Workers behind the seafood in our markets

Have you ever wondered who catches and processes the seafood you buy in supermarkets? Three workers describe the low pay, the extreme hours, and the inhumane conditions that are far too common in this industry.

Sign up to join a movement working together to end the injustice of poverty.

Thank you!

By joining our community, you’ll receive the information and tools you need to take on the injustice of poverty.

“My hand was burning, and I was out of breath because of the strong chlorine.”

Melati

Melati was trained to peel 600 shrimp in an hour–one every six seconds. That was her target, at work in a factory in Indonesia. She never met it.

After finishing high school, Melati wanted to earn money so that she could go to college—and that’s how she ended up peeling shrimp.

When she was working in the factory, she lived with seven other people in a tiny 2.5- by 3-meter (8-foot by 10-foot) dorm room. It was provided by her employer, but she paid rent. The water in the dirty, smelly bathroom did not work properly—often it ran out altogether. “There was a long line just to take a shower,” says Melati. “And we couldn't close the door.”

Melati often wondered about her work timetable. She used to get the schedule for the next working day by phone, one day in advance. In fact, her team leader could contact her at any point, telling her to come to work. “I couldn’t rest properly,” she says. “I had to wait to find out what time I needed to go to work.”

Conditions at the factory were dangerous. When the company put her to work cleaning the conveyor belt with a chlorine mixture, the fumes meant she struggled to breathe. “At 11:30pm when I came home, I still couldn’t breathe properly,” she says.

Worse, the chlorine burned Melati’s skin. “I was given plastic gloves because we ran out of rubber gloves,” she tells us. They didn’t cover her beyond her wrists, and she had to put her arms into the bucket of chlorine mixture to prepare the cleaning cloth. “My hand was burning,” she says, “and I was out of breath because of the strong chlorine.”

Several workers told us they face the indignity of not being allowed to bring sanitary pads to work. “I could only change my menstruation pad when I had my rest time in the dorm,” says Melati. “I used three menstruation pads which I put in place all at once at the dorm before going to the factory. Then at work I took them off one by one at the toilet. It was uncomfortable, especially if I had to walk.” As well as causing discomfort and leaving embarrassing stains, keeping a dirty pad in place can lead to infections.

Melati has now left the company. With pay based on impossible targets, and unbearable working conditions, she couldn’t continue. For now, her dreams of putting some money aside to go to college are still out of reach.

“When people fall into the sea at night, they only know the next morning when they realize someone is missing.”

Cho

Cho was just a teenager when the siren song of a friend lured him from home in Myanmar to his first job on a fishing boat in Thailand. One decade and three injuries later, Cho has this to say about life at sea: “Make things better! Make things improve on the boat so that accidents don’t happen.”

He speaks from experience: Cho’s last accident left him injured so badly he was hospitalized for about 15 days and spent three months convalescing at home. And he’s not back on board yet; he’s working at a job on shore instead.

“It is very dangerous working on the boat,” Cho says. And early on, it wasn’t just the pulleys and ropes, the nets and ice tank covers that posed constant hazards, it was treatment at the hands of his bosses.

“When I first arrived in Thailand, I did not get paid,” says Cho. “The employer and the clerk cheated me. On the boat, I was beaten by my supervisor and employer if I could not work and was sleeping in bed due to sickness. And I was beaten if I made a mistake during my work. Sometimes I was hit by a machete. Sometimes I was hit by a pistol grip.”

That kind of abuse has stopped because laws are now in place, says Cho--a fact that makes him happy.

But other dangers are omnipresent, like the giant waves churned by storms: They pose a particular threat to workers aboard boats without toilets.

“We urinate at the back of the boat,” Cho says. “There is no toilet... You have to hold onto something, like a rope. The place is made for one person to stand only. It’s dangerous. When the boat is running, when there are big waves, you can slip and fall into the water and drown.”

And if a worker does slip and fall--whether going to the bathroom or tending to some other chore—there’s no guarantee anyone will notice until it’s too late.

“It happened on my boat,” says Cho. “An old man slipped and fell into the sea...It was dark and no one was aware… When people fall into the sea at night, they only know the next morning when they realize someone is missing. The body was stuck in the net.”

For all of this risk, along with erratic and sometimes long working hours that allow for only one or two of rest, Cho was earning 11,000 Thai baht (THB) a month, or about $337. That’s about $61 more than workers without experience earn: They get just 9,000 THB a month, or about $276.

“There is no overtime [pay] on a fishing boat,” Cho says.

For a while, Cho was sending money home to his family--about 200,000 kyat a month, or $148--but then, a few years ago, he lost touch with them when his phone and some important papers with contact information fell into the sea.

“I was holding onto the boat and it slipped from my hand,” he says.

Now, nursing the pain from his latest injury, Cho wants people who eat seafood to know one important thing about the boat workers: “The pay we get is not worthy compared to how much we work. We get little. So we want decent pay.”

“If we were pregnant we wouldn’t be accepted [for work].”

Dewi

Dewi had taken several pregnancy tests. Not because she was trying to get pregnant, but because her employer demanded it. “If we were pregnant we wouldn’t be accepted [for work],” she said.

The factory where Dewi worked provides shrimp to the biggest supermarkets in the UK. For staff like Dewi, there was no maternity leave: if you got pregnant, you had to quit. And because they were frequently tested, there was no hiding it either.

Contracts at the factory didn't last long, so it was easy to get rid of employees. Dewi signed a new contract every few months–-sometimes for as short as one month. “Attendance was used to assess whether we were really serious about work or not,” she said. “If you stayed home because you were feeling unwell, it would impact your contract. If we skipped work more than two times a month, we would get a shorter contract.”

“Eventually, Dewi’s pregnancy test showed up positive. She was in a good position at work –she’d been assigned Group Leader –but she had no choice, and had to give it up. Having worked at the factory for eight years, now she’s on her own. “Aged 43, it would be hard for me to find another job.”

Instead of going back to the factory, Dewi decided to start her own company. “It’s more comfortable running my own business,” she says. For other women who have to leave work when they become pregnant, life may not be so comfortable–with no maternity leave and uncertain futures, having a baby could mean the end of their income.

Call on supermarkets to help end human suffering behind the food we all eat.

Call on supermarkets to help end human suffering behind the food we all eat.

Additional credits: Lead photo: Kosal (not his real name), is a 27-year-old Cambodian who came to Thailand with a dream to find a decent job that will allow him to help support his parents and siblings. But for now he is removing the scales from fish in a processing plant. Photo credit: Suthep Kritsanavarin/Oxfam

Share this story

Donate

Make a tax-deductible gift.

Donate to Oxfam at www.oxfamamerica.org/donate

Oxfam.org Facebook Twitter Instagram YouTube Google+