With the development of industrialized fish processing in the 19th and 20th centuries, wives and families were displaced from household-based processing and vending, and ended up unemployed or working for fish companies. The introduction of corporate-owned trawlers and, more recently, corporate-owned fish quotas (in the form of enterprise allocations and individual transferable quotas) has displaced male fishers. Changes of this kind have transformed many fishery communities into one-industry villages.
There are different kinds of one-industry fishery villages, but all are characterized by high dependence on a single employer for employment, and significant corporate influence within the community and sometimes the home lives of workers. In the most extreme case, one-industry fishery villages are actually company towns, in which a single corporation owns not only the plant and some of the vessels, but also local housing, stores, medical services and so on, and exercises significant control over local government representatives, the media and other social institutions.
Somewhat more common are villages in which local employment is dominated by a single, often vertically integrated corporate employer that uses its control over employment and markets to indirectly influence local politics and other social institutions associated with the family and community lives of workers. The definition of one-industry fishery villages can also be extended to include fish-processing firms that, despite their location within larger communities that are not fishery dependent, operate with significant autonomy from those communities. This structure is common in the shrimp-processing industry of India, which makes extensive use of young female migrant labourers, often recruited by contractors from nearby states. These workers generally live in compounds on company property. They are cut off from the local community by long working hours, a lack of kinship connections and by linguistic barriers. Such workplaces are like company towns in that companies exert significant influence over the non-working lives of their workers, and workers cannot easily turn to local authorities and other members of the community for support.
Economic uncertainty, unemployment, marginalization within decision-making processes, low income and limited access to and control over services are important determinants of health. These are all, to varying degrees, features of one-industry fishery villages. Fluctuations in fisheries markets and both natural and fishery-related fluctuations in the availability of fishery resources are a fundamental feature of fishery communities. Such fluctuations generate social and economic uncertainty. Fishery communities and households have often developed institutions that help them survive these periods of uncertainty. However, these fluctuations appear to be occurring more frequently in recent years. In the current context of global overfishing of commercial fish stocks, shifting effort to new species and regions, the globalization of markets and the development of aquacultured products which compete with wild fishery products in the marketplace, increased employment uncertainty, plant closures and low incomes are becoming common. In addition, when closures occur, they are more likely to be permanent because the resource is gone and work has moved elsewhere.
Employment uncertainty and unemployment are important sources of psychosocial stress that may affect men and women differently. The displaced worker/fisher must grapple with loss of self-esteem, loss of income, stress and, in extreme cases, loss of family wealth. Other family members must cope with the effects of workers’ displacement on their home and working lives. For example, household strategies for coping with prolonged male absence can become a problem when trawler workers find themselves unemployed and their wives find the autonomy and routines that helped them survive male absence threatened by the prolonged presence of displaced husbands. In small-scale fishing households, wives may have to adjust to longer absences and social isolation as their family members go further afield to find fish and employment. Where wives were also dependent on the fishery for wage employment, they may also have to struggle with the effects of their own unemployment on their health.
The stress of unemployment can be greater in one-industry communities where plant closures threaten the future of entire communities and the economic costs of job loss are enhanced by a collapse in the value of such personal assets as homes and cottages. Where, as is often the case, finding alternative employment requires moving away, there will be additional stresses on workers, their spouses and their children associated with displacement. When plant closures are accompanied by the transfer of fish quotas to other communities and the erosion of local educational, medical and other services in response to out migration and the collapse of local economies, the threats to health will be greater.
Dependence on a single employer can make it difficult for workers to participate in decision-making processes. In fisheries, as in other industries, some corporations have used the one-industry structure to control workers, oppose unionization and manipulate public understandings of issues and developments within the workplace and beyond. In the case of the Indian shrimp processing industry, migrant female processing workers suffer from terrible living conditions, extremely long hours, compulsory overtime and routine violation of their work contracts. In western countries, corporations may use their role as gate-keepers controlling seasonal workers’ eligibility for such programmes as unemployment insurance in negotiations with workers concerning unionization and working conditions. Workers in some one-industry towns are unionized, but their role in decision-making processes can still be mitigated by limited employment alternatives, by a desire to find local employment for their wives and children and by ecological and economic uncertainty. Workers can experience a sense of helplessness and may feel obliged to keep working despite illness when their ability to access work, housing and social programmes is controlled by a single employer.
Limited access to adequate medical services is also a psychosocial stressor. In company towns, medical professionals may be company employees and, as in mining and other industries, this can limit workers’ access to independent medical advice. In all types of one-industry villages, cultural, class and other differences between medical personnel and fishworkers, and high rates of turnover among medical professionals, can limit the quality of local medical services. Medical personnel rarely come from fishery communities and hence are often unfamiliar with the occupational health risks fishworkers encounter and the stresses associated with life in one-industry towns. Turnover rates among such personnel may be high due to relatively low professional incomes and discomfort with rural lifestyles and unfamiliar fishery cultures. In addition, medical personnel may tend to associate more with local elites, such as the plant management, than with workers and their families. These patterns can interfere with doctor-patient relations, continuity of care and medical expertise relevant to fisheries work. Access to appropriate diagnostic services for such fishery-related illnesses as repetitive strain injuries and occupational asthma may be very limited in these communities. Loss of work can also interfere with access to medical services by eliminating access to drug programmes and other insured medical services.
Strong social supports can help mitigate the health effects of unemployment, displacement and economic uncertainty. One-industry villages can encourage the development of dense social and kinship-based ties between workers and, particularly if plants are locally owned, between workers and employers. These social supports can mitigate the effects of economic vulnerability, difficult working conditions and ecological uncertainty. Family members can watch out for each other in the workplace and sometimes help out when workers get into financial trouble. Where fishery workers are able to maintain some economic independence through subsistence activities, they can retain more control over their lives and work than where access to these is lost. Increasing employment uncertainty, plant closures and local competition for jobs and government-adjustment programmes can erode the strength of these local networks, contributing to conflict and isolation within these communities.
When plant closures mean moving away, displaced workers risk loss of access to these social networks of support and subsistence-related sources of independence.