Work at Sea: Regional and Global Perspective on Southeast Asian Migrant Workers in Industrial Fishing - Recruitment, Migration, Reproduction

Travail en mer : perspective régionale et mondiale sur les travailleurs migrants d’Asie du Sud-Est dans la pêche industrielle - recrutement, migration, reproduction


Saturday, October 23, 2021


16:15 – 18:00

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This panel explore issues related to Southeast Asian migrant workers in industrial fishing. The focus is on workers from Indonesia, the Philippines, and Vietnam working in the global fishing industry, with a focus on Taiwan as well as workers in the Vietnamese fishing industries. We are interested to explore why and how workers seek jobs in fishing, given the often difficult working conditions and long periods of isolation at sea as well as the experience of working on industrial fishing boats. Themes for research in source countries include the gendering of work family relations and recruitment practices, and the histories through which Indonesia and the Philippines have become important sources of labour power for the global fishing industry. With respect to fishing vessels owned and operated from Taiwan, themes include the everyday experiences of working on different kinds of fishing vessels and the effects of recent policy responses to the increasing attention to unacceptable working conditions in industrial fishing.

Convenor/Animateur: Peter Vandergeest, York University

Chair/Président: Melissa Marschke, University of Ottawa

Discussant/Intervenant: Philip Kelly, York University

Event poster


Workers at Sea: Recruitment and Placement of Indonesian Migrant Fishery Workers

Wendy A. Medina de Loera, Geography, York University; Peter Vandergeest, Faculty of Environmental and Urban Change, York University

Indonesia is an important supply source of workers for the international fishing industry and Indonesian crewing agencies are key in the supply of this workforce. The actual number of agencies operating in the country is still unknown as there are many operating without licenses. Official figures indicate that, as of December 2020, there were over 480 agencies with permits to recruit and place workers on ships in general (not exclusively on fishing vessels). Crewing agencies’ central role in the deployment of Indonesian fishery workers and their mushrooming make it imperative to explore them in depth. This paper explains some of the ways in which Indonesian crewing agencies recruit Indonesian fishery workers and place them on foreign vessels. Apart from identifying patterns in their modus operandi, the paper also analyzes some of the complex relationships these agents establish with a variety of actors such as Indonesian fishery workers, other Indonesian recruitment agencies, foreign crewing agents, ship companies, and the Indonesian government. The paper draws on a variety of sources that include stories told by some agencies about the recruitment process and their relationships with a vast diversity of actors, stories told by workers about their relationships with the agencies, social media, interviews with Indonesian support organizations, and statistical data produced by both these organizations and the Indonesian government.

Finding Filipino Fishermen: Infrastructure, Institutions and Illegibility in the Deployment of Sea-Based Labour in the Philippines

Hazel Dizon, Work at Sea Project, York Centre for Asian Research, York University; Philip Kelly, Faculty of Environmental and Urban Change, York University

Among the millions of overseas workers deployed from the Philippines each year, a small and easily-overlooked contingent supply the crews of fishing vessels engaged in deep sea operations in international waters. Official figures (undoubtedly therefore an underestimate) suggest that approximately 7,000 Filipino men are sent every year to work on such fishing fleets—many of them based out of Taiwan. Of all the possible deployments for Overseas Filipino Workers, these fishing vessels are perhaps the most inherently dangerous workplaces and involve labour relations that are the most open to abuse. While labour conditions in the fishing industry have been widely assessed and criticized, much less is known concerning what Xiang and Lindquist (2014, 122) call the “migration infrastructure”—“the systematically interlinked technologies, institutions, and actors that facilitate and condition mobility”—which in this case serves to record, recruit, train, deploy and regulate such workers. Using administrative data collected by the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration, and interviews with government officials, NGOs, manning agencies, and training institutions, this paper seeks to develop an understanding of the infrastructure that delivers labour from the Philippines to Asian (and especially Taiwanese) fishing vessels. Ultimately, however, our goal is to understand what aspects of recruitment practices, training, workers’ experiences, and the actions of employers are made legible through data collection to the authorities tasked with protecting workers. And, conversely, which aspects of practices in the industry that supplies labour, and the industry that supplies fish, are rendered invisible to regulatory authorities.

The Influence of Fish Ecologies with Associated Gear Technologies and Marine Spaces on Labour Practices in Taiwanese Distant Water Fisheries

Mallory MacDonnell, Geography, York University

Fisheries labour in Taiwan is a multifaceted relationship involving fisheries management, migrant workers, seafood commodity chains, movement of vessels, fishery ecologies, types of gear used on vessels, and environmental conditions. All of these aspects together produce distinct labour situations and processes. This paper examines three variables within this relationship: fish species ecologies, associated fishing vessel technologies and marine spaces, and how they intersect with working conditions and practices on distant water fishing vessels operated out of Taiwan. Potential variation within these three facets stems from the ecological niche of target species. Different gear technologies are required depending on the size of the species, where the species are at, the time scale, or species assemblages. This difference in gear is important, since the time length at sea can lead to poor or unacceptable working conditions and can create situations where workers are prone to more labour abuses. Decisions on labour standards within fisheries policy and regulations have not distinguished between the species of fish that fishermen are catching, the type of gear fishermen are operating, or the marine spaces where fishermen are working. These variables especially come to light when the fishermen are migrant workers in a space that has previously been and continues to be viewed as problematic in regard to labour practices. Migrant fishermen within Taiwan’s distant water fisheries are excluded from labour laws under the Ministry of Labour (Labour Standards Act) and are instead regulated by the Fisheries Agency (Act for Distant Water Fisheries). The labour protections under the Fisheries Agency do not meet the basic standards that domestically employed foreign workers have while covered under the Ministry of Labour.

Navigating the Waters of Precarity: Labour Dynamics and Masculinities in Vietnam’s Offshore Fisheries

Georgina Alonso, PhD Candidate, University of Ottawa

This research examines compounding challenges faced by Vietnamese offshore fishers amid ecological decline and ongoing fisheries reforms in Vietnam, and examines the ways in which fishers navigate these challenges and adapt to change. As a dangerous, environmentally dependant job where pay is tied to inconsistent catch amounts and where fishers become subject to the legal authority of multiple states as they move through international waters, fishing is precarious work. Furthermore, the gendered division of labour results in a work environment that idealizes and enforces certain masculine norms. Through qualitative interviews and observation, this research illuminates the perspectives of workers, captains, and boat owners in southern Vietnam to uncover the ways in which precarity shapes the lives of those involved in offshore fishing. In examining both the material and social aspects of fish work, including several constraints and divisions, the research demonstrates that in addition to financial incentives, efforts to maintain an adequate labour force also rely on notions of masculinity. The research further finds that the declining ability to make a decent livelihood from offshore fishing results in perverse incentives on the part of fishers, captains and boat owners. I argue that the framing in international media of Vietnamese fishers as drivers of overfishing in the region misses the larger context of ecological decline and squeezed livelihoods. Rather, the root cause of precarity among offshore fishers is the same as that which is driving the overexploitation of fish: capitalist growth.

“We pray for the storm”: encountering the legal-spatial practices of exclusion, labour precarities and solidarities of Indonesian migrant fishers across Taiwan’s port cities

Jonathan S. Parhusip, Graduate Institute for Social Research and Cultural Studies, National Chiao Tung University; Yannis-Adam Allouache, Department of Geography, National University of Singapore

State-sanctioned categories define migrants’ socio-legal relationship to/with a state and shapes their experiences of precarity. While securing a legal status entitles migrants to certain rights, benefits and material conditions, states also deploy various spatial-legal tactics to demarcate sovereignty in ways to deflect and avoid protection responsibilities. In Taiwan, being a ‘wailao’ (blue-collar migrant worker) in the fishing industry entails working either in offshore or distant water fisheries. These are two categories of workers that articulate distinct yet overlapping realities of labour precarity and migrant struggles that intersect in/across the landscapes of Taiwanese port cities at particular moments in time. In this paper, we problematize this categorisation by scrutinizing the structural conditions and legal processes which attempt to ‘fix’ migrant fishers in time and space, render them out of place and locate them as racialized others. Based on our long-term ethnographic research and interviews conducted between 2017 and 2020 on the politics of labour migration from Indonesia to Taiwan, we explore the legalspatial practices of exclusion that shape the experiences of precarity of migrant fishers at sea and across Taiwan’s port cities. These are practices that involve constellations of actors, such as states, employers, labour agencies and their brokerage practices, among others. We discuss how the combination of these factors hinders the ability for migrant fishers to act, to seek state support and to denounce their predicament when facing disputes with employers, brokers and others, impacting their well-being. However, we also illustrate how migrant fishers actively seek to rework their precarious subjectivities through place-making practices and acts of solidarity which mitigate the intensities of precarity across their working and living spaces. More than a legal existence or an administrative construct, we argue that the status and categories of migrants represent the racialized biopolitical practices that inform the provision of migrant labour across nation-state borders and define the migrant experience.

CCSEAS Conference 2021 |