12 / 1997
The re-introduction of dragger technology in the 1950s, which coincided with Newfoundland’s modernisation phase, has led to the alienation of women from their traditional involvement with the industry. A census taken between 1891 and 1921 on Fogo Island, for instance, showed that the number of women engaged in the fishery at that time ranged from 40.5 per cent to 43.4 per cent of the total work force. It is also notable that, in the 1950s, trapmen of Seldom, Fogo Island, sent out their fish to be cured on a piece-work basis to other outports due to a shortage of female labour in Seldom.The over-harvesting made possible by the modern dragging technology, combined with bad science and gross mismanagement, has had a negative impact particularly on women fishworkers of rural Newfoundland. Fish plants are almost always the largest employers in rural fishing communities, especially of women, and the steady decline in fish landings has meant a decline in fish plant work.The realisation that women workers were being displaced by overfishing was recorded in a 1991 government survey which discovered that 2,850 plant workers would not be eligible for unemployment insurance due to a shortage of fish landed. The political issues at stake get highlighted when one realises that government officials were aware of impending disaster, yet chose to turn a blind eye to many of the key issues.Many plant workers who have a lengthy historical attachment to processing northern cod are currently not eligible for compensation due to the restrictive nature of the guidelines, which do not reflect the fact that cod landings have been in decline over the past.This decline has resulted in fewer weeks of work for thousands of people each summer. The federal government, in drawing up qualifying guidelines for the Northern Cod Adjustment and Recovery Program (NCARP), ignored the crucial fact that plant workers were finding it increasingly difficult to obtain unemployment insurance.Women are the most poorly compensated since they receive fewer hours of work at lesser rates of pay. The average NCARP benefit for female plant workers is Can $254 per week, compared to Can $299 for male plant workers. Single-parent women can wind up needing welfare benefits to top up their NCARP wages. At the same time, there is no recognition at all of women’s `ground crew’ contribution within fishing households. Wages for housework and reproductive activities remain well outside the realm of reality as far as policy-makers are concerned. Although there are now laws that recognise women’s domestic labour through financial recompense in divorce settlements, the recognition seems to end there.It is assumed that if the needs of the male head of the household are met, then surely all needs have been addressed. Household issues are not addressed, nor are some of the broader issues of community survival.The current provincial government’s commitment to downsizing the industry by half or more will leave communities economically devastated. For single-industry towns dependent on the fishery as the sole source of employment, the closure of plants will mean huge losses to these communities and their residents. While fish landed may be trucked around the province on a daily basis, a work force is not nearly as mobile. Traditionally, men are more able to travel for work, have more transferable skills and are not burdened with the responsibilities of care-giving and home maintenance. Women, on the other hand, look after children, extended families and the home. Many women are single parents, relying heavily on family and friends to help with child-care.After the economic backbone is removed from many small communities through plant closures, economic pressures may well force mass compliance with what could easily be labelled forced resettlement. It can be argued that women have the most to lose from this process.
The impact of the increasing use of destructive, over-efficient fishing technologies is being acutely felt by artisanal and small-scale coastal fishing communities, as fish catches decline and as it becomes more and more difficult to eke out a living. Rarely talked about is the specific impact on the women of such communities, who play vital roles, both within the fishing economy and in the nurture and sustenance of fishing families and communities. Within the fishery, women have often been responsible for the marketing and processing of fish, both in countries of the North and South. As the fishery declines, women’s work and income from such shore-based activities are often affected. However, due to the typical myopia with respect to women’s work, policy makers rarely appreciate such impacts, and little effort is made to ensure women’s spaces within the fisheries. They are consequently often forced out of the fishery, or continue within it at meagre profit levels. A decline in the fishery also affects fishing families and the community. Often, there is an increase in the incidence of alcoholism and violence within the family, as men are displaced from their jobs and incomes of both men and women decline. On women falls the burden of keeping the family and community together, in the face of acute economic and social pressures. It is time that policy makers see the fishery from the livelihood perspective of coastal communities, and more specifically, from the perspective of women and men within these communities.
Articles and files
SILK, Vicky, Canadian Oceans Caucus, Dragging women through suffering in. Samudra Report, 1994/02, 9