Chinese fishing firms recruiting internationally as domestic labor sources dry up

Published on
February 17, 2021

Chinese distant-water fishing firms are stepping up their international recruiting as they fail to compete for domestic labor on wages.

The latest China Fisheries Yearbook, based on 2019 data, shows declining numbers of workers in the fisheries sector, even as incomes rise. Per capita income for fishermen rose by 6.15 percent in 2019 to CNY 21,108 (USD 3,377, EUR 2,744) – up considerably on the figure for 2015, which was CNY 15,594 (USD 2,495, EUR 2,027), according to data from the yearbook, published by China’s Ministry of Agriculture.

But while the average income for fishermen rose in China, it remains low next to the average pay for a manufacturing job in southern China. A factory recruitment agency in Donguan advertised monthly rates of CNY 6,000 (USD 960, EUR 780) in December 2020, including dorm lodging and meals, for workers on a five-and-a-half-day week. These wages have increased significantly from CNY 3,500 (USD 560, EUR 455) quoted by SeafoodSource from the same labor exchange in 2017. The Chinese manufacturing sector has thrived due to the global demand for personal protective equipment and other medical products created by the COVID-19 pandemic.

China’s fishing companies, which are based in the country’s more prosperous coastal regions, have faced rising costs as China’s labor rates have risen. China’s key distant-water port of Zhoushan has in recent years sought to attract workers from inland China to staff its vessels by offering social entitlements and access to education for their children. Other fishery companies have contracting with employment agencies to recruit in less wealthy inland cities and even in detention centers.

The Chinese labor pool shrank for the first time in 2017, as did the total number of those who describe their primary occupation as “fisherman.” According to the fisheries yearbook, there were 18.2 million engaged in fisheries full-time in 2019, down 2.6 percent year-on-year. Numbers fell from 20.65 million in 2013 to 19.31 million in 2017, a 6.4 percent decrease. There has been a similar decline in workers engaged in fisheries including processing and distribution – it stands at 12.9 million, down 2.57 percent year-on-year and down from 13.8 million in 2016. Employment agencies to recruit in less wealthy inland cities and even in detention centers.

At the same time, Chinese distant-water fishing firms continue to run afoul of international norms for social standards onboard their vessels. The U.S. recently added the Chinese distant-water fishing industry to the List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor, claiming it is using forced labor to catch tuna, which is shipped hope to China for either domestic consumption or processing for sale to foreign buyers.

Recently, the nonprofit organization Human Rights at Sea (HRAS) publicized the story of an Indonesian crew that claimed they were subject to abuse onboard the Chinese-owned, Fiji-flagged fishing vessel He Shun 38. The crewmen were repatriated to Indonesia with some of their back pay, though nine months of wages are still due, according to HRAS. In response, the Fiji Fishing Industry Association (FFIA) delisted the He Shun from its Marine Stewardship Council certificate. This comes after a series of incidents in 2020 involving Chinese tuna firms accused of mistreating their Indonesian workers, resulting in worker deaths, with one major Dalian-based Chinese supplier of sashimi currently the focus of an Indonesian government investigation

Photo courtesy of wisnupriyono/Shutterstock  

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