Made up of more than 800 islands, the Myeik Archipelago in southern Myanmar is home to hundreds of marine species, untouched coral reefs, a diverse range of wildlife, and extraordinary beaches with crystal clear waters. In addition to serving as a destination for adventure tourism, it is also home to fishing communities who depend on […]
How fishery workers in Myanmar are seeking better workers’ rights
Made up of more than 800 islands, the Myeik Archipelago in southern Myanmar is home to hundreds of marine species, untouched coral reefs, a diverse range of wildlife, and extraordinary beaches with crystal clear waters. In addition to serving as a destination for adventure tourism, it is also home to fishing communities who depend on marine resources for their livelihoods.
For the communities who live here, fishing is not just a way of life but also vital for the economy. Myanmar’s fishery sector makes a significant contribution to the country’s economy, estimated at 56% of local government revenue, as well as providing food and employment for the country’s population – sometimes as high as 34% in some coastal areas. The Myeik District in the south of Myanmar is one of the country’s key areas for fishing, supplying more than 17% of the country’s total fisheries income in February 2018. International scrutiny of the fishing sector has largely focused on opportunities for improving environmental sustainability and supporting economic development. However, although the fishing industry is an essential part of life and the economy in Myanmar, there are distressing realities beneath the surface.
There have been widespread reports in local media of human rights violations in Myanmar’s fishing industry, prompting the National Human Rights Commission to investigate the issue late last year. Physical abuse, labour exploitation and enslavement are frequently observed and experienced among fishery workers. Myeik is no exception to this, and some cases have been covered by the local media. These reports are drawing the attention of public officials and policy-makers, as people start to question the role of laws for workers’ rights, such as the Myanmar Marine Fisheries Law, which should offer legal protection to fishery workers.
The Citizens’ Fundamental Rights, Democracy and Human Rights Committee, based within Myanmar’s Upper House, has recognised the urgency of the issue and acknowledged that it is time to review and amend the Marine Fisheries Bill. With support from the Westminster Foundation for Democracy (WFD), the Committee conducted a fact-finding mission to the Myeik islands in January. Over the course of ten days, Committee members met fishing workers, boat owners, and government departments to understand realities on the ground in this part of Myanmar, probe reported human rights issues, and consider potential policy solutions.
The WFD-supported mission helped to shed light on untold stories and give voice to affected individuals and communities, able to interact with committee members for the first time. Their findings are important for changing the conditions in which workers live and work and require the Government to take immediate and long-term action. Most pressingly, shrimp boats workers suffer from high levels of financial debt. Of the workers interviewed by the Committee, all are living in debt traps as a result of loans taken from vessel captains at the start of the year. This dependency results in widespread labour exploitation, precluding workers’ access to statutory minimum wage, holidays, and working hours.
The islands mainly produce dried shrimp, which require the fishery workers to travel out to sea three times a day. They do not receive time off, unless the weather makes business untenable. Workers receive some non-monetary benefits, such as rice, salts and oil, for their work but these costs are deducted from their salary. While some workers enjoy the average minimum wage (USD $3 per day), most workers are paid less, between USD $50 and $100 per month.
One worker who spoke to the committee poignantly summarised the hardships of life under current conditions, saying: “We have no off days. As we have signed a one-year contract and received loans, we ought to work as much as they demand. I earn 120,000 Kyats ($83 USD) per month. If I am absent for a day, 30,000 Kyats ($21 USD) will be deducted. We are helpless and can’t escape the cycle of debt”
There are workers who suffer extreme costs to their own health, including injuries from torture and beating. The Committee found that when injured, workers are often prevented from receiving proper treatment by their employers. The Committee also uncovered cases of forced child labour as a substitute for injured parents. Interviews conducted during the mission revealed that after one worker was paralysed, his two daughters were kept by his employer to work on his behalf.
The hardships endured by these workers have gone largely unaddressed by local authorities, with uneven awareness of the problem among local government representatives. Those interviewed by the Committee said they had not received a critical mass of complaints; a problem owing in part to limited public engagement and reporting. Remote communities such as these are particularly vulnerable to being perceived as unreachable and inaccessible, even by local officials.
The Committee’s outreach to these communities has better positioned its members to bring about change now they have grasped facts on the ground and the grim realities facing fishery workers. The important next step will be to use their findings to review the legal framework and help the government to effect change. With WFD’s support, the Committee has developed a report, based on their two missions’ findings, covering a wide range of issues and recommendations on how parliament and government can act to improve conditions for workers in the fishing industry and tackle exploitation and safety concerns. The report is due to be submitted during the Parliament’s next session in an effort to aid parliamentarians’ review of the Marine Fisheries Bill, and hopefully secure a brighter future for workers in Myanmar’s fisheries sector.