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Explaining labour relations in the global fishing industry

Explaining labour relations in the global fishing industry

Peter Vandergeest

Over the past five years a series of scandals concerning slave-like working conditions on fishing vessels have provoked global efforts to improve working conditions for fishery workers.  Yet initiatives that seek to improve working conditions are hampered by a lack of empirical evidence and explanatory analysis of the dynamics that lead to such unacceptable working conditions, and what actions might be taken to improve them.  They are also constrained by how they tend to position workers as victims of slavery, trafficking, and forced labour, which can draw attention away from how workers act individually and collectively to improve their working conditions.

Philip Kelly

This research on labour relations in the global fishing industry is led by Professor Peter Vandergeest, and includes co-investigators Philip Kelly and Melissa Marschke, collaborator Elizabeth Havice, and graduate student researchers enrolled at York University and the University of Ottawa.  The team has been examining marine fisheries work, focusing on fisheries based out of Thailand and Taiwan.  Both employ mainly migrant workers from Southeast Asia, and have been identified with serious labour abuse, often linked to Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated (IUU) fishing. The objective is to explain the social, technological, ecological, and economic processes that produce differences in working conditions across space and time, and to identify the reasons that make fishing working conditions unacceptable by most standards that would be applied to terrestrial work.   More broadly, the project aims to develop a vision of oceans as not just a producer of ‘blue values,’ or as a key actor in climate change, but also as a working space for thousands of workers who are the first step in the value chains that produce the seafood many of us enjoy.

“The project aims to understand labour issues as experienced by workers and worker support organizations. These experiences are placed in the context of both the global seafood supply chains (or production networks) and the 'reproduction networks' that link migrant workers with their families and communities in source areas”, Vandergeest explains. “This project is also oriented to conducting an assessment of issues created by the COVID-19 pandemic for migrant workers in the fisheries sectors,” Vandergeest adds. 

Given the pandemic, the project team has re-oriented the research to focus on the impact of COVID-19 on migrant fish workers, which has been revelatory with respect to the issues faced by workers. The pandemic has helped bring to light poor working and living conditions, precarious employment relations and legal status, and uncertain access to health care for migrant workers around the world.  However, fish workers have remained relatively invisible, given how they work out of sight at sea, often across different national jurisdictions.  Among other problems, many workers are finding themselves stuck far from home at the end of contracts, unable to return home to their families due to travel restrictions.  In some cases, they cannot even leave the vessels on which they work due to restrictions on entering ports, leaving them more vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.  But the pandemic has also brought opportunities for some migrant fish workers, as governments scramble to ensure that workers have access to health care, and as vessel owners facing worker shortages agree to pay more and provide better working conditions.  The project team is thus working on assembling information on how workers have been impacted both negatively and positively by the pandemic. 

This research is being conducted in collaboration with NGOs and academics in Southeast Asia and Taiwan. This ensures that the results will benefit the work of groups who support workers in the fishing industry. The project team has worked collaboratively for many years with academics and other organizations in Southeast Asia, including countries of migrant fish workers (Cambodia, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Myanmar).  The research also includes focus on the tuna fisheries in the Pacific, which is the source of much of the canned tuna consumed in Canada, after it is processed in Thailand.  

Mallory MacDonnell

As part of its knowledge mobilization plan, the project hopes to curate a photo-essay, bringing to life the experiences of fish workers on offshore boats, and facilitate policy forums aimed at producing policy insights into global fish labour challenges for Thai, Taiwanese and Canadian fisheries.  This is of course subject to being able to start traveling again and doing in-person research in source countries for workers at some point in the future.  For the moment, most of the research is being conducted at a distance, although Geography PhD student Mallory MacDonnell has been able to move to Taiwan, where there has been no transmission of COVID-19 since April. Geography PhD student Terence Rudolph, meanwhile, has been working on establishing patterns in the movement of Taiwan’s distance water fishing vessels using satellite tracking data, with the aim of linking these movements to the experiences of workers in these vessels. 
The research team has produced several publications on COVID-19 and fish work, including “Industrial seafood systems in the immobilizing COVID-19 moment,” a short response essay that outlines how immobilization as a tool for containing COVID-19 is remaking mobilities the lives of migrant workers in the industrial fisheries sector; and “COVID-19, instability and migrant fish work in Asia,” forthcoming in Maritime Studies.  

Peter Vandergeest is Professor of Geography and former director of the York Centre for Asian Research. His research over the past 30 years has focused on agrarian and environmental transformations in Southeast Asia, with attention to livelihoods and community participation in environmental governance. In addition to his current research on fisheries and aquaculture, he has also published widely on the history of forestry in Southeast Asia, and on alternative agriculture and agrarian transformations. Peter would be very happy to talk with any interested person about this project!  He can be reached at