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

04 April 2020
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
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

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. 

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    Supriya Vohra is an independent journalist based in Goa.

    Keywords: COVID-19 migrant workers