Why women are critical to ending labor abuses in the fishing industry

December 5, 2022
December 5, 2022
~5 min read

By Kate Ezzes, John Lundine and Nono Sumarsono


The fishing industry in Southeast Asia is an important sector in local and national economies, and as a source of employment for workers, particularly those with low levels of formal education. Nowhere is this more the case than in the archipelago nations of Indonesia and the Philippines. The fishing industry in the Philippines represents an estimated 1.2% of GDP, a figure which may underestimate its actual contribution as smaller-scale, domestic fishing operations are typically in the informal economy. Fishing employs hundreds of thousands of people in each country and supports millions.

The fishing industries in both countries are diverse, including vessels that fish in domestic and international waters. While not limited to these two countries, this diversity allows for labor abuses to often go undetected, includes forced labor and trafficking in persons. Fishers, almost exclusively men, regularly suffer abuse and debt enslavement when working on vessels, often perpetuated by employers. This has significant impacts for the well-being of fishers, their families and their communities.

The fishing industry’s impact on women

Plan International’s research under the U.S. Department of Labor’s Safeguarding Against and Addressing Fishers Exploitation at Sea (SAFE Seas) project has demonstrated the prevalence of abusive labor practices and dependence on debt. A total of 25% of women respondents in a SAFE Seas gender study in two fishing communities in Indonesia indicated that their husbands/partners had suffered labor abuses. This study also showed that fishers and their wives/partners did not understand their rights, and that local systems and structures did not systemically or comprehensively support fishers.

Fisher families also report a heavy dependency on loans and indebtedness of households, with half of Indonesian women respondents reporting challenges in repaying debts. These debts are commonly used for households’ basic needs and managed by women whose husbands/partners are at sea. Most of these women continue to rely on community or family support in cases of exploitation as they lack awareness on how to report grievances or seek compensation. SAFE Seas research shows similar patterns in the Philippines, including worker abuse and situations of debt enslavement. Continuous dependence on debt, oftentimes from employers, is twice as common among Filipino families who have been victims of FL/TIP.

Despite these egregious and evident labor rights violations, there has traditionally been a strong reluctance on behalf of fishers and their wives/partners to report violations. This is in large part due to their economic dependence on working as laborers on fishing vessels, a lack of well-functioning grievance reporting mechanisms and their sense of powerlessness. Together, these factors have a significant economic and emotional toll on fisher families and communities.

A young woman works in the fishing industry.
A young woman works in the fishing industry.

The role women play in ending FL/TIP

The SAFE Seas project has been addressing labor issues for the past five years in Indonesia and the Philippines. SAFE Seas’ approach includes actions at the national and local levels to improve enforcement by authorities to combat and reduce FL/TIP and to raise awareness of fishers’ rights and their access to grievance mechanisms. SAFE Seas has been one of the first efforts to systematically address FL/TIP issues and has increasingly empowered women as key actors to reduce FL/TIP in the fishing industry.

SAFE Seas specifically works to increase awareness of labor rights among fishers, wives/partners and other key stakeholders, and to improve access to reporting and remediation and community-based services. Approaches include collaborating with local governments to establish and support fisher centers in Indonesia, and working with Barangays and community protection mechanisms in the Philippines in coordination with the Inter-Agency Council Against Trafficking, which is a national-level entity. These centers and mechanisms serve both fishers and wives/partners.

One specific way in which women increasingly participate is in reporting abuse through formal mechanisms. These allow for receiving and referring labor complaints in-person or through text and phone hotlines. Hundreds of workers and women have obtained information through the fisher centers and many have logged complaints. To date, 81 formal reports of grievances have been made involving 212 fishers. All are either under investigation by the Indonesian Government or have closed after action was taken. Women have made approximately 25% of these formal complaints.

SAFE Seas also engages women in labor rights as cadres. By late 2022, more women than men were participating in this role. The main activities include understanding the Seafarer’s Employment Agreements, which regulate fishers’ work on vessels; coordinating with local-level governments in both countries; and developing action plans to reduce risks of exploitation of fishers at sea. In addition, women are working with other wives/partners of fishers, particularly those with less formal education and fewer resources, to disseminate information about fishers’ rights and available services. Women cadres have also been instrumental in supporting the establishment and functioning of two local-level early detection systems, which work in ports with a high prevalence of FL/TIP.

“Before I got to know the Fishing Vessel Crew Protection Cadres, I didn’t understand what it was like to work at sea [or] what rights my husband had working on a boat,” says Min Muhenkelambung, a fisher’s wife from North Sulawesi, Indonesia. “But after getting to know the cadres, I know better what rights my husband has and what work should be done as a fishing worker.”

Next steps

Engaging women in the fight against FL/TIP can accelerate progress in meaningful and important ways. However, there is more to do. While SAFE Seas has made progress in disseminating information about labor rights and FL/TIP, there is a need to increase awareness of the grievance mechanisms and to strengthen them, particularly in the Philippines. Future work in this area should continue to support women’s agency and participation more broadly, and support diversifying fisher household livelihoods to reduce reliance on debt from employers. In addition, social welfare programs should be expanded and specifically target the most vulnerable fisher families.