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Aung Aung was used to long voyages at sea. Not seeing his family for weeks on end was his usual routine. At age 13, Aung Aung moved from his native Myanmar (also known as Burma) to Ranong, Thailand, to work on fishing boats in the Andaman Sea. Now 28, a typical fishing trip means 25 straight days at sea with 34 other crew searching for mackerel, sardines, and red mullet for Thailand’s fish markets and fish sauce manufacturers. At the end of each voyage, he would usually return to Ranong for a brief two-day break with his wife and seven-year-old son.
Then came the lockdown.
In March 2020, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Thai government declared a state of emergency and restricted travel and port access. Aung Aung was trapped in Kuraburi, Thailand, more than 120 kilometers from his home in Ranong. “Because of the pandemic we couldn’t travel,” he says. “We were stuck in Kuraburi for three months.” He and his coworkers continued to fish, but the typical two-day breaks on land, and any chance to see his family, disappeared. He was one of more than 400,000 seafarers stuck at sea because of border closures.
Like other migrant workers around the world, fishers in Southeast Asia suffer unsafe conditions, ambiguous legal status, little to no union representation, and low wages. But during the ongoing pandemic, which has forced many people to limit their travel, fishers became uniquely vulnerable. Their livelihoods depend on moving freely between vessels and across borders. But restrictions on movement left many of these workers at sea for seemingly endless voyages with little oversight or protection.
Xenophobia and fear only compounded their struggles. In a televised address, Thailand’s prime minister, Prayut Chan-o-cha, blamed the virus outbreak on workers from Burma, stirring up anti-Burmese sentiment in the region. Migrant workers in Taiwan reported being harassed and blamed for the pandemic.
Melissa Marschke, who studies the seafood industry in Southeast Asia at the University of Ottawa in Ontario, says that migrant workers often face unique restrictions, but under some pandemic travel rules migrant workers in Thailand were treated differently than native-born workers. “Thais could travel under certain circumstances, but migrant workers couldn’t move at all.”
Marschke, along with Peter Vandergeest, a political ecologist at York University in Ontario, recently examined how COVID-19 affected migrant fishers in Thailand and Taiwan, two of the largest hubs for the global seafood trade.
These countries supply all facets of the seafood market, from sashimi-grade ahi for Japan to “trash fish” for shrimp aquaculture, and myriad species for nearby fish markets. And all the canned tuna that flew off grocery shelves last year? Forty percent of the global supply was canned in Thailand, much of it caught by Taiwanese ships crewed by migrant fishers from all over Southeast Asia, including Indonesia and the Philippines.
While restrictions on movement have helped slow the spread of COVID-19, barring migrant fishers from going ashore for up to six months at a time deprived them of a range of necessities, Marschke and Vandergeest say. Trips ashore give fishers a respite from the monotony of life at sea. But ports are also where they can access crucial supports: Wi-Fi to call family, opportunities to submit labor complaints, and a chance to seek medical care.
Lennon Ying-Dah Wong, a director at the Serve the People Association in Taiwan, notes that many of the ships that kept workers at sea for months in Taiwan’s waters were sailing under “flags of convenience,” which enables vessels to be registered in a country other than that of the ships’ owners. The contentious, but legal, practice is used by owners to circumvent safety standards, pay lower wages, or reduce taxes.
Marschke and Vandergeest add that if the contracts of fishers lapsed while they were trapped at sea, workers became unsure of their rights. Routine government inspections of fishing vessels were also often waived, resulting in less oversight of working conditions.
To Vandergeest, COVID-19 only added to the ways fishers have been marginalized for decades. Fishing is remote, hard to observe, and often obfuscated by governments and industry. Scandals of extreme abuse are common, the most notable being rampant slavery on Thai boats, which was revealed by The Guardian in 2014. Migrant fishers were coerced into working for more than two years without pay. Workers on some boats stayed because of violence, or because boat owners kept promising they would pay at the next port, but never did.
Industry regulators are also typically more focused on fish than workers, says Vandergeest. “Historically, it’s all been about fishing management, and maybe environmental issues, but the workers have simply been invisible.”
While the border restrictions eventually loosened, fishers like Aung Aung remain vulnerable. His salary is just 12,500 Thai baht per month, about US $400, which is low for the region. Aung Aung can now see his wife and son in Ranong, but he still spends over 330 days a year at sea. What does he think about on those trips? “I miss my family. I miss the Burmese food, since I don’t like the meals on the boat too much. I really miss home.”