As long as can be remembered, women have worked in all segments of the industry, yet even today, they often remain invisible. Men went to sea, and women worked on land. Women’s work was considered complementary to their domestic duties and was not recognised socially, legally, or economically. As a result, they have been, and still are, denied basic rights, benefits, and institutional support that men have always assumed as their due.
Refusing women their rights
A realistic assessment of women’s involvement in fishing is slowly coming into focus, and the wealth of work performed by women is beginning to be recognised. In Spain, however, despite decades of organising to achieve the same rights and opportunities as men, their contribution continues to go unnoticed. Without this recognition—from society, government, neighbours, and families—women are denied their basic rights as workers: a decent living wage (or any wage at all), safe and decent working conditions, social security including unemployment and retirement benefits, regulated work hours and holidays, medical coverage that recognises sector-specific medical conditions, and parental leave and childcare. There is, however, an increasing understanding that, by preventing women from participating fully and contributing their experience to a body of shared knowledge, the industry is losing out. Further, since the 1990s, many codes of conduct have been adopted, and businesses are learning that embracing good practice leads to increased sales and profits from ethical trade. They are realising the advantages of taking their corporate social responsibility seriously. In parts of Spain, many obstacles are being removed, but progress is slow. Whether it is inevitable remains to be seen.
The work that women do falls into two general categories. In the first category are professions that are clearly visible and, in many parts of Spain, are officially recognised as job titles. These include such jobs as rederas, who manufacture and repair nets, mariscadoras, who gather clams and cockles by hand, workers in the canning and processing industry, and fishmongers, who sell in wholesale and retail venues. The second category has to do with “caring” and seems to be an extension of their housework and the care they provide for the family. Women provision the boats, often making the crew’s daily meals. They prepare the fishing gear, clean the boat, and manage its upkeep. They ensure that all legal aspects are in order. They deal with crew contracts, salaries, insurance, and unemployment. They make sure health and safety requirements are met. In the afternoon, when the day‘s catch arrives in port, they unload it, transport it to the fish market, and attend the auction. And all of this in addition to their responsibilities as wives and mothers, but these invisible jobs are essential to the maintenance and growth of the fishing sector.
Patriarchy is not inevitable
A way of life as traditional as fishing—with strong cultural rules, durable societal conventions, and long histories during which roles were codified—distances women in many ways from the values and advantages of modernity. Women must contend with a tangle of complex, ancestral relationships in a society that perceives them simultaneously as women, wives, community members, and co-workers. For example, as the owner or co-owner of a vessel, a woman might be her husband and son’s boss. But in this context, their work might still be regarded as merely supporting the family’s financial and nutritional requirements, even as the women reinforce the backbone of social relations and ensure cohesion in their fishing communities.
Women contribute to the economic security of their homes and so contribute to the socio-economic development of their communities. Understanding the complex distribution of roles, power, and profits is hindered by the scarcity of quantitative, qualitative, and sex-disaggregated data. (In Spain, fishery data was not disaggregated according to sex until 2005.) The wide variety of women’s activities is barely reflected in fishery statistics, because the records only look at the male population. Further, data is sparse and, when it exists, it may be incomplete and inconsistent between regions and industrial sectors. To overcome this, data covering women must be introduced into fishing studies, statistics, and institutions.
It is estimated that, in the EU, more than 100,000 women contribute to the fisheries sector. Women make up roughly 13 per cent of capture fishery employees, 26 per cent of the workforce in aquaculture, 51 per cent in seafood processing, and 95 per cent of shellfishers. In all, women hold approximately 27 per cent of all jobs in EU fisheries, aquaculture, processing, and auxiliary activities combined. Spain employs the largest number of people in the fishing sector in the EU. It is estimated that, of the nearly 38,000 people in the sector, women make up 27 per cent of aquaculture workers, 95 per cent of shellfishers, and 80 per cent of processing industry employees.
Gender policies in Spain are modern in some cases and insufficient in others
According to the FAO, the Spanish government’s work on gender equality is consistent with EU principles, laws, and regulations, and is framed by international treaties and conventions. It is also supported by the Spanish constitution. Nevertheless, gender policies in Spain have been both forward thinking in some areas and inadequate in others. On one hand, there have been many legislative and societal advances. (The country was named eighth in the 2020 World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Report, recognising its success in fighting gender discrimination in the social, political, and economic areas.) On the other hand, small- and medium-sized Spanish fisheries have been slow to catch up to other industries in terms of employment opportunities, economic participation, and decision-making.
A 2016 legislative change to the Special Regime of the Sea (REM) incorporated professional groups that had not been acknowledged previously, for example, neskatillas, who unload and clean the fish, and packers, who classify the catches before they are sold. Up to this point, legislation used the masculine form for job titles. The new law added feminine job titles. For example, rederas was added to the masculine term rederos for net makers. Although the job of net maker appears as a category within the Social Institute of the Sea, in the province of Valencia, it is not recognised. In terms of rights and benefits, Valencian net makers do not exist.
The shellfishers of Galicia: mariscadoras
For centuries in Galicia, as in other parts of Europe, women and children developed a subsistence activity by collecting shellfish and crustaceans on the shore. In Galicia, shellfish were consumed by the local population and constituted an important source of protein. By the end of the 1960s, the value and status of the catch increased as the country’s economy developed, mostly as a result of tourism. Also, local canneries used shellfish to keep themselves busy in the period when sardines were out of season. To gather shellfish in the tidal zone, women needed only basic equipment (knives, sticks, lamps to fish at night, nets or traps, baskets or bags) and skills that, in many cases, they had already learned from their mothers. Today, approximately 90 per cent are self-employed women, and almost 60 per cent are women over 50 years old. According to Rita Míguez de la Iglesia, president of the National Association of Women in Fisheries (ANMUPESCA), shellfishing on foot generates a greater return than other types of catches. Galician mariscadoras have been very active in exposing the reality of women’s lives in the fishing industry. In the mid‐1990s, they began to form independent organisations through which they hoped to claim legal status and recognition of their contribution. After obtaining professional status, they joined the fishermen‘s organisations or cofradías.
The tradition of cofradías possibly predisposes Spanish fishermen to look naturally for situations in which effort is shared for the common good. For centuries, Spanish fishermen have managed artisanal coastal fisheries with guilds or cofradías. Guilds in some regions have their roots in medieval institutions. In Galicia, however, the guilds were promoted by Franco only after 1943. As the 1990s progressed, the Galician organisations were joined by other groups along the Cantabrian coast. Finally, most of these local associations joined forces creating larger entities. Examples include the Galician Association of Shellfishers (AGAMAR), the Association of Net Makers, the Neskatillas of Euskadi, and the Spanish Network of Women in the Fishing Sector. In 2016, ANMUPESCA, was established, with the participation of ship owners, net makers, and shellfishers, mainly from Galicia, but open to any woman or group of women from the fishing sector. In addition to providing moral support and contact development, these groups lobby for women’s rights, work to increase their negotiating power, participate in fishery management policy, secure capital resources, and sponsor capacity building sessions.
The National Association of Women in Fisheries fights for a better future for its members
Rita Míguez de la Iglesia, spent 11 years working as a mariscadora. From her days in the sandy areas near the municipality of Pontevedra, Galicia, she knows first-hand how brutal the work can be. Days can exceed 16 hours simply to make a day’s wage, and the conditions are merciless. Workers face storms and excessive exposure to the sun. They stand in waist-deep water for hours and suffer lumbar-area back pain, urinary tract infections, vision problems, and stings from aquatic animals such as jellyfish, among other hazards. Ms Míguez says that gaining recognition of these physical conditions as occupational diseases is a main concern of ANMUPESCA. She points out that the harsh working conditions often make it unlikely that a woman will be able to work until retirement age, therefore reducing her pension. ANMUPESCA’s is fully engaged in a wide range of challenges faced by women. Some current concerns include determining a minimum wage for certain groups who sometimes must work 10- and 12-hour days to earn a minimum wage, and setting the retirement age for net makers. Ms Míguez sums it up, “we have to fight for the same retirement rules as workers on fishing boats. We have to fight for our occupational health problems to be recognised. We have to fight for representation in the relevant decision-making bodies and commissions”.
Maria Damanaki, former European Union Commissioner for Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, noted the “inadmissible contradiction” between the role that women play in the European maritime sector and the wealth that such work generates. Fair is fair. But achieving balance in a profession that is, by its traditional nature, resistant to change, will take considerable realignment and political commitment. Women’s organizations created to fight for gender equality will continue to play a decisive role by advocating for policy support and convincing change makers to back activities identified as central to achieving women’s empowerment. Everyone will have to step back and study the larger picture to determine what is most beneficial for the maritime sector as a whole. Fishing implies a certain way of life and a particular social reality. Borders between work, family, and community are often blurred. Bringing the lines into focus may be where all of this is leading.