In the port of General Santos, the centre of the Filipino tuna industry, Mercy Ong is one of the few women who gives orders. When the tuna arrives on land, Ong inspects and supervises the entire process until the fish are ready to be sent to their clients. It is an unusual position for a woman in her country: she alone manages a small fleet of ten tuna vessels and their dozens of fishers, most of them men.
Fishing is not a women’s industry. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), only 14 per cent of fishers or fish farm workers worldwide are women. The women who do work in the sector are confined to low-paid, often subsistence-level activities, and almost none have leadership positions, says the organisation. Ong is a rare example. However, she does not consider herself special: “We are all the same here,” she says.
Further down the production chain, particularly in processing, there are more women, and in the industry overall, the proportion of men and women is similar, says the FAO. But throughout the chain one constant pattern is repeated: women are more vulnerable.
“Women participate in all segments of the seafood industry, including fishing, farming, trading and selling, monitoring and administration. But the widespread lack of consideration for their role and work in the seafood industry is, in many respects, disadvantageous to them and ultimately bars them from participating fully and equitably in the industry,” says an FAO report.
The path taken by Ong in the port of Gensan (as the city of General Santos is informally known), was not an easy one. Her first steps were straightforward, hand-in-hand with her husband. They were a perfect team. She had worked for years in the tuna industry and he had training in business management, although he knew little about fish scales and fish bones. The company was in full swing when her husband died suddenly in an accident in 1997. Her little daughter had just been born and their oldest child was just five years old. “I had to work hard to make the company successful,” she says. However, her employees were not one of her concerns and none had any problems in taking orders from a woman. “I started this business with my husband and I already had their respect,” says this petite woman.
Globally, women leaders are rare in this industry. According to the International Association for Women in the Seafood Industry (WSI), the sector is dominated by men and more than half of the biggest companies, 54 per cent, do not have any women on their boards of directors. Only 4 per cent of companies have between 41 to 50 per cent women. None have more than 50 per cent. “In other industries, such exclusive male leadership is very rare today in large listed groups,” says the organisation. Of the countries looked at, the one with the greatest equality is Norway, with 31 per cent, while Chile and Japan, both with 2 per cent, are trailing at the other end. This is clear even in conferences on the sector, says the WSI, in which 80 per cent of the speakers are men and in some cases there are no women speakers on the programme.
Different roles, different challenges
Rosana Bernadette Contreras is one of those women who has managed to climb the mountain to become the executive director of the Socsksargen Federation of Fishing and Allied Industries Inc. (SFFAII), one of the sector’s employers. For Contreras, “women also have a vital role in the industry, although many do not see it because they are not on the boats”. She continues: “Once the catch arrives in the port, it is in the hands of women.” Women are responsible for classifying the fish, selling it and exchanging it. “And above all processing it, [which is the part of the chain] where up to 80 per cent of the workers are women,” she continues. “You can have fish, but if you do not have someone to take care of everything else, you have nothing,” she says.
Caridad Felisilda thinks that things are more difficult for women in the industry. That is why the association over which she presides, GAMPA (Gensan Aqua Marina Processor Association), offers help to women who, like her, run small seafood processing businesses. However, for this small, short-haired woman, the main challenge for women is the different role they have in the industry. “In this part of the chain [processing], women are the ones who set the pace. The men are the ones who fish,” says Felisilda, whose husband, nonetheless, helps her in the business.
And processing, says Felisilda, is subject to greater instability and more competition on the international markets than fishing, so women are exposed to greater turbulence. “We have to continually update to be able to compete,” she says. She herself had to close her business once in 2005 after the accounts could not be balanced. In 2009, she changed direction and focused her business on products with greater added-value and has been able to survive so far, although not without a few rocky patches. “It is getting harder and harder to get raw material because there is less tuna in this area,” she says.
Those same difficulties led Leony Gempero and other women in Bula, a community on the outskirts of Gensan, to propose a definitive change: leave the boats and start growing seaweed. The change, made possible thanks to the help of an expert who had already supervised the same transition in other communities, has brought them higher and more stable incomes, says Gempero, who chairs the Bula Seaweed Farmers Association. But it also changed the relationships between men and women since everyone participates in seaweed farming on an equal footing.
“Now it’s fairer than before because the tasks are distributed more evenly. Before, men were seen as the ones who brought in the money because they were the ones who went fishing,” she says.
This harmony, says Felisilda, can also bring additional benefits. “When you give a woman a job, you are also supporting the whole family, because they spend all their income on that,” says the businesswoman, who has employed three women. However, her recipe for success as a businesswoman is not confrontation with the opposite sex. “I do not compete with men,” says Felisilda. “Here we have a balance.”