Exploitative working conditions in the dried fish sector in Bangladesh are undermining the well-being of workers, while at the same time potentially contributing to the positive well-being of those who employ them. This is the finding of new research by WorldFish and partners that sheds an important light on the largely ‘invisible’ dried fish sector in Bangladesh, and enhances the concept of well-being in small-scale fisheries research.
Dried fish in Bangladesh
Dried fish is an important food in the diet in Bangladesh. It accounts for the fourth largest share of fish consumed and is the most accessible type of fish for consumers across all income levels. In some regions, dried fish is the most frequently eaten type of fish, and its consumption is particularly important for poor consumers.
Yet despite its importance, the dried fish sector in Bangladesh has largely been overlooked in fisheries research.
Mostly, research has focused on fishers and the benefits generated by small-scale fisheries, such as their contribution to food, employment and gross domestic product, as well as the meanings and social connections they provide to the people engaged in them.
This has created an assumption that small-scale fisheries have a positive impact on the well-being—linked to material, subjective and relational values—of all actors involved, including those in processing and marketing.
But the new research, undertaken at three major processing sites in Bangladesh, finds this is not the case for dried fish workers.
Most workers engaged in fish drying are employed by fish drying operators. Typically, workers are hired under unfavorable working conditions. This is exacerbated by the geographic and social conditions in fish drying locations, and the fact that most dried fish workers are poor and unskilled with no alternate job opportunities.
In Naziratek, close to Cox’s Bazar, for example, the settlement of a large group of fishing households displaced by natural disasters coincided with an influx of Rohingya refugees from Myanmar. These groups competed with members of poor households in the fishing community for work, which in turn lowered wages.
In another example, fish drying operators on Dublar Char island often hire temporary workers on very low wages and under slave-like conditions because the island’s remoteness in the Sundarbans puts it almost beyond the reach of state governance.
Compounding these problems in the dried fish sector in Bangladesh is the common practice of in-kind payments or a cash piece rate. For instance, in Daspara village, northern Bangladesh, most of the women workers’ income is in the form of fish gut, a by-product of processing, which is boiled at home for around one hour to produce fish oil that can be sold for an income. In other places, workers sometimes receive a share of the catch as payment, which has clear disadvantages when catches are small.
A key factor enabling these exploitative practices is the ‘subordinate’ positions of workers in the dried fish sector in Bangladesh, which are often linked to their gender or ethnicity.
In Daspara, women make up the majority of dried fish workers, partly due to a sense of communal identity and the obligation this entails. But this burden of self-exploitation does not extend to male fish drying workers, who are paid in cash and earn twice the daily wage of their female counterparts.
As for Rohingya workers, they are seen as ‘outsiders’ who make trouble and contaminate the local culture, meaning they are often ill-treated and more vulnerable to harassment from their ‘local’ managers.
Well-being in the dried fish sector in Bangladesh
Together, these labor arrangements provide distinct benefits to fishers and fish drying operators/producers, by ensuring the existence of a constantly available but highly flexible supply of low-cost labor. This can be used on demand to catch, transport and process the widely fluctuating volumes of fish landed.
In addition, these practices enable producers to minimize cash outlays and transfer the risks of fishing in Bangladesh, such as the variability of fish catches, to fish drying workers.
Yet despite the exploitative nature of these practices, their impact on workers’ well-being and identity varies.
For poor and vulnerable women who voluntarily work in the fish drying sector, they find the experience to be mostly positive because it provides them with vital income and greater autonomy.
But for the Rohingya workers, who engage in this sector out of an urgent need for money, the exploitative practices have a negative impact on their well-being. This is also the case for the dhulabanga—landless, unemployed and homeless young men and adolescents—who only engage in the sector under the threat of physical violence.
Overall, the research shows that well-being can have a dark side for many workers in the dried fish sector, and at the same time can benefit other actors in the value chain. This calls for researchers to focus their attention on workers, not only on fishers, to better assess the well-being of all actors engaged in the dried fish sector in Bangladesh and beyond.