Migrant fish workers stranded during COVID-19 lockdown, need more government support

Tens of thousands of migrant fish-workers are stuck in different parts of the country due to the lockdown. This is a representative image of a purse seiner in Mangaluru. Supriya Vohra
04 April, 2020

Badi Narayan is a 28-year-old crew member of NR2, a multi-day fishing trawler, that operates off the coast of Mangaluru. “We came back from our last fishing trip around ten days ago, I can’t recall the exact date,” he said on 2 April. Since then, the boat has been docked at the Mangaluru harbour and Narayan has been staying in it due to the 21-day lockdown imposed to contain the COVID-19 pandemic. Narayan, who hails from the Ganjam district in Odisha, told me that he “wanted to go back home immediately, but I was told all the trains and bus services were shut. So, I couldn’t go.” He was hired on a contract basis and is currently out of work.

Like Narayan, tens of thousands of migrant fish-workers are stuck in different parts of the country due to the lockdown. According to a report in the Gaon Connection, a media platform, many fish workers are also stranded at sea. 

“COVID-19 perfectly allows for precarious labour to just be dismissed,” Siddharth Chakravarty, who works at The Research Collective and analyses fisheries policies through the lens of labour, gender and class, said. As India’s migrant workers, who predominantly work on mechanised fleets, are generally not a part of unions, Chakravarty said, the responsibility falls more so on the state to handle emergencies. “Boat owners keep precarious, contract-less workers because it becomes easy for them to cut costs when the time arises,” he said. 

The entire marine fisheries industry has been hit by the lockdown. According to a news report in the Hindustan Times, people are throwing away fish stocks as traders, exporters, and allied businesses, such as ice plants used for storage, have shut shop. Small-scale fishers are finding it hard to sell fish in an organised manner. Nithin Kumar, who owns a mechanised trawler which operates in Mangaluru, told me he is hoping to resume fishing after the lockdown ends “but if the crew is not there then we can’t function.” People in the mechanised fisheries sector told me that most of their crew members are migrants who have been severely impacted. Kumar said they depend on the crew “for all the work.”

Migrant fish-workers form an integral part of the mechanised fisheries sector. But they are invisible and often ostracised. They work in boat yards, net-repair shops and ice-plant factories that supply ice to preserve fish. They are also employed as crew members of large boats, such as trawlers and purse seiners—a boat equipped with a purse seine, a type of fishing net. Their jobs include labour-intensive work at or outside the harbour, such as loading and unloading the fish, hauling nets, ferrying fish stocks from trucks to the auction site, crushing ice, making ice and transporting stocks. 

As crew members of big boats, their earnings depend on the catch of each day and their location. For instance, on many boats in Mangaluru, 65 percent of the earnings go to the boat owner and the remaining is distributed among the crew. On an average, a catch worth one lakh rupees would give a crew member Rs 1,000. As workers in the mechanised sector are mostly not unionised, they can be rendered jobless at any time by their employers. 

Often, migrant workers bear the brunt of unplanned measures, such as the current lockdown, as they are dispensable. In a notice dated 29 March, the department of fisheries of Goa stated that “all the vessel owners are hereby informed that the fishing vessels after unloading their catch shall leave jetty with crew members to safe zones offshore and remain anchored.” Effectively, this meant that the crew will not be allowed to get out of the fishing vessels as long as the lockdown is in place. 

According to a report published in the Times of India on 2 April, around twenty-five thousand fishermen were stranded in boats anchored at the Porbandar, Veraval and Mangrol port areas of Gujarat. Over four thousand were stuck in Karnataka’s Mangaluru city itself at the time of the lockdown, according to Kumar, who is also the president of the Dakshin Kannada Trawl Boat Association. “Many managed to leave in time,” he said. The association is providing food and shelter to about four hundred fish workers who have been stuck at the harbour. 

Several non-profit organisations and fish-worker unions are tracking those who are stranded and coordinating relief efforts. Dakshin Foundation, a marine conservation non-profit based in Bengaluru, is one of them. “Our protocol is to first contact the district magistrate or district collector of the place where they are from,” Marianne Manuel, the assistant director of the foundation, said. “In cases where government action is limited, we reach out to civil society. Usually, it works with a coordination between the two.” Manuel said that the organisation has information of fish workers stranded in different parts of Goa, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Gujarat. Most of them are from Odisha, and some from Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. 

The non-profit is trying to help two groups in Goa. Asha Cherian, who also works at Dakshin Foundation, told me about one of the groups, of 150 to 200 fish workers from north Karnataka. The workers are living in boats just off the coast at Betul, in South Goa. There are thirty–forty workers on each boat, which are not docked at the jetty. The owners of the boats have given the crew instructions to stay at sea and supplied them with barely enough dry rations, Cherian said. As per the information gathered by the Dakshin Foundation, the fish workers have not been offered any extra health and safety precautions to combat COVID-19. The workers have been told that they can return to the dock after the lockdown period is over. 

The 29 March notice from the fisheries department of Goa placed the onus of providing the crew with ration on the boat owners. Manuel said, “There are many cases where the boat owners have stepped in to take responsibility, and many cases that they haven’t.” According to her, another group of about two hundred and sixty fish workers—from Odisha, Andhra Pradesh and Jharkhand—are stranded in Old Goa. The owners of their boats have provided them with accommodation and basic essentials like food, water and sanitation kits. Manuel said that the foundation has “just scratched the surface” and is trying to get more information from the ground.

On the other hand, two hundred and fifty daily-wagers—from Kallakurichi, a town in Tamil Nadu—who worked in ice plants for the Mandovi Fisherman Marketing Cooperative Society in Goa were fired post the lockdown, according to Jesu Rathinam, the convener of Coastal Action Network, a forum that works to protect the rights of coastal communities. They were stuck without sufficient ration, she said. The National Fishworkers Forum, a federation of trade unions of independent and small scale fish-workers, had found out about this and alerted Rathinam, who is also the director of a Tamil Nadu-based non-profit SNEHA. According to her, she contacted the Kallakurichi district administration, which got in touch with the government in Goa, and started the process of supplying basic essentials to the stranded group. 

Chakravarty said that the “contract-less seasonal employment model ensures that owners can bypass legal responsibility to maintain non-contracted workers, though it would be morally upon them to maintain and retain employment.” He added, “The state has to step in, which it has. But it needs to put in more effort since the lockdown isn’t planned keeping migrant fish-workers in mind.” 

On 28 March, the fourth day of the lockdown, the union ministry of fisheries sent an advisory asking all state governments and administrations of union territories “to ensure that adequate food, water shelter, essential sanitary supplies in light of Covid 19 and wages are continued to be made available as per the directives issued by various central Ministries and State Governments.” The letter also asked boat owners not to terminate the fish workers’ contracts, and to ensure that their families received supplies of ration. However, as fisheries is a state subject, the mantle to implement such requests lies upon the state governments. 

To soften the economic blow to the sector, the union ministry sent letters to the state departments on 26 and 30 March, requesting details of fish workers in their states, so that relief measures could be worked out. In the letter dated 30 March, it mentioned “one of the pre-requisites would be the availability of aadhaar linked bank account for direct transfer of benefit.” The National Fishworkers Forum asked the government to scrap this prerequisite. “Not everyone has Aadhaar cards and bank accounts, especially the migrant fish-workers who are daily wagers,” T Peter, the general secretary of the forum, said. “This is a time of crisis, and we would like them to ensure that everyone gets relief.”

Meanwhile, Narayan told me that he is “getting depressed.” He spends his time eating, sleeping and playing PUB-G, a popular game, on his phone. On 1 April, he took two of his mates to a government hospital because they showed signs of a fever. They were discharged by the doctors who said they were fine. “Now, everybody is scared that they have coronavirus,” he said. “I am tired and just want to go home to my family.”