New research on impacts of COVID-19 on migrant workers in seafood supply chain

Fishing vessel deck with fishing nets
A fishing vessel deck with fishing nets

Research on the impacts of COVID-19 on migrant workers in the seafood supply chain is the focus of a new article published in Maritime Studies last month.

Peter Vandergeest and Philip F. Kelly (Faculty of Environmental & Urban Change), Peter Duker and Mallory MacDonnell (Geography), and their co-researchers in the University of Ottawa and the United States are members of Work at Sea, a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC)-funded research project exploring working conditions among migrant workers on the industrial fishing vessels industry. The project focuses on workers on fishing vessels operated out of Thailand and Taiwan, two major sources of seafood consumed in Canada. The project is supported by the York Centre for Asian Research (YCAR).


Fishing vessel deck with fishing nets
Work at sea on industrial fishing vessels is among the most dangerous and difficult of all occupations

Work at sea on industrial fishing vessels is among the most dangerous and difficult of all occupations. Workers are increasingly recruited internationally from low-wage countries, especially Southeast Asia. Workers on large industrial vessels that travel around the world to different fishing grounds in search of species like tuna and squid are especially vulnerable to unacceptable working conditions. These conditions include long working days, that sometimes extend to 20 or 22 hours a day, frequent physical and mental abuse by work supervisors, exploitative wages and with many deductions imposed by worker recruitment agencies, and limited access to health care. The latter is crucial for this dangerous and unhealthy occupation, and even moreso during the pandemic.

As Vandergeest notes, these working conditions are tolerated by governments because fishing is seen as an exception to work on land in terms of the need to work long hours, while jurisdiction over labour relations for mobile workplaces in international waters is ambiguous as well as difficult to access for inspections. This also makes research on working conditions in fishing very difficult; the York-based research team is one of just a few such sustained research efforts anywhere in the world.

The project also draws on SSHRC-funded research conducted for the Ecologies of Labour project, directed by Melissa Marschke (University of Ottawa), who is a Work at Sea project co-investigator.

Seafood has been classified as an essential industry during the COVID-19 pandemic. What has changed is the nature of demand for seafood, as ‘shelf-stable’ seafood products like canned tuna have been in great demand, while demand for fresh seafood typically consumed outside of homes initially collapsed, but has since partially recovered. Overall, the research team has observed that many seafood corporations have done very well during the pandemic – but their workers may not be seeing much of the benefit.

The COVID-19 pandemic caused the team to revamp the research, to focus on understanding how the pandemic is affecting migrant workers in the fishing and broader seafood sectors. Workers in seafood processing, transportation and other ancillary activities are typically also migrant workers, who often experience obstacles in access to health care and social security, and other vulnerabilities related to their precarious status in the countries where they work. This leaves these workers more vulnerable to the spread of COVID-19, to travel restrictions, and to other disruptions due to both the spread of COVID-19 and to pandemic management policies.

For example, while Thailand has been among the jurisdictions that had almost completely stopped community spread of COVID-19, a major outbreak of hundreds of cases that began in mid-December originated in a major shrimp market in the coastal province of Samut Sakorn, near Bangkok. Almost half a million migrant workers, mostly from Myanmar, work in the seafood sector in this province, processing much of the tuna consumed in Canada, as well as other seafood bound for export into global supply chains. The outbreak includes hundreds of cases found among workers in seafood processing facilities.

Project team members were recently cited in an Australian Broadcasting Network story (available here), noting how migrant seafood workers often live in crowded housing, do not necessarily speak Thai, and may not be able to easily access health services including COVID-19 testing.

Thailand’s laws penalizing undocumented workers and their employers could also deter workers from coming forward when ill. While Thailand’s outbreak lays bare how the marginalization of migrant workers can have impacts for public health, they said this is not unique to Thailand. There have also been significant outbreaks among migrant workers in Malaysia’s rubber glove factories and in housing for construction workers in Singapore.

The York-based research drew the attention of the media. This study outlines how both Thailand and Taiwan have been praised for how well they have managed the pandemic in terms of economic relief, health communication, and use of travel restrictions. Both have had relatively few cases of COVID-19, although the article was written before the current outbreak in Thailand. The team conducted a detailed review of the news reports, social media, and NGO reports and press releases published in the first eight months of 2020, and built on their previous research as well as ongoing communication with organizations who work with fish workers.

The research revealed important problems for these often invisible workers, even when countries have managed the pandemic successfully. Working and living conditions have increased these workers’ vulnerability to the virus and to pandemic management policies, while racism toward migrant workers have heightened suspicion of ‘foreign’ workers as a potential source of infection. They also found that travel restrictions have heightened vulnerability to exploitation, physical and mental abuse among migrant workers, as they face further restrictions in their ability to leave abusive working conditions – for example, they may be unable to return home after completion of a contract, and thus remain stuck on fishing vessels or the countries where they work. This situation is especially difficult for workers on the very large industrial vessels that travel around the world fishing for tuna and squid. They are often unable to enter ports, so that workers can no longer contact their families, leaving them totally isolated. Finally, workers’ precarious legal status and isolation at sea and in ports, combined with language barriers, undermine access to health care and emergency social security.

Fieldwork was not an option during the pandemic, so the team has been relying on information provided in the media and social media, non-governmental organizations and other sources. They were also able to draw on previous research that involved discussions with workers while they were in ports in Thailand and Taiwan. Distance interviewing, however, is very difficult because of how workers spend most of their time on vessels and have limited access to internet communications. Thus, many questions remain unanswered, including how COVID-19 has impacted everyday working conditions, how workers access information about COVID-19, whether they can access health care and social security, and how the pandemic caused vessel owners to adjust their fishing and labour recruitment strategies. The research team is currently working on strategies to address these questions.

Despite the difficulties caused by the pandemic, the research team also found that the pandemic can provide new opportunities for what is being labelled ‘building back better.’

“A key feature of this research is to understand workers not just as victims of exploitation, forced labour, or what some media call slavery, but also as agents who make choices and act to improve their working conditions,” said Vandergeest.

The pandemic has provided new opportunities for workers due to their increased visibility and worker shortages in what has been classified as an essential industry. Recent evidence indicates that some workers have been able to leverage worker shortages to negotiate better wages and working conditions.

The next steps in the project will be communicating with returned workers in source countries to understand the conditions that lead these young men to look for work in the international fishing industry.