Wage-related abuses in the fishing industry exacerbated by the response to the pandemic
- The COVID-19 pandemic has left migratory fishermen in Asia, already a highly vulnerable segment of the labor force, with lower incomes and higher risks of labor abuse, a new report says.
- The report, commissioned by the International Labor Organization and authored by Cornell University researchers, looked at the experiences of workers in the fisheries and seafood processing industries of Japan, South Korea, Thailand and Taiwan from March 2020 to March 2021.
- Common problems they uncovered were employers paying wages below the legal minimum wage, making illegal wage deductions, surpassing 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 over wage negotiations, but this was not the case, the researchers noted.
Lower incomes and job losses were among the most pressing issues facing fisheries and fish processing workers in Asia and the Pacific during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to an April 2022 letter from the International Labor Organization (ILO).
In some countries, employment and hours worked fell by 10-15% in the first few months of the pandemic, leaving many already vulnerable workers and their families without financial support.
The briefing paper, written by Cornell University researchers for the ILO Ship to Shore Rights South-East Asia project, examined how the pandemic was affecting workers in the fish and seafood processing industries of Japan, South Korea, Thailand and Taiwan, who are an estimated 125,000 migrant workers from Cambodia, Indonesia, Myanmar, the Philippines and Vietnam. The policy brief analyzed workers’ experiences in the period March 2020-March 2021 based on recent literature, trade and employment data and interviews, although the authors acknowledged that Thailand, South Korea and Taiwan were over-covered due to greater availability of information.
Although some areas of the fishing and seafood processing industry saw growth during the pandemic, such as seafood for pet food, the researchers found that this growth did not translate into higher wages for workers.
The spread of wage-related abuses has been exacerbated by the pandemic — but not caused by it. Reports by the Environmental Justice Foundation on the deep-sea fishing fleets of China, Taiwan and South Korea found that more than 90% of workers in all three fleets have experienced or witnessed wage cuts.
“The industry, both fishing and seafood processing, has pre-existing weaknesses that have not necessarily fared well in the stress test of the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Mi Zhou, chief technical adviser for Ship to Shore Rights South-East Asia project in a webinar accompanying the briefing.
Longer hours but no pay rise during early pandemic
Although COVID-19 caused difficulties for workers in various sectors, border closures and reduced demand for seafood caused wage problems for many migrant workers in the fisheries and seafood processing industry in the early months of the pandemic as they returned home in a hurry or at sea stuck.
Common problems included employers paying wages below the legal minimum wage, making illegal wage deductions, surpassing wage payments and failing to pay wages upon termination of employment, the brief said.
In Thailand, for example, according to an estimate by the International Organization for Migration, almost 200,000 migrant workers from various industries left the country during a two-week period from the end of March 2020. The remaining workers had to fill the labor shortage.
“Those who were left in the fishing industry had to work long hours with all the physical hardships,” said Ye Thwe, a Myanmar migratory fisherman working in Thailand and President-elect of the Fisher Rights Network, during the ILO webinar.
He added that the migratory fishermen were “basically abused” under these working conditions. In Ye Thwe’s experience, migrant fishermen typically did not receive benefits like their non-migrant counterparts when their employment ended.
According to the ILO letter, migrant workers remaining in Thailand earned less than a third of the average monthly wage in 2019.
Rossen Karavatchev, fisheries coordinator for the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF), said he had received a number of wage-related complaints from fishermen in Asia or their families since the pandemic began. Like the ILO briefing, he sees wage-related issues as the end result of the reduced demand for seafood in the early months of the pandemic.
If a fishing company faces financial difficulties, they “might try to cut corners, starting with the fishermen because they’re the most vulnerable,” Karavatchev said.
In addition, the ILO briefing noted that, in some cases, migrant fishermen did not receive the wage increases offered to their non-immigrant counterparts.
Jason Judd, a Cornell University professor and one of the report’s authors, noted in the ILO webinar that labor shortages caused by border closures may have given workers more leverage over wage negotiations as the labor market tightened. In reality, however, there was “very little evidence of this,” Judd said.
In South Korea, for example, labor shortages caused by border closures prompted shipowners to recruit South Korean nationals as fishermen and offer them higher compensation and bonuses. However, migrant workers already employed in the industry have reportedly not been offered increases in benefits and wages, according to the ILO mandate. Migrants make up 73.8% of the fishermen in South Korea’s labor force in distant waters and 42% of the labor force in larger fishing vessels in coastal waters.
Assistance hampered by isolation at sea, inadequate grievance mechanisms
Although they are already vulnerable because of their migrant status, factors such as isolation at sea, frequent exclusion from minimum wage and overtime pay rules, low union density and the lack of a cross-border link mechanism to recover lost wages amplify migrant fishermen’s wage abuses, the ILO told Mongabay.
“Now that these weaknesses have become clear, it is an opportunity for us to move further and build systems that address these weaknesses,” the ILO’s Zhou said in the webinar.
The letter called on authorities to strengthen the legal framework for wage protection and to implement more robust prevention and enforcement measures. Such action could include issuing notices or initiating 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 employer retaliation”.
In some cases, however, authorities have faced challenges despite their efforts to help migratory fishermen.
Following the outbreak of COVID-19, the Philippines refocused an existing program that supports workers displaced by natural disasters to help those affected by the pandemic. But in the overseas fisheries sector, the immediate problem for the authorities was not to provide aid; The webinar was primarily about reaching out to fishermen, according to Francis Ron de Guzman, director of the Anti-Illegal Recruitment Branch of the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration, who spoke at the webinar.
“This pandemic has taught us that we need to deploy different forms of response quickly,” de Guzman said. “We need to strengthen programs like return assistance and … integration assistance.”
Other experts also highlighted difficulties related to isolating fishermen at sea when it comes to tackling wage violations.
“If they’re denied shore leave or if they can’t communicate or if they’re further at sea, they can’t file a complaint,” Karavatchev said.
“Improving the accessibility and effectiveness of grievance mechanisms is a key measure to ensure workers have access to justice in cases of wage theft,” the ILO told Mongabay.
Banner image: A migratory 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.