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All Things Considered for Migrant Fish Workers

By Evan J. Andrews

A reflection by Evan J. Andrews, OFI Postdoctoral Fellow/TBTI Senior Research Fellow on Dr. Melissa Marshke’s presentation about the precarity of migrant workers during the COVID-19 pandemic. Thanks also to Drs. Barb Neis and Desai Shan, the two discussants, for providing written comments.


“You are entering a COVID-19 Zone. No docking without permission”. In early 2021, this is a sign you might find if you are a seafarer landing in Taiwan after possibly years away on a distant water fishing vessel. On December 9th, Dr. Melissa Marshke (University of Ottawa), on behalf of Dr. Peter Vandergeest (York University), discussed vulnerabilities brought on and revealed by COVID-19 for seafaring migrant fish workers in Asia and the implications for Atlantic Canada in a presentation, “Seafarers in Industrial Fishing: Examining Migrant Worker Precarity”. As the Omicron variant intensifying globally, understanding COVID-19 in the seafood industry remains a timely and critical topic both near and far from the North Atlantic Ocean. In focus in this month’s newsletter are key points, discussion, and prospects from Marshke and Vandergeest’s presentation, during the latest seminar from the Ocean Frontier Institute Social Science and Humanities Working Group (OFI SSH) - People and the Ocean Speaker Series.

During the presentation, Marshke took seminar attendees through a chilling precarity for migrant fish workers in Asia during what she described as the “uncertainty and chaos” of the COVID-19 pandemic. Marshke also showed how the pandemic opened a window into existing marginalization for these workers, including some of the political and economic reasons why that marginalization persisted. She concluded by sharing research on vulnerability for temporary fish processors in Atlantic Canada. Then, Drs. Barbara Neis (MUN) and Desai Shan (MUN) provided comments on Marhske and Vandergeest’s presentation that revealed differences and overlap in sources of vulnerability and viability for temporary labour forces in seafood production between Asian and Atlantic Canadian contexts. Following the discussant comments, Dr. Paul Foley Grenfell Campus, MUN facilitated an exciting Q&A, during which Marshke, Neis, and Shan, along with attendees discussed challenges and prospects for hope and governance for seafarers, mobile labour forces, and other workers in seafood production.

A Year into the Pandemic

For most of the presentation, Marshke drew on her published research led by Vandergeest and co-authored with Mallory MacDonnell, “Seafarers in Fishing: A Year into the Pandemic”. Marshke emphasized that crew change and access to port were two major challenges for migrant fish workers in Asia during the pandemic. For crew change, workers experienced precarity because of contracting procedures, challenges in getting to the vessel to work, and the difficulties of getting home (and getting paid) after their contract. For example, Marshke discussed how workers needed to go home after months, even years, away working 18-20 hours with poor nutrition, difficult and short sleep, and sometimes violence and coercion from captains trying to meet quota demands. Yet, captains pressured migrant workers to extend their contracts by sometimes more than a year, including with the threat of loss of future work and being left stranded in foreign port states.

"If you can't access port, then you cannot access shore services...It has been months at a time, you have not talked to anoyone."

Similarly, limited opportunities to access port heightened challenges for workers needing recreation, medical and mental health support, and religious services. Marshke’s research revealed how port states had different rules for access during the onset of the pandemic, some prohibiting access completely. While port states viewed migrant fish workers as potential sources of infection on shore, fishing companies viewed access to shore as a potential source of infection on the vessel. This dual logic constrained consistent access to port. Marhske stated, “If you can’t access port, then you cannot access shore services…It has been months at a time, you have not talked to anyone.” For migrant fish workers, their own physical and mental well-being was pushed to the limit, with some workers not making it home. For some of these workers, Marshke stated access to shore meant “life or death”.

Why do these vulnerabilities for migrant fish workers persist and why are they heightened in the pandemic? According to Marshke, temporary workers are under-recognized in international policy and governance. Other factors included limited oversight, no unionization, and difficult access to consular and embassy services.

But, Marshke talked about signs of hope in “a constellation of actors” working to support migrant fish workers. Port Chaplains document migrant fish worker experiences. Advocacy groups fight for the rights of these fish workers and draw media attention. People back home start petitions. Consular services sometimes intervene, if there is enough pressure. Yet, Marshke argued, there is a need for governance informed by a human rights approach.

Moving closer to home, Marske reflected on her research with temporary foreign workers in Atlantic Canada. She shared challenges related to temporary seafood worker recruitment (i.e., workers having to pay to get a job or change their job), inadequate housing, and problematic working hours. Then, under COVID-19, these challenges were heightened. Marshke learned that workers sometimes had to pay for their own gloves or personal protective equipment (PPE), and that COVID-19 involved significant disruptions to consistent work based on fluctuations in seafood markets and shifting quarantine rules. As with research on migrant fish workers in Asia, Marshke argued that the pandemic heightened existing marginalization in Atlantic Canada for temporary foreign workers in seafood processing. To understand these vulnerabilities and move to action, she pointed to the need for broadening the lens to see interactions among global supply chains, geopolitical issues, global trade, international law and policy, and labour conditions. More needed to be considered.

Striking Contrasts, Immobilities, and Logics Underlying Neglect

In her discussant comments, Neis compared actions taken in Newfoundland small-scale fisheries under COVID-19 with experiences in distant water fishing in Asia described by Marshke. Drawing on OFI Module I research on fishing safety, Neis discussed the “rapid and active intervention” at the onset of the pandemic by industry leaders, including the Newfoundland and Labrador Fish Harvesting Safety Association and the Fish, Food, & Allied Workers Union, and the support of public health and occupational health and safety agencies. They quickly co-developed guidelines for safe work practice, and with a few other factors, as Neis described, “allowed the industry to proceed with some but limited disruption to the lives of many in small-scale fisheries and fishing communities and in the absence of documented infections and outbreaks.” In relation to distant water fishing industry in Asia, Neis stated, “The contrast is striking.”

As the Project Director for the On the Move Partnership, Neis has been tracking COVID-19 and the implications for the mobile labour force, including fish workers and seafarers. Drawing on a working paper, Neis detailed how COVID-19 led to immobility for temporary foreign workers and interjurisdictional rotational workers whose labour is recognized by the Canadian government as ‘essential’. Neis discussed a double-immobility that shaped marginalization and disruptions for these workers’ lives and livelihoods. Workers became stuck at home, unable to travel to work in Canada, and then often “immobilized at work once they arrive, unable…to visit communities to access services and to, in some cases, return home when they might want to”. Unlike policy gaps in the international context for migrant fish workers, Canadian and provincial governments responded by developing a policy framework to address immobility.

Throughout the first year of the pandemic, Canadian policy was focused on protecting Canadians from virus exposure. Yet, the health and safety of temporary foreign workers and interjurisdictional workers were often neglected. Neis argued that these workers are entitled to employment standards, health and safety protections, and social benefits enjoyed as resident workers, but “they are by no means always protected, or able to take up their rights”, an issue heightened by the pandemic.

A Humanitarian Crisis Abroad and At Home

In her discussant comments, Shan called the experiences of seafarers under COVID-19 a humanitarian crisis. She remarked, “It is not just about fishing. It is not just about shipping. But, it is a huge maritime humanitarian and occupational health and safety crisis at sea.” Shan is an Assistant Professor of Occupational Health and Safety in Faculty of Medicine, and OFI Researcher.

She drew her comments from recently published research, “Occupational Health and Safety Challenges for maritime key workers in the global COVID-19 pandemic”. In this research, she explored the health and safety challenges faced by seafarers during extended service at sea, and the impacts of public health measures on seafarers’ welfare. Evoking similarities to Marshke and Vandergeest’s research, Shan documented difficulty in crew change, particularly in the repatriation of workers and pressure to extend contracts, as well as limited crew access to shore. She commented that “most seafarers still cannot be repatriated, [and] face tremendous difficulties to access medical care in port.” Shan situated these vulnerabilities in increased pressures and disruptions in the supply chain, including increased demand to sustain trade. She lamented that while problems in supply chains make the headline news, there were fewer resources, supports, and attention provided for seafarers despite the risks they take to benefit broader society.

Like Marhske and Vandergeest’s research, Shan’s research points to gaps and fragmentation in policy and governance in Atlantic Canada and globally. Internationally, she argues that migrant seafarers vulnerability is worsened by a “lack of well-coordinated governance among flag states, port states, labour supply states, and states of ship owners”. Governance, she stated, is a source of “multi-layered weakness”. For Atlantic Canada, fragmentation also exists according to Shan, although perhaps with different sets of structural and procedural challenges. Shan pointed to inequalities and inequities in protections for fish workers across Atlantic Canadian provinces because of the “division of powers” among federal and provincial governments. She described how provinces like Newfoundland and Labrador secured protections for fishing season, but not for all of the time that fishers worked. Fish workers in New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island have no coverage.

Citizenship, Policy, and Blue Justice for Temporary Fish Workers

The latest installment of the Ocean Frontier Institute Social Science and Humanities Working Group (OFI SSH) - People and the Ocean Speaker Series pointed to opportunities to learn from other contexts to inform potential prospects. In discussing stark contrasts and important overlaps between migrant fish workers in Asia and seafarers and fish workers in Atlantic Canada, seminar discussion revealed alternatives for labour challenges in seafood production to prepare for an uncertain future.

Both Marshke and Shan talked about the importance of local actors coming together in the absence of strong state-based and international policy and governance. For them, port support workers, diaspora communities in port states, and communication with loved ones in labour supply states are critical to helping seafarers and fish workers navigate myriad challenges in participating in safe work, and navigating complicated rules and policies that shifted during the pandemic.

It is clear from the seminar participants this constellation of actors is a necessary but insufficient condition for governance. Neis highlighted potential increased reliance on temporary foreign workers in Atlantic seafood due to shifting demographics in fishing and processing in Atlantic Canada. Understanding how to protect and support these workers through governance seems imperative, particularly with the spectre of seafood production shaped by COVID-19 for longer than anticipated. How, then, do we get governance right for temporary fish workers in Atlantic Canada?

In Atlantic Canada, one opportunity lies in recognition of the permanence of these temporary workers, many of whom are using temporary employment in Canada as a pathway to citizenship. Neis made a compelling case that workers are often really not that temporary. They come back to the same jobs, employers, and communities for decades. She argued, “this is not a temporary labour force. This is a permanent labour force…If they were allowed to immigrate then they will have the same rights as other workers allowed in Canada”. In absence of clear pathways to citizenship for these legacy workers, Neis described, they remain “unfree labour” tied to the employer in a system that maintains low wages, encourages inequitable competition, and fosters complicated workplace dynamics between temporary workers, interjurisdictional rotational workers, and resident Canadian workers.

"dedicated maritime welfare service centre would make a significant difference for all people working at sea who dock here, including Canadian merchant and fishing seafarers, as well as international seafarers"

Both Shan and Marshke agreed that wellness centres for seafarers in Atlantic Canada were a really promising alternative. Shan discussed the importance of port-based welfare services in St. John’s in other research she has conducted. She discussed how Japanese and Indonesian fishing seafarers who visit St. John’s are regularly in need of a range of services including SIM Cards, WIFI access, transportation and medical support. Ship agents who help facilitate these services told her that a “dedicated maritime welfare service centre would make a significant difference for all people working at sea who dock here, including Canadian merchant and fishing seafarers, as well as international seafarers”. Marshke referred to the potential for widespread development of wellness centre infrastructure for temporary foreign workers across Atlantic Canada as a “no brainer”.

The seminar discussion drew attention to the importance of moving the policy needle in Canada to deal with labour abuses across sectors, including in seafood production. For Shan, Canada’s leadership internationally in equitable ocean governance means first solving problems home, such as by “enhancing and equalizing workers' compensation coverage among Canadian fishing seafarers”. For Marshke, Canada needs to sign onto appropriate conventions, develop a robust policy framework, and adopt a modern slavery legislation.

Finally, the theme of visibility in news media, policy discourse, and research came to the forefront of discussion during the seminar. For example, Neis highlighted that there are opportunities for research to compare with sectors like agriculture to redress the “complete failure of understanding of the complexity of processes” shaping labour conditions in seafood production. More interactions need to be considered. Further, one attendee asked whether the Blue Economy was an opportunity to bring labour into focus in ocean discussions. Marshke pivoted and recommended that Blue Justice will help bring visibility to the marginalization of temporary fish workers in Atlantic Canada and beyond, and draw attention to a human rights approach to advance viability for this dynamic labour force.

2022 has been declared the International Year of Artisanal Fisheries and Aquaculture. In June, the 4th World Small-Scale Fisheries Congress for North America region in St. John’s is an opportunity to foster bold prospects for viability in labour, seafood production, and its governance in Atlantic Canada. Submit your abstract and join us in St. John’s to continue with the discussion on this topic and more.


Evan J. Andrews is an environmental policy scientist working at the intersections of governance, social change, and transdisciplinarity, largely in the context of inland and coastal fisheries. He holds a postdoctoral research fellowship in the Ocean Frontier Institute and Too Big To Ignore, and is based at Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. John’s, Canada. He is the co-founder and -lead for SSF-CAN: A Research Network for Small-Scale Fisheries in Canada, and is currently serving an appointment as the Vice President of the Society of Policy Scientists.

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