by Melissa Marschke and Peter Vandergeest
18th February 2022

COVID-19 has intensified working conditions on industrial fishing boats, with migrant workers being particularly impacted. Crew changes, repatriation, shore access and health care have emerged as major issues. 

Industrial fisheries provide much of the seafood that enters global seafood supply chains, such as the ubiquitous canned or pouched tuna that flew off supermarket shelves during the initial months of the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet, what is seldom realised is how unacceptably dangerous and poorly regulated industrial fisheries are. Accidents at sea result from storms, vessels colliding, slipping on decks, cuts and bites from handling aquatic life, hypothermia or drowning, and sheer physical fatigue. Fish work involves long hours, at times between 18 and 20 hours a day, with fishing vessels often being at sea for months at a time cutting workers off from shore-based health and recreation, as well as contact with families.

Labour abuse in industrial fisheries is a global issue, and has been highlighted by media and NGO reports over the past decade. A number of features particularly complicate efforts to regulate and improve conditions in the fish industry: these include how work takes place on the ocean where it is difficult to monitor; how workers tend to be migrants performing work that few others opt to do at prevailing wage rates often of less than $500/month; and how fishing is often exempted from the key components of labour laws and international labour conventions.

Workers on industrial fishing vessels have generated relatively little attention during the pandemic compared to seafarers on cruise ships or cargo vessels. At the onset of the pandemic, workers on cruise ships were often left stranded on vessels, unable to return home due to the imposition of travel restrictions – establishing a pattern for migrant workers at sea. As the pandemic continued, cargo shipping became an important concern. This was seen when the 220,000 tonne container ship, the Ever Given, disrupted global trade when it became wedged across the Suez canal for nearly a week in March 2021. Far more attention was paid to how the Ever Given’s problems were emblematic of how the shipping industry was struggling to manage supply chains than the difficulties this caused for the vessel’s 26-member Indian crew.

COVID-19 has added another layer of vulnerabilities to the often invisible migrant fish worker population. In the first months of the pandemic, workers faced employment disruptions, could not return home as the travel industry shut down, and were often stuck on boats when in port. These challenges intensified as the pandemic continued, particularly ensuring timely crew change and shore access. Fish workers have fared worse than shipping or cruise workers, in part because their work is more difficult, but also because they often do not have the same legal protections and rights due to the exclusion of seafarers in fishing from the Maritime Labour Convention.

To be sure, crew change on fishing vessels is complex: fishing vessels are often at sea for long periods with few visits to port, use seaports that are difficult to access (for crew arriving and leaving), and often employ workers from multiple countries. Countries whose COVID-19 strategies have been oriented to keeping the virus out completely have been particularly strict, which includes most South Pacific island countries, and China. Among the other fishing ports that we investigated, the pattern was either not to permit crew changes at all for foreign crew, or to allow changes but with often unwieldy testing and quarantine requirements. Ports implement international regulations and national policies in an assorted manner, which profoundly impacts fish workers.

In Cape Town, South Africa, a major hub for vessel offloading and repair, crew change is permitted although significant challenges remain. The Stella Maris Cape Town newsletter gives examples of workers who were forced to stay either on vessels or in quarantine hotels due to the cancellation of flights throughout 2021. There were numerous cases of workers paying their own expenses in quarantine hotels. Port chaplains, the local Filipino community and the Taiwanese Liaison Office have intervened to assist these workers. COVID-19 testing of arriving crew has led to further challenges in Cape Town. According to our interviews, one vessel had four separate groups of Filipino workers turned back, in each case because one or more of the men tested positive.

As the pandemic has continued to ebb and flow globally, workers have been confined to their fishing vessels while in port, or had their access to many shore services highly restricted. These services are especially important for workers’ wellbeing, including access to WiFi to contact families or to seafarer support organisations. Shore access further enables access to health facilities and medical care, meetings with workers from other vessels and the purchase of items that help to make life on fishing vessels bearable. In a few ports, policies have been restrictive to the point of denying basic human rights: this includes not allowing workers with serious medical conditions to leave vessels for medical care.

Many of the challenges facing fish workers arguably violates basic international human rights principles, as codified in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other conventions intended to protect vulnerable groups, including the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families (1990), and the non-binding Global Compact for Migration (2018). A human rights approach could provide an approach to negotiating fishing seafarer rights with relevant states, especially those policies, legal instruments, conventions and protocols concerning state obligations to migrant workers and non-status people within their national territories.

Most important, however, is that seafarers in fishing should be equal with seafarers in other sectors, and brought under the purview of the Maritime Labour Convention, and relevant national labour laws. Being recognised as equal to other seafarers would enable fish workers to be included in ongoing seafarer advocacy work for vaccine access, a minimum monthly wage and the establishment of a maximum time out at sea. We hope that the growing attention paid to the often extreme marginalisation of workers in industrial fishing will provoke future policies that address the current inequalities and injustices.

Melissa Marschke is Professor at the School of International Development and Global Studies at the University of Ottawa and an Associate Editor for the new non-profit, Open Access Global Social Challenges Journal. Find out more below.

Peter Vandergeest is Professor Emeritus & Senior Scholar at the Faculty of Environmental and Urban Change, York University.


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Image credit: M. MacDonnell, 23 February 2021, Cianjhen Port, Kaohsiung