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‘Out of sight, out of mind’ attitude hampers COVID recovery for fishing industry workers

“The COVID-19 pandemic hit the fishing and seafood processing industries in Southeast Asia hard and migrant workers the hardest”

Exclusion from pandemic relief measures and social protection schemes hit hard migrant fisheries workers in Southeast Asia, says a new report by the International Labor Organization (ILO).

The report notes that an “out of sight, out of mind” attitude remains toward migrant workers in the region’s fishing and seafood processing industries despite pre-pandemic attention on the industry’s labor practices and promises of reform.

“Rough Seas: The impact of COVID-19 on fishing workers in South-East Asia,” which was done by the ILO and Cornell University, will be released on April 27.

It reveals how the impact of COVID-19 on migrant fishers and seafood processors has been exacerbated through their exclusion from government relief programs, social security protection and unemployment benefits during the crisis.

“The COVID-19 pandemic hit the fishing and seafood processing industries in Southeast Asia hard and migrant workers the hardest,” said Chihoko Asada-Miyakawa, ILO Assistant Director-General and Regional Director for Asia and the Pacific, in a press release on April 20.

She said continued efforts to promote international labour standards and inclusive government policies “are needed to address underlying protection gaps for workers.”

The report highlights how workers are made “out of sight” through policies that severely limit their freedom of movement or where their places of work – fishing vessels – are difficult to monitor.

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ILO notes a “general dearth” of reliable data about the industry’s workforce and the terms and conditions under which they work.

The report calls for increased transparency in corporate practices as well as improved collection and disclosure of data on workers, particularly those in fishing.

“This will be crucial to ensuring that these workers do not fall into a policy blind-spot during the pandemic and its aftermath,” read the ILO’s press release.

The report says the pandemic has led to losses of jobs, incomes and livelihoods across the region’s fisheries sector, including significant fall-offs in employment and hours per worker recorded.

A fishing boat with Myanmar migrant and Thai workers onboard leaves a port in the Thai coastal province of Samut Sakhon on Sept. 20. (Photo by Lillian Suwanrumpha/AFP)

Among the most affected countries by the pandemic are Thailand and the Philippines with approximately -15.4 percent and -9.1 percent decline in employment in the fishing industry. Vietnam has lesser decline at -1.6 percent.

The ILO report also says that COVID-19 intensified the precarity of the fishing industry where close quarters aboard vessels, lack of personal protective equipment and limited access to medical care increased risk for fishers.

Employers were found to have not prioritized health and safety protections for workers whereas alternative solutions of reducing crew sizes heightened overwork on vessels, making a dangerous situation worse.

“Many fishing and seafood workers in Southeast Asia already had it bad. Labor protections and labor law enforcement—for at-home and migrant workers—have long been weak,” said Jason Judd, executive director of the Cornell University New Conversations Project.

“The COVID-19 pandemic was a stress test for these protections and this new research shows that there is lots of work to do,” he said in a statement.

Giuseppe Busini, Deputy Head of Mission of the European Union Delegation to the Kingdom of Thailand, said the pandemic has “exacerbated inequalities, disrupting our societies and economies.”

“It has taken an even bigger toll on the most vulnerable segments of society, as clearly highlighted by the report,” he added.

Busini said post COVID-19 recovery “gives us a positive opportunity to integrate the sustainable development principles in public policies and our daily lives.”

He said the EU is “fully committed” to supporting partner countries in post-COVID 19 recovery endeavours.

The report was jointly produced by the ILO Ship to Shore Rights South East Asia programme and New Conversations Project at Cornell University School of Industrial and Labour Relations with the support of the European Union.

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