"If you want to become a real Burmese man, you need to work as a fisher in the sea once in your life," a friend on a trip to Myanmar’s fishing regions told me. Apparently, quite a few young men from the cities take this saying literally, signing up for 15 days on a fishing boat in the Andaman Sea—just for the experience. What serves as an adventure for some men though, is a tough survival strategy for others.
Myanmar’s fisheries sector is highly important for the country: The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimated in 2012 that between 12 million and 15 million of Myanmar’s 52 million inhabitants are involved in the sector. With an annual per capita consumption of 42 kg, domestic fish consumption in Myanmar ranks among the highest in the world.
I was sitting on a straw mattress in a little hut of a fishing family in Po Oo San village in Myanmar’s Delta Region, surrounded by some curious villagers. I came here to learn what challenges small-scale fishers are facing in the context of diminishing fish stocks and their access to fishing grounds. As I have learned, fish stocks of both marine and inland fisheries have tremendously decreased within the past decades. The fishers were telling me that every year there are fewer and fewer fish for them to catch. Those small-scale fishers do not have access to most of the productive fishing grounds, which are auctioned by the Department of Fisheries to a few influential businessmen every year. The devastating impacts that the increasing number of cyclones are having on huts and fishing gear further contribute to the deterioration of their living conditions.
Because alternative income-generating opportunities are limited, some fishers go to Naukme, where they engage in shrimp catching. They told me about the severe working conditions that await them there. When we finished, I set off for Naukme for my own picture of the situation.
Naukme village is located in the southern tip of the Ayeyarwaddy Region, close to the shore of the Andaman Sea. The village is known for its huge kyarr phong shrimp business. According to a local businessman, around 60 per cent of Myanmar’s total marine shrimp catch is caught and processed into shrimp paste here.
Kyarr phong, or tiger mouth net, is a fishing practice by which a large fishing net is attached under a bamboo raft. Traditionally, kyarr phong fishing was used in large rivers to catch small prawns. The practice was later adopted for shrimp catching in the Andaman Sea.
According to researchers Yin Nyein and Sebastian Mathew in a 2017 report for Aquatic Commons, 349 bamboo rafts were registered in the country in 2017. Local authorities I met with in Naukme village estimated the number of operating rafts at between 1,000 and 1,500—in Naukme only.
When kyarr phong fishing operations took off in the Andaman Sea in the 1970s, they were restricted to a two-month period. Because shrimp catching turned into a lucrative business, the fishing season was extended, now lasting from mid-September to the end of May.
In Naukme, some businessmen explained how the business operates: Three to four men live and work on each bamboo raft. When the season begins, big boats tow the rafts in clusters of eight to the fishing grounds where they anchor—up to 30 nautical miles from the shore. Due to this large distance, the workers who sign up for a period of up to nine months, stay on the raft the whole season. Every six hours, they pull up the net to empty it. They boil the shrimps and lay them on the roof in the sun to dry.
A large boat collects and delivers the catches to the coast once a day. On land, the shrimps are processed into shrimp paste. Most of the workers who engage into shrimp processing are the wives of the men fishing on the rafts. Once the shrimp are turned into paste, the products are sold to merchants who export them to China, Thailand or Singapore. For the businessmen owning the rafts, it is a lucrative business.
While open to explaining the shrimp-catching business, the businessmen also seemed anxious to not let me out of their sight during my stay. Constantly followed by a group of authorities, I went to the riverbank where the rafts are constructed. For one raft, around 100 bamboo poles are needed. At the end of each season, the rafts are so demolished that they are left in the sea to biodegrade.
To my surprise, the businessmen also openly talked to me about the salaries and working conditions of the fishers on the rafts. Workers receive a monthly salary of 120,000–140,000 Myanmar kyats (75–90 US dollars), they said, depending on employer, years of experience and the amount of shrimp that are caught.
During the eight months that the fishers stay on the raft, they have no chance to communicate with their family. The businessmen fear "their" workers might run away once they are back ashore, which is why they keep them out to sea for the duration of the season. The employers make sure the workers on any one raft do not know each other beforehand because, as one man explained, "If we leave four people who come from the same village on one raft, they will cut off the rope and run away." Because of this fear, the workers are neither supplied with paddles nor life jackets—even though many of them do not know how to swim.
The collector boats bring them firewood and rice. The luckier workers occasionally receive some vegetables. How often the fishers obtain food strongly depends on the benevolence of their employer. It is no surprise that many fishers become seriously ill from the lack of nutrients due to the poor food supply.
In case of sickness or emergency, the only option to call for help is via a white flag and a torch that every raft is given. But only if a collector boat is nearby and carrying some medicine on board will anyone receive basic treatment.
Changing weather conditions and the increasing frequency of cyclones affect the shrimp industry and workers’ safety at sea. The fishers I talked with feel increasingly unsafe on the rafts. In their view, cyclones have increased in both number and intensity since Cyclone Nargis hit the Delta Region in 2008. Usually, as I was told, the rafts are not pulled back to the coast when a storm arises. Some fishers have experienced heavy storms, with many of them drowning.
Local authorities explained that the inaccuracy of weather predictions and production losses due to heavy storms are major challenges for this form of fishing. Upon further request on implications for the fishers, they admitted that a few people “die on the rafts” when cyclones strike.
If working conditions are so dangerous, why then are people committing themselves to this form of slave labour? The fishers I talked with from Po Oo San said they are aware of the conditions that await them. Some have been engaging in kyarr phong fishing for years, starting at the age of 10. A mother who fears her son might not be coming back again said, "They are gambling with their life. It’s so dangerous, so many people die under these weather conditions."
The answer to my question of course relates to income. Fishers receive the bulk of their wages before they start working. The businessmen from Naukme send their staff around the country to recruit young men for fishing operations. They approach the most vulnerable families who are in desperate need of cash. The chance of instantly receiving enough money for their family to survive on in the coming months lures them into signing a contract through which they commit themselves to working on a raft, regardless of the danger or the inhumane conditions.
"If you receive the advance money, you cannot deny going. Whether you are in good health or you are sick, if they tell you to go, you have to go." – A fishers testimony.
Not going to Naukme when the businessmen are calling is not an option. If they do not appear, their families are threatened and chased after.
If the workers could choose, they would engage in other workplaces. But working opportunities in their region of origin are rare, and migrating to a city requires resources. "If I could, I would move to Yangon with my family. Yangon has so many opportunities. But I don’t have the money to leave," explained a young man in Po Oo San.
Others feel restricted due to a lack of working skills and education. "I don’t know where else I could work. I have always been a fisher and the only thing I can do is to fish," another fisher lamented.
Kyarr phong fishing is not restricted to Naukme but has spread off Mawlamyine, in Mon State. In total, around 50,000 fishers, all men and mostly unskilled, are working on these rafts, Nyein and Mathew estimated in their 2017 report. A few activists from Yangon are supporting the fishers and their families who are suffering from the deteriorating working conditions. But they are facing heavy difficulties, explained during an interview the general secretary of the Agriculture and Farmer Federation of Myanmar, an organization helping fishers out of precarious livelihood conditions:
We investigated some complaints we received from fishing families. It’s very challenging. The employers have good relations with government authorities. They pay them. When we asked the official authority to take action and protect people from working till death, their reply was: "That’s nature. People are being killed every year. You have to forget it".
Fighting for better working conditions and safety at sea appears extremely challenging, particularly because "there is a very, very long history of corruption in the fisheries in Myanmar," expressed with concern a programme coordinator of the international research organization dealing with sustainable fisheries WorldFish. In this context, the investigation of working conditions can become quite dangerous. Furthermore, the labour laws do not apply to fishers. According to a government report, when the Social Security Law was adopted in 2012, establishments engaging with seasonal fishery were excluded from associated obligations.
Much needs to change in terms of working conditions, labour laws and safety measures and their enforcement. Ensuring that workers can swim before they can work on a raft and providing every one of them with a life jacket and safety kit are the least to be done. In terms of policy, more security could be ensured by prohibiting shrimp-catching activities in May, when cyclones tend to occur. Moreover, fishers require better education and opportunities that will enable them to choose the type of work they want to engage with, rather than being pushed into a corner due to their poverty.
Unfortunately, as long as shrimp catching remains a lucrative business for the involved companies and no measures are put in place to protect the fishers from the abusive working conditions, the slave labour practice will continue and many of the avoidable injuries and deaths will prevail.
The author wishes to extend a special thanks to the Network Activities Group Myanmar for the information and photos provided.
Lisa Binder has been researching labour conditions in the fishery sector in Myanmar. For more information on the topic and the work by FES in Myanmar, contact the country office in Yangon and follow their Facebook fan page for daily updates.
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