• Fangning Tan

Labor Day: a reminder of labor issues in Southeast Asia’s fisheries sector

Labour Day, or International Workers’ Day, has been celebrated on May 1 since the late 19th century. The celebration of Labor Day began in the Haymarket affair, in Chicago in the US in 1886, when workers protested against long working hours and poor working conditions. The Haymarket affair saw the spread of labor protests across other parts of Europe. As a result, European governments started to formally recognize Labor Day.

A tradition of protests

Over the years, Labor Day has been commemorated with protests, strikes, and celebrations all over the world. While some may lament that Labor Day has lost its politically charged meaning in more recent times, every year on May 1, workers continue to take the opportunity to campaign for their rights. 2017’s Labor Day saw workers in Malaysia, Indonesia, and Cambodia, amongst other Asian countries, rallying for better working conditions and higher wages.

The continuation of labor protest movements indicates that there remains room for improvement in workers’ rights around the world. Strides have indeed been made in the labor rights movement in areas such as the freedom of association, the right to collective bargaining, improvements in occupational health and safety, as well as the elimination of forced labor and child labor. Nonetheless, enforcement on issues continues to be a problem in many countries, especially in the Asia Pacific region. In fact, according to the 2016 Global Slavery Index, the region formed an estimated 66.4% of the global number of people in modern slavery.


The issues with fisheries

The fisheries sector has been identified as a sector associated with modern slavery, with low-cost migrant workers highly vulnerable to forced labor and human trafficking. In particular, the plight of forced migrant labor on Thai fishing vessels in Southeast Asian waters has been the subject of reports and media investigations The International Labour Organization (ILO) suggests that the lack of training, inadequate language skills of these migrant workers, along with the lack of enforcement of safety and labor standards, make them especially vulnerable.