Migrant fish workers and their plight in industrial fisheries burst onto the global stage in 2014 when The Guardian newspaper published a series of investigative pieces on migrant fish workers toiling in Thailand’s industrial fisheries.Footnote 1 Framing their work as forced labor—work that is performed involuntarily and under the threat of penalty—The Guardian’s critically acclaimed reports led to intense coverage from other news outlets and non-governmental organizations.Footnote 2 Other cases of labor abuse in industrial fisheries were soon exposed across the Global North and South. These initial portrayals of industrial fisheries’ labor relations as overlapping forms of forced labor, modern-day slavery, and human trafficking productively drew mainstream attention to these migrant fish workers’ plight and catalyzed civil societies to demand policy changes. Nevertheless, social scientists have become increasingly critical of such framings.
As Vandergeest and Marschke (2020, p. 292) suggest, these portrayals potentially oversimplify the multidimensionality of forced labor (see LeBaron, 2015). Specifically, they inadequately account for how prior conditions in home countries compel migrants to sell their work in the first place and how there might be little recourse about where and to whom these persons sell their labor. Instead of endorsing these frames, some scholars (Decker Sparks et al., 2021; Garcia Lozano et al., 2022) have called for a more comprehensive understanding of the multiple dimensions of free and unfree labor relations in the context of industrial fisheries, with specific attention to how prior and existing compulsory conditions shape fish laborers’ work on the high seas. Since the industrial fisheries’ workforce overwhelmingly depends on migrant labor, scholars propose connecting scholarship on industrial fisheries with international migration theories to refine existing conceptual frameworks centered on forced labor and to improve policies and practices associated with industrial fisheries (Derks, 2010; Marschke & Vandergeest, 2016, p. 42).
To this end, this article focuses on the cross-border connections between the “homeland” of Vietnamese migrant fish workers and their workplace, the “high seas.” Studying these connections has been part of the transnational turn that international migration scholarship has taken in recent decades (Basch et al., 2005).Footnote 3 Instead of only studying assimilation processes or what happens after migrants arrive to the hostland (see Alba & Nee, 2003), scholars have expanded the scope of inquiry and begun examining homeland processes, as well as the transnational ties that entangle societies (Andrews, 2018; Shams, 2020; Waldinger, 2015a). The need to bridge the literature on fishing work and international migration is even more urgent because of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has intensified the vulnerabilities these migrant laborers face (Havice et al., 2020; Marschke et al., 2021; Vandergeest et al., 2021).
This article helps answer the call for “understanding fishing work through the lens of migration” (Marschke & Vandergeest, 2016, p. 42) by studying the cross-border connections between Vietnamese migrant fish workers’ homeland and industrial fisheries amidst a 2016 chemical spill, what some call the worst environmental disaster in Vietnam’s modern history (Cantera, 2017). In April 2016, toxic chemicals spilled from a faulty discharge pipe belonging to Formosa Ha Tinh Steel Corporation, a subsidiary of the Taiwanese conglomerate Formosa Plastics Group. Hundreds of tons of fish and other kinds of seafood died due to the contamination. Beyond its sizable political impacts (see Trang, 2017, Ives, 2016), the spillage of toxic chemicals upset the local economies, including that of Lang, that heavily depended on the sea (Paddock, 2018). Many maritime villages near the spill experienced precarity because, on average, people stopped all fishing-related activities for over 9 months (Van Truong et al., 2021).
I draw on 7 months of ethnographic data from Lang, a Vietnamese maritime village that has a tradition of sending migrants to work on East Asian fishing vessels, and 22 interviews with Vietnamese fish workers in Taiwan (all names of specific places and people are pseudonyms), to illustrate how homeland processes affect migrant fish workers’ labor and labor conditions on the high seas. First, I find that changes brought on by the chemical spill undermined many of the local men and women’s abilities to adequately contribute to household subsistence. Second, I show how these homeland changes put even more stress on migrant fish workers to be their family’s primary wage earner. The inability to earn livelihoods in Vietnam ultimately compelled migrant fish workers to exchange longer, potentially more hazardous workdays for additional wages and wage advances.
In what follows, I start by describing the recent developments in the literature on industrial fisheries’ migrant labor relations. I then outline the importance of importing migration theories to the study of industrial fisheries before describing my methodology and case study. To follow, I show how homeland processes are inextricably linked to the plight of Vietnamese migrant fish workers on the high seas. These findings contribute to scholarship on industrial fisheries and international migration and can be applied to other contexts, especially considering the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.