There is no doubt that social protection can contribute to creating an enabling environment in which workers can improve their livelihoods and ensure stable incomes and safe work. This is especially important for workers engaged in small-scale fisheries and agriculture, and for marginal farmers, informal sector workers and home-based workers. The greater the physical, social and economic vulnerability, the greater the need for social protection. Yet at the same time, the greater the physical, social and economic vulnerability, the less access these workers have to social protection. This inverse correlation between vulnerability and access to social protection is prevalent in all sectors and is especially evident among informal sector workers and migrant workers.

Calling for more social protection is not a solution in and of itself. Taking the example of the fisheries sector, social protection can be effective in ensuring access to rights and improving the livelihoods and wellbeing of fishers, farmers and fisheries workers. But its effectiveness depends on rights, process and resource allocation.

The direct involvement of women workers in decision-making is essential for social protection to be effective in reducing poverty and improving livelihoods. The involvement of women cannot be symbolic or passive (women as targets of social protection instruments). It is not based on the inclusion of gender perspectives and gender-based approaches alone, but the inclusion of women themselves. Women workers must be able to collectively represent themselves in the workplaces, farms and communities – and at all levels of decision-making, planning and implementation – for social protection to be effective and truly equitable.

Women will ensure that social protection is meaningful and effective through their direct, collective representation in decision-making in the allocation and distribution of public resources; and continuous assessment and monitoring to ensure transparency, fairness and reach. If decision-making is dominated by men, then not only is there a greater likelihood that social protection will be ineffective and limited in its scope and reach, there is also a greater likelihood of discrimination, abuse and corruption. The erosion of existing social protection programs due to corruption remains a serious challenge in the region.

Adding more resources for social protection to broken, unaccountable and opaque institutions simply sets us up for failure. While new technologies could play an important role, fundamental institutional reforms are needed. The most important of which is the direct, collective participation of women workers in decision-making. In India, the most effective use of social protection under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) occurs where independent, democratic unions led by women are involved in organizing, policy intervention and decision-making. These unions ensure that women secure their rights under NREGA, while also engaging with local authorities to ensure the appropriate, fair and effective use of NREGA resources.

The direct, collective involvement and representation of women in decision-making assumes that women can exercise the  right to freedom of association guaranteed under ILO Convention No 87. (Also important are ILO Convention Nos 11, 141 and 177 on the right of agricultural workers to organize; rural workers’ organizations; and home-based workers). Women can combine together in an organization of their own choosing, represent their collective interests and engage in collective bargaining and decision-making. Any restrictions on freedom of association or barriers that impede women’s access to these enabling rights prevents their involvement, which in turn undermines the effectiveness of social protection policies and programs.

Restrictions on or impediments to the ability of women workers, farmers and fishers to organize themselves also exacerbate the economic and social vulnerability of women. This leads to increased exploitation and abuse – including trafficking and forced labour – which renders social protection both inadequate and meaningless.

In terms of the allocation of resources, social protection should not indirectly subsidize the large-scale commercial fisheries industry. The poverty wages of fisheries workers on vessels and in factories perpetuates poverty in their communities – communities often located in and around commercial fisheries operations. On September 3, 2022, the 4th National Fishworkers Congress in the Philippines established the link between building fisheries workers’ power and a sustainable fishing industry. In this context the Fishworkers Congress identified poverty, debt and lack of access to human rights (food and nutrition, housing, education and health care) as the direct consequence of poverty wages in the private commercial fisheries sector. Orchestrated efforts by employers to prevent union organizing, and repeated violations of the right to freedom of association and collective bargaining guaranteed under ILO Conventions Nos 87 and 98, prevent fisheries workers from collectively bargaining to secure better wages and lift themselves and their families out of poverty.

Collective bargaining in the private commercial fisheries sector to achieve better wages and livelihoods must remain a priority and government financed social protection should not inadvertently subsidize an industry that suppresses rights and perpetuates poverty wages.

Serious and widespread violations of workers’ health and safety rights in the fisheries sector contravene ILO Convention No 155, which is now a fundamental convention. Several members of the fishing community participating in the 4th National Fishworkers Congress in the Philippines described the serious injuries suffered by fishers in the private commercial fishing sector due to unsafe work practices. Unsafe work causes greater injury, long-term illness and inability to work, which in turn increases the burden on social protection programs.

In the Maldives, for example, our affiliate BKMU has the capacity to negotiate catch prices that will increase the incomes and livelihoods of fishers and their families and communities, including migrant workers. However, the new Industrial Relations Bill currently before the parliament threatens to undermine BKMU’s ability to organize and collectively bargain. In the absence of collective bargaining rights, buying companies maintain a monopsony and can manipulate catch prices and reduce the incomes of BKMU members. This results in greater poverty and debt in the communities dependent on these incomes. Turning to social protection is not the answer. The answer in the commercial fisheries sector lies in the exercise of collective bargaining rights to redistribute profit, not the redirection of public resources through social protection.

Social protection is needed most in artisanal fisheries, small-scale extensive aquaculture, the informal sector and home-based work, as well as coastal and inland fishing communities experiencing climate vulnerability. It is a vital part of the strategies needed to urgently address child labour in artisanal fisheries and aquaculture.

The vulnerability of coastal fishing communities to climate change, biodiversity loss and declining aquatic species is a serious concern throughout the region. This has a significant impact on livelihoods and incomes as well as local food security. The effectiveness of social protection depends on a more coherent and comprehensive policy approach that integrates environmental protection and rights. This includes the right of fisherfolk to collective representation in decision-making and the right to food and nutrition. It also needs action by governments to stop industrial pollution killing their livelihoods.

The question of resources also relates to the prevalence of government subsidies for large-scale commercial fishing, especially distant water fishing (DWF). DWF has a significant impact on scarce aquatic resources and threatens to reduce the availability of ocean caught fisheries. This in turn threatens the livelihoods and food security of fishing communities. If left unaddressed, government subsidies for large-scale commercial fishing and DWF fleets will create greater poverty, debt and food insecurity in coastal fishing communities and especially among traditional and indigenous fisherfolk. This then creates the (avoidable) need for more social protection. Yet the effectiveness of this social protection will be continuously undermined as long as the extractive subsidies for the commercial fishing industry continues.

It is in this sense that social protection to secure an equitable “blue transformation” in the fisheries sector requires a significant reallocation of public resources and recognition of workers’ rights. We not only need to increase government funded social protection, but to reduce subsidies for economic activities detrimental to the environment, livelihoods and incomes, and food security. In addition to this, social protection must be financed through a greater allocation of public resources, which places priority on reduced support for extractive or destructive industries, and increased corporate taxes and taxes on the wealthy.

Ultimately social protection must redistribute wealth if any transformation is to be truly equitable and sustainable.