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100,000 Women in India's Seafood Sweatshops

by Ranjit Devraj

100,000 women in virtual slavery
(IPS) NEW DELHI -- Diners in some of Japan's finest restaurants have little idea that the seafood on their plates was made possible by thousands of Indian women working long hours in unhealthy conditions for a pittance.

India's billion-dollar marine food export industry is under fire from labor and women's rights groups who allege gross violation of legally guaranteed minimum working norms by the thousands of seafood processing units strung out along India's over 7,000 km coastline.

The groups have launched a nationwide campaign to secure the rights of these women workers. The drive has been organized by the National Campaign on Labor Rights (NCLR) which has appealed to Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee to ensure implementation of basic labor laws in privately owned seafood processing units.

"The need is daily more urgent in India to put an end once and for all to forced labor," said Mary Johnson, director of the International Labor Oganisation (ILO)'s area office for India and Bhutan which is backing the campaign.

Last year, Japan imported from Indian seafood producers $500 million worth of shrimp, cuttlefish, squids, octopuses, sea cucumbers and sharks. European, American and Southeast Asian buyers accounted for $580 million combined.

So promising is the Japanese market that the government's Marine Products Export Development Agency (MPEDA) has opened offices in Tokyo. Agency brochures offer to cater even to individual tastes of Japanese buyers. The Japanese, like the Europeans and Americans, are strict about quality and regularly send inspection teams to the Indian seafood factories that hire an estimated 100,000 girls and women.

However, trade unions and rights groups allege that in the rush to earn dollars, local authorities ignore glaring violations of labor laws.

The women workers spend long hours peeling shrimps, filleting fish, finning sharks, shelling mollusks, dressing octopuses and partially cooking crabs.

Moreover, they are held virtually captive by the factory owners, made to sleep in cramped living quarters directly above the processing units, inhaling the stench of fish and ammonia refrigerant, noted an investigation of working condition in industry.

Even the federal Labor Ministry has admitted that all is not right with the seafood units.

"Large numbers of workers in these establishments (processing units) are migrant workers, generally women who are extremely vulnerable to exploitation and have characteristics similar to unorganized workers," said an official ministry note.

"In the larger context of the labor force of the country (estimated at 314 million) they represent a small segment, often voiceless, often neglected, but significant in terms of their contribution to the economy and particularly in terms of their vulnerability to exploitation," the note added.

$30 per month with cost of daily meal deducted
The plight of these women is movingly brought out in a booklet produced by the NCLR as part of the ILO-backed awareness campaign on the issue.

It tells the real life story of Suja Abraham, a young woman worker who was crippled trying to escape from forcible confinement in a processing unit at Thane, near the western port city of Mumbai.

Abraham's case motivated other women workers in the industry to rally to her help and successfully seek legal help. Two years ago, ruling on a petition for damages, the Mumbai High Court ordered her employers to pay Abraham $60 every month for the rest of her life as compensation.

This is twice what workers like her are paid on average every month. But, half of the $30 the women earn monthly in many of the processing units at Thane, is deducted as charges for the daily meal of thin rice gruel. Working hours stretch from three in the morning to ten at night.

According to rights groups, the women are not allowed to buy basic needs, make or receive telephone calls or even write letters. There were also several complaints of sexual harassment and physical violence by unit managers.

"A total control over the lives of the women workers is an important characteristic of this industry," said a published letter addressed to the Ministry of Labor by the campaigners.

The letter describes the working conditions as "very harsh." Handling ice-cold marine food for long hours is said to cause arthritis and skin disorders, while cases of malaria, chickenpox and jaundice have also been reported.

According to Shobhana Warrier, who studied working condition in the industry for the New Delhi-based Center for Education and Communication, evidence of the women being sexually exploited could be seen in the fact that a large number of them complained or urinary tract problems and discharges.

"A large number of the women are prone to sexual overtures at the workplace and often women are willing to trade sexual favors in return for a secure advantageous status at the workplace," Warrier noted.

India, a founding member of the ILO, ratified the Forced Labor Convention in 1954 and committed itself to eradicate "forced or compulsory labor in all its forms within the shortest possible period."

But ILO official Johnson observed that, "this aim is one which has not been achieved with either the speed or to the extent which was hoped forty and more years ago."

"(However) social forces which encourage change cannot win the battle in a day," she added.

Rights and labor groups have been encouraged by the Mumbai High Court's ruling in the Abraham case that gave access to processing units to women's organizations.

It was this that made it possible for the Bharatiya Mahila (Indian Women's) Federation to document the circumstances in which these women are forced to work.

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Albion Monitor July 31, 2000 (

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