WSI: COVID-19 crisis will deepen gender inequalities in seafood sector

The COVID-19 outbreak will impact women to a worse degree than men and deepen existing gender inequalities, according to a new analysis by WSI, The International Organisation for Women in the Seafood Industry.

In addition to playing a major role in the global healthcare and care-giving workforce, women are also a key part of the food industry, and are currently working in more difficult circumstances than ever before, to maintain food security during the pandemic, the organization said.

According to WSI President Marie Christine Monfort, WFI, the division of labor in the seafood industry – with many women working cheek-by-jowl on processing lines – and mixing with the public in retail situations, means that they are more exposed to the virus.

Monfort said a strong gendered vertical division of labor in the industry, with the majority of ignored, invisible, unrecognized (IIU) women occupying low-revenue jobs, and men occupying the majority of higher paid management jobs, meant there will be an uneven impact of the COVID-19 crisis on the workforce.

“This means that coronavirus will strike genders differently, and the gender imbalance will shape the experiences of men and women unequally,” she said.

FAO estimates that women comprise 15 percent of the harvesting workforce, 70 percent of aquaculture workers, 80 to 90 percent of the seafood processing workforce, and represent 60 percent of seafood traders and retailers in Africa and Asia.

In seeking to identify likely differences in the effects and outcomes of the pandemic on women in the seafood sector, Monfort and WSI Project Manager Natalia Briceño-Lagos found that whereas higher paid, white-collar workers might have the opportunity to work from home or to not work, women at the lower end of the pay-scale were more likely to continue working to put food on the table. They also found that not all companies were able to afford to provide staff with sufficient personal protective equipment or a safe working environment, thereby putting women at risk of catching the virus.

Longer-term effects of COVID-19 are likely to include a global economic crash, and the International Labour Organisation estimates that up to 25 million jobs could be lost worldwide as a result. First on the firing line are likely to be temporary and casual workers, where women are disproportionally represented.

“This is already happening in the Chilean salmon industry, where production plants are reducing capacity and laying off workers,” Monfort said.

Monfort and Briceño-Lagos said they feared that in the aftermath of COVID-19, the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) will take on a lower priority, as the world struggles to overcome the severe economic impacts.

“Countries may not have the financial ability to address the climate crisis, let alone SGD #5, the United Nations goal that encompasses gender equality and women’s empowerment, and I worry that women’s progress could be put back by 50 years,” Monfort said.

Briceño-Lagos said she hopes that policy makers will learn from past mistakes in ignoring the needs and contribution of women, and make a concerted effort to address inequalities between women and men in the seafood sector.

“Research from other health crises such as ebola suggests that if we want to find the most effective ways to deal with COVID-19, all workers need to be involved in building a new future,” she said. 

Monfort said WSI is closely monitoring the impacts of the pandemic on the seafood industry and is setting up a data-collection program.

Photo courtesy of Pressmaster/Shutterstock


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