures from employers.”

In some cases, however, authorities faced challenges despite their efforts to help migrant fishers.

After COVID-19 hit, the Philippines refocused an existing program that supported workers displaced by natural disasters to assist those impacted by the pandemic. But in the overseas fishing sector, the immediate issue for authorities was not providing assistance; it was making contact with fishers in the first place, according to Francis Ron de Guzman, director of the Philippines Overseas Employment Administration’s Anti-Illegal Recruitment Branch, who spoke in the webinar.

“This pandemic has taught us that we need to be quick in providing various forms of response,” de Guzman said. “We need to strengthen programs such as repatriation support and … integration support.”

Other experts also highlighted difficulties related to fishers being isolated at sea in terms of addressing wage-related abuses.

“If they are denied shore leave, or if they are not able to communicate, or if they are further away at sea, they are not able to make a complaint,” Karavatchev said.

“Strengthening the accessibility and effectiveness of complaint mechanisms is a key measure for ensuring access to justice to workers in cases of wage theft,” the ILO told Mongabay.

Banner image: A migrant fisherman in Thailand. Image by ILO Asia-Pacific via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Annelise Giseburt is a freelance reporter based in Tokyo.