Labour in a Fijian tuna cannery is enough to make you weep,
reckons 'Atu Emberson-Bain. She talks with women* on the production line
about the human and environmental cost of working for world markets.
A sea of white uniforms and heavy black boots. Hundreds of heads bent and hands moving deftly. Piles of cooked fish taking the conveyor-belt ride. The hypnotic pounding of machinery. Sweat spilling out of over-active pores, and noses tightening to shut out the stench of rotten fish – until the siren wails though Fiji’s showcase tuna cannery.
In the quaint port-town of Levuka, on the tiny island of Ovalau, the trappings of foreign influence are evocative of European trade and settlement in the mid-nineteenth century. Now, each morning, hundreds of village women are transported into town by truck. The mothers come accompanied by their school-age children who part with them at the factory gates. A switch in traditional gender roles has put dependent husbands in charge of pre-schoolers – in theory at least. This is a cultural revolution that has delivered its fair share of domestic tensions and social upheavals.
In the single wooden room of her union’s office, Vere quietly weeps as she recalls the pain of her recent dismissal and anticipates the struggle that lies ahead. A single mother of three children, she already knows what hardship and loneliness are about. But they pale into insignificance before a far grimmer future without the production-line job she has had for 13 years, processing skipjack and albacore tuna for the consumer markets of Europe and North America.
‘The way I see it,’ she says, ‘most of us mothers who have been laid off now, we are sole earners for our families... I, for instance, have a child at secondary school and one at primary... Now that I don’t work any more I know there’s no-one else to help me. Where will I find the money for fares, pencils, books and school fees?’
Vere is not alone. She is one of around 90 women singled out for dismissal by the management of the tuna cannery, the Fiji-based Pacific Fishing Company. Better-known as PAFCO, the company enjoys a monopoly in the export of canned tuna. Since 1987 – coincidentally the year of the country’s first-ever military coup – it has been state-owned. There are few reminders left now of the previous Japanese management.
PAFCO is struggling to survive a financial crisis. Despite an injection of Australian aid five years ago, a sell-out to foreign (Canadian or Australian) interests is a serious option. Recent plant closures – officially attributed to fish shortages – have been the prelude to pleas for a government bail-out. In the meantime, the finger of blame for a five-year run of embarrassing deficits is pointed at low worker productivity.
Pressure from international agencies like the World Bank, to invest in development that will deliver higher levels of growth, makes fisheries a logical choice. So does the extraordinarily lucrative sashimi market in Japan. Yet the region still only retains between four and six per cent of the value of reported tuna catches. And there is no longer any room for complacency about tuna stocks – in June 1997 a major conference of Pacific governments on conservation takes place.
Canneries nonetheless offer a seductive package. All three of the region’s operational tuna canneries enjoy, for the time being, duty-free entry into the American market for the Pago Pago (American Samoa) canneries and into the European Union for Fiji and the Solomon Islands. PAFCO’s tuna exports have earned Fiji over $130 million in foreign exchange since 1987. They have also secured prestigious market outlets, like John West in Canada and Sainsbury in Britain.
One feature of PAFCO and its Solomon Islands counterpart, Solomon Taiyo, does suggest some responsiveness to the environmental lobby. Pole-and-line fishing is common to both. While producing superior-quality fish, it runs a poor race against its purse-seiner (trawl-net) rival which can catch close to ten times more fish. Pole-and-line is, however, relatively fish-friendly – if one excludes the long-suffering tuna, that is – because the by-catch is minimal. Compassion for the dolphin has proved a convenient ‘spinner’ in the North American market.
But the pole-and-line technology is problematic too. It needs bait fish. While there is no proven connection between dwindling food stocks and the night-time ‘invasion’ of the pole-and-line boats in search of bait, local villagers remain sceptical. According to one village chief on Ovalau: ‘It is at night that the daniva (sardine) go back to the deeper water to sleep. But when they are sleeping the nets come and catch them. In the morning, when they come in near the shore, the women search for food and there is none.’
The depletion of inshore subsistence stocks threatens Ovalau’s coastal communities, creating greater dependence on expensive, less nutritious, imported food – including canned fish from Thailand. Encroachment on traditional fishing grounds also dishonours the ancestral gods. For Pacific Islanders a special, non-material attachment to the land is matched by a spiritual affinity with the sea. It is this link that makes cavalier resource plunder and environmental spoliation a deeply felt offence.
The cannery predilection is also disturbing, given the conditions on production lines. As elsewhere in the world, women form the backbone of labour on the lines. Indulgent labour reserves – in the case of Pago Pago, migrants from Western Samoa and Tonga – and patriarchal cultures help to create the right mix for cheap and dependent workers. The hourly wage for production-line workers is equivalent to one US dollar for women, ten cents short of the minimum rate for men. Deductions can bring down gross weekly earnings to as little as three dollars.
Low disposable incomes have forced many women to take out hefty bank loans. A system of unsecured personal loans provides a flourishing trade for the Australian-owned bank, Westpac, which has a monopoly in the town and is PAFCO’s paymaster. Repayment schedules are punishing, interest rates are high and the feeling of being trapped in a perpetual cycle of debt imposes a heavy psychological burden.
The heat, the long hours of standing and the smell of rotten fish are common complaints of PAFCO workers. Marica is a mother of two and sees the poor facilities as directly responsible for her health problems: ‘I work at the section that packs fish into tins. Right now there are about 314 women working. The place is not suitable for us. The conditions have brought us a lot of sickness that we have not seen before, like asthma, pain in our joints, and the bottom of our feet feels numb.’
Taina agrees: ‘There’s another big problem in PAFCO, and that is the fish-meal plant. In the Japanese time the plant was in Draiba village. But now they’ve got it right inside the factory. And when the fish is left over for say a day or two the whole town gets the smell.’
The last few years have witnessed a souring of relations between workers and management. In 1993 there was a bitter strike that forced an unpopular manager to take unscheduled leave and saw 12 strikers prosecuted. In the past, efforts were made to respect the family and community responsibilities of working mothers. Today, women are no longer given leave to care for a sick child and risk dismissal if they do not show up for work. Discipline is stringent, with talking banned, toilet visits discouraged and wage deductions made for late arrivals.
Workers are classified according to the average number of kilos of fish they clean in a day.
Esiteri, an old hand, describes how the new productivity system works: ‘Supervisors on the line used to count the bones for each woman every hour. Every woman should have at least 30 bones. Most women get 20 something but it’s hard to get 30. But now they say we have to get at least 300 kilos of fish cleaned at the end of each day. When they add everything up at the end of the week, if you haven’t got the 300 kilos a day, you are laid off.’ Many of the latest ‘retrenchment’ victims simply failed to process the minimum 300 kilos.
Esiteri indicates that the pressures to raise output are reaching intolerable levels. ‘What’s worse is that now, if the conveyor belt doesn’t bring the fish quickly, the women run to clean their own fish. And they hardly go to the toilet because they’re worried about getting their target.’
Graham Southwick, a high flyer in Fiji’s export fisheries – notably in the Japanese sashimi market – puts it bluntly: ‘PAFCO lost its focus a long time ago. It has believed that it is some kind of social-welfare operation. And you can’t be both a profitable operation and a social-welfare set-up... When the cupboard is bare, the cupboard is bare... Get back to the basic rules: make profits, that is.’
According to the architect of the new system, acting Permanent Secretary for Fisheries Peniasi Kunatuba: ‘Overseas canneries are stricter than ours about clocking in and out. But with our communal system, this would be a bit too drastic. We just need a few rules to give workers a sense of belonging, that will instil in them a sense of responsibility.’
Fundamentalist Christian fervour now permeates the shop floor. There are prayer meetings before the start of work, charismatic religious broadcasts during lunch hour and a ban on adultery on pain of dismissal – an extraordinary invasion of privacy.
This offers one of many twists of irony in post-coup Fiji. Fuelled by an ostensibly ‘politically correct’ ideology, the 1987 coups helped to consolidate the ‘indigenous’ character of PAFCO management and ownership. The favours stop, however, when it comes to the production line. Indeed, for the hundreds of Fijian women who ultimately deliver all those cans for export, the rhetoric of indigenous rights seems pretty hollow.
As Pacific Island states move over into the fast lane of ‘development’ there will probably be many more casualties like Vere. Whatever the current shifts in thinking by the World Bank, this institution has done a fine hatchet job on any idea that the Pacific Island state might have a legitimate role to play in guiding economic activity, or a moral responsibility to deliver equitable development.
To talk nowadays of anything beyond ‘an enabling climate for investors’ risks outright ridicule. And there is one interesting paradox. Deregulation of the labour market – part and parcel of the new market religion – involves a level of state intervention in organized labour reminiscent of colonial days.
Union solidarity in the old colonial town of Levaka hangs together by a fine thread. Its women members are visibly bewildered by the strong-arm tactics of an employer who is supposedly ‘one of them’. On the walls of their office, Old Testament verses and a picture of military coup-maker, Prime Minister Rabuka, testify to the complex and contradictory features of their struggle.
A heavy silence follows Vere’s story. In true Pacific style, the men – like the women – allow their eyes to fill with tears. The nervous but impassioned voice of a young man breaks the silence.
‘After two years of working for PAFCO,’ he says, ‘it hurts me deeply when I watch the women working, standing from early morning to five o’clock in the afternoon peeling and cleaning fish... I watch them every day, especially the older women, and I wonder why they’re still working. It shows how hard it is to make a living on Ovalau. But to be treated in this way – I really can’t agree with the company. It is too rough with the women. That is why I supported the women and walked off with them when they were sent out.’
This is inspiring testimony to the way gender, generational and other cultural barriers can be transcended. In this tightly knit island community, the seeds of a collective struggle may yet come to flower.
’Atu Emberson-Bain, a Tongan-born Fiji national, is a researcher and activist on labour, development, mining and women’s issues with an interest in making video and radio documentaries. Her published work includes Labour and Gold in Fiji, Cambridge University Press, 1994 and the editing of Sustainable Development or Malignant Growth? Perspectives of Pacific Island Women, Marama Publications, Suva, Fiji, 1994.