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‘Out of sight, out of mind’ attitude hampering COVID recovery for fishers and seafood processors in South-East Asia

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New ILO-Cornell brief finds that exclusion from pandemic relief measures and social protection schemes hits migrant fisheries workers hard.

An “out of sight, out of mind” attitude remains towards migrant workers in South-East Asia’s fishing and seafood processing industries despite pre-pandemic attention on the industry’s labour practices and promises of reform according to a new ILO and Cornell University report.

‘Rough Seas: The impact of COVID-19 on fishing workers in South-East Asia ’ reveals how the impact of COVID-19 on migrant fishers and seafood processors has been exacerbated through their exclusion from government relief programmes, social security protection and unemployment benefits during the crisis.

It 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.

A general dearth of reliable data about the industry’s workforce and the terms and conditions under which they work is another contributing factor. 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.

“The COVID-19 pandemic hit the fishing and seafood processing industries in South-East Asia hard and migrant workers the hardest. Continued efforts to promote international labour standards and inclusive government policies are needed to address underlying protection gaps for workers,” said Chihoko Asada-Miyakawa, ILO Assistant Director-General and Regional Director for Asia and the Pacific.

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to losses of jobs, incomes and livelihoods across the South-East Asia fisheries sector. Significant fall-offs in employment and hours per worker were recorded in fishing in 2020. These were greatest in Thailand at approximately -15.4 per cent and the Philippines at -9.1 per cent. The decline in employment in Viet Nam was considerably less steep at -1.6 per cent.

The COVID-19 virus also 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 prioritised 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.”

“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. Post COVID-19 recovery gives us a positive opportunity to integrate the sustainable development principles in public policies and our daily lives. The EU is fully committed to supporting partner countries in their post-COVID 19 recovery endeavours” stated Giuseppe Busini, Deputy Head of Mission of the European Union Delegation to the Kingdom of Thailand.

The report will be launched with a virtual event on 27 April 2022, 10:00 – 11:00 (Manila GMT+8), ‘Rough Seas: COVID’s impact on work in fishing’ where authors and industry stakeholders will discuss key findings and ways forward for Asia’s fishing and seafood processing sector. Register here .

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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