A life of toil: Women in the seafood industry

A recent Oxfam report found that the most vulnerable group of people in our seafood supply chains are the women of Southeast Asia who day in, and day out process and package shrimp for the leading supermarkets across the world. They face appalling working conditions: lack of bathroom breaks, excessive work hours for far less than living wages.

Most women workers in the seafood sector come from appalling poverty.

In Indonesia, women workers migrate from the poorest part of the country, where agricultural livelihoods are diminishing and can no longer sustain their living. In Thailand, most women workers are migrants from neighboring Myanmar and Cambodia.

Like all migrants, most are looking for a better quality of life and a better future for their family. But the reality of working in the seafood industry does not fulfill this promise.

Women are hit the hardest

Last month Oxfam launched a global campaign to challenge the widening inequality in the world’s food supply chains. Oxfam’s latest report on worker’s rights in the seafood sector shows that workers in seafood supply chains in Thailand and Indonesia are still reporting workers rights violations with women being amongst the most impacted, despite significant reform efforts by the governments, the industry and the international community.

Oxfam’s latest supermarkets scorecard shows that the majority of supermarkets (12 out of the 16 assessed) did not receive a single score for making commitments to empower women in their global supply chains.

Oxfam estimates that 80% of workers in the processing plants in Southeast Asia are made up of women. They mostly work in processing plants to peel, cook and pack shrimp for major export markets.

Chart of gender distribution in working roles. 2017 ILO workers survey
Figure: Women and men work in distinct roles in shrimp supply chains, and this can result in differential income and treatment. For instance, 48% of women workers surveyed reported to have received the minimum wage and above (approx. THB 9,000/month) while 73% of men workers said they have received the minimum wage and above (according to the 2017 ILO workers survey).

What are women working in seafood main concerns?

After extensive interviews and consultations with women workers and NGO partners, here are the key concerns for the women workers in the seafood sector:

1. Low pay, use of piece rates and excessive working hours

According to the ILO 2017 survey in Thailand, 48% of women workers reported to have received the minimum wage and above (approx. THB 9,000/month) while 73% of men workers said they have received the minimum wage and above.

In Indonesia, Domin Dhamayanti, a human rights activist at Surabaya Institute of Labor Solidarity, said that women do not normally earn a minimum wage but are earning based on their shrimp peeling targets. To reach the minimum wage (which varies across different locations), women workers have to peel at least 900 shrimp/hour for a 9- or 10-hour work day). They are normally required to work 6 days a week and depending on the raw materials, they may be required to work on their day off as well.

2. Unsafe, unsanitary and degrading working conditions

Toilet breaks are major issues for women workers in Asia.

A large number of workers have to share a small number of toilets. Toilet breaks are only allowed twice a day (for an 9-hour shift) and workers are only allowed 10 – 15 minutes for toilet breaks. Many said that they usually have to queue up to use the facilities. They would be scolded by their supervisors or given warnings if they spent longer than 15 minutes during the toilet break.

Many women chose to abstain from drinking water or wait until their break to go to the toilet to avoid possible penalty. As well as the loss of dignity daily, this can also have long-term health consequences.

3. Food insecurity

This is perhaps the cruelest irony Oxfam came across during our research for the campaign – too many of the women and men who are producing our food said they normally go hungry or worry that they won’t be able to put food on the table.

To repeat that with statistics, over 90% of women factory workers surveyed said they worry they won’t have enough to eat after having worked for nearly 10 hours a day.

While shrimp are becoming cheaper to consumers in Europe and the US, a large number of men and women who are producing these cheap products too often go hungry.

4. Lack of rights awareness and freedom of association

Women workers have to endure policies that do not promote gender equality in their workplace, and often these come from the fact that there is no platform in which they can organize themselves or learn about their rights.

Recent research by the CSO Coalition in Thailand shows that most workers access information about their rights through national NGOs but the engagement between companies, NGOs and trade unions are considerably limited in many Asian countries.

In Thailand, ILO Conventions 87 and 98, which promote freedom of association and collective bargaining, are still not ratified. This makes it even more challenging for workers to have a voice in their workplace.

We can change this

If you believe that human suffering should not be an ingredient in our food, you have the power to change this – supermarkets care about what their consumers think.

Women and men who are producing food should not have to endure low wages, terrible working conditions and go hungry when they are producing our food.

Oxfam’s campaign is calling on all supermarkets to engage in radical transparency – to know and show what they are doing and to urgently address these problems in their global supply chains.

Join the call to end human suffering in our food!

End the human suffering in our food - cartoon.

This entry posted by Art Prapha, Senior Advisor in the Private Sector Department, Oxfam America, on 25 July 2018.

Photo: Melati, seafood worker in Indonesia. Credit: Adrian Mulya/The Sustainable Seafood Alliance Indonesia

N.B.: This is part two of a two-part blog series – read also: How supermarkets can promote gender equality in their global supply chains.


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