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Coming out of their homesteads? Employment for rural women in shrimp aquaculture in coastal Bangladesh.

1. Introduction

The fisheries sub-sector plays a crucial role in the predominantly rural economy of Bangladesh. This sector contributes 4 per cent of GDP and 12 per cent of export earnings. About 1.2 million economically active people are employed on a full-time basis in the fishing industry It also provides another ten million part-time jobs (DOF, 1995). Fish is an important source of protein and constitutes about 80 per cent of the animal protein intake. The 1980s has seen considerable expansion of the aquaculture sector in many countries of the world, more particularly in the Asian region. There is ample scope for the global expansion of aquaculture provided it cares for the environment and natural resources, and becomes part of the primary production systems (Pullin, 1995). The introduction of modern technology-based intensive commercial aquaculture is called the "Blue Revolution", which is the counterpart of the "Green Revolution" in the agricultural sector (Khor, 1996) in the 1960s. Most developing countries in the world, with the aquaculture industry, have introduced the "Blue Revolution", technology in the 1980s to boost their economy. As a result, the term "Blue Revolution" has become a part of popular vocabulary of the Third World development experts and planners.

Shrimp farming spearheads Bangladesh's aquaculture industry. Both coastal and inland waterbodies in Bangladesh are suitable for shrimp culture. Apparently shrimp aquaculture has attracted the highest attention from government and international development/donor agencies among other fisheries. In the mid-1990s shrimp contributed about 11 per cent of total exports, while in the early 1970s, at the advent of commercial shrimp farming, its contribution to total exports was less than 1 per cent (DOE 1995; EPBB, 1995). Subsequently it enjoyed the most phenomenal growth among other primary industry sectors in post-independence Bangladesh.

In the past rice-based farming systems dominated the agricultural sector in the coastal areas. The limitations of cropping encouraged farmers in the coastal areas of the country to switch to shrimp aquaculture. In recent years, shrimp farming has expanded at a fast pace. Both the area under shrimp culture and its production have increased significantly since the 1970s. Strong international market demands for shrimp, increased costs of shrimp capturing, favourable environmental conditions for shrimp production, coupled with private profitability of farmers in the coastal areas have accelerated the expansion of shrimp aquaculture. Consequently, shrimp-based farming systems on a commercial scale have emerged in the coastal belt as a highly profitable enterprise.

Shrimp farming itself requires less labour than rice cultivation. The labour requirement is much less in the extensive method of production which is commonly practised in Bangladesh. In that sense it has reduced on-farm employment opportunities for rural landless and wage labourers. However, shrimp production entails a substantial volume of labour in off-farm ancillary activities. Therefore, shrimp culture, through a network of backward and forward linkages, created a significant volume of employment in shrimp farms as well as ancillary activities, namely trade/commerce, processing and packaging, and marketing. It was estimated that both on- and off-farm labour requirements for 1983 and 1990 were 10.2 and 22.6 million person days. According to a Master Plan Organisation (MPO) estimate the employment generation from the shrimp industry in 2005 is expected to be 59.4 million person days (MPO, 1986).

Most of the off-farm works of the shrimp industry are performed by rural women. This has led to a major shift in rural employment and occupational pattern in the shrimp belt. This process has forced rural women to come out of their homesteads and to stay for longer hours out of home. They have become more active income-earning members of the rural households. Nevertheless, the whole process has limited women's contribution to household duties, particularly looking after children, performing household chores, and carrying out backyard-based agricultural works. All these factors together have implications for the social and economic changes in the rural society of coastal Bangladesh.

This paper addresses the question of whether this process is empowering rural women of coastal Bangladesh, and the extent to which they have extricated themselves from various forms of discrimination and exploitation. It also explores the relationship involving the process of shrimp production and the status of rural women in Bangladesh. Finally, it examines whether the terms and conditions of employment and working environment conflict with the local norms and value systems.

2. Shrimp industry in Bangladesh: a broad overview

2.1. Background

Small-scale shrimp farming had been practised following the traditional aquaculture system in the coastal belt of Bangladesh to grow shrimp with fish long before the advent of the current shrimp aquaculture which is, to an extent, a modification of the traditional aquaculture (DDP, 1985a). There existed more than 100 traditional aquaculture farms in Satkhira district alone in 1950 (Ahmad, 1956).

The coastal embankments in the tidal area erected by the Water Development Board, in order to protect agricultural land, in the early 1960s made vast saline areas suitable for rice cultivation. Since the 1970s farmers of the coastal belt resumed shrimp farming in the polders within the embanked areas, mainly because of its high international demands and high price. In addition, it was no longer financially profitable to cultivate rice in several polders because of high salinity level (Karim, 1986). Private profitability of rural primary producers and highly congenial environmental conditions for shrimp aquaculture in coastal belts have further accelerated the resumption of shrimp farming on a larger and commercial scale. Consequently, the country has seen a significant increase both in area under shrimp cultivation and its production.

Shrimps and prawns are the major components of frozen foods category, constituting 85-90 per cent of this category. In 1993-94, exports earning from shrimps and frozen fish were US$197.67 million and US$12.85 million respectively This implies that foreign exchange earnings from the fisheries subsector will therefore largely depend on exportable shrimp production (Kashem, 1996). As of 1993-94 shrimps contributed 57 per cent of exports in the primary goods category (EPBB, 1995) and have surpassed raw jute, the immediate-past dominant primary export item. The Government of Bangladesh recognised shrimp aquaculture as an industry under the second Five Year Plan (1980-85) and adopted the necessary steps for increased shrimp production (Haque, 1994).

In recent years shrimp aquaculture has expanded at a fast pace in coastal Bangladesh. It has also made its way in inland areas suitable for fresh water prawn cultivation. As a result, shrimp farming has become the second most economically important activity after rice production in rural Bangladesh (Guimaraes, 1989). All these changes in the primary industry sector have been due mainly to the highly favourable ecological conditions for exportable shrimp farming, increased costs of shrimping, effects of government priority and various resultant policies for the shrimp industry, significant increase in the application of modern technology, and highly encouraging international market signals both in terms of price and demands.

2.2. Potential for shrimp aquaculture

As of 1994, there were about 138,000 hectares shrimp culture area (DOF, 1994) and a production level of 30,000 metric tonnes in 1995 (Rosenberry, 1995). Although a vast coastal area is suitable for shrimp aquaculture both area and number of farms are concentrated in Bagerhat, Khulna and Satkhira districts in the south-western part, and Cox's Bazaar district in the south-eastern part. Satkhira has the greatest potential for area expansion in the south-west region, while the potential of Cox's Bazaar for area expansion in the south-eastern region tends also to be high (MPO, 1987).

Despite the great potential for shrimp culture in coastal regions, more specifically in the south-east and south-west parts, the current per hectare yield is very low. In Bangladesh, shrimp aquaculture is practised mostly by extensive (traditional) methods and occasionally by improved extensive (improved traditional) methods. Semi-intensive/intensive methods are rarely practised. Improved extensive method is typical to the Asian region. Different culture methods are based on shrimp fry density in shrimp farms. As farming methods proceed from extensive all the way to intensive aquaculture, stocking density increases, farm size gets smaller, cultural practices entail more improved technology, capital expenditures increase and consequently shrimp yields increase significantly (Rosenberry, 1995). Lightfoot et al. (1992) suggest that high external input approaches with intensive aquaculture are not suitable for Bangladesh. The reasons for not being suitable are, among others, affordability of rural farmers, unavailability of credit, and risk aversion behaviour of the rural poor. Nevertheless, the country's switch over from subsistence shrimp culture to commercial shrimp aquaculture at a larger scale may require immediate adoption of intensive technologies. It is worth noting here that whereas labour requirement decreases with increased use of technology in other primary industries (for example in the crop sector), labour intake increases with increased application of modern technology in the case of shrimp aquaculture. However, all shrimp farming areas in Bangladesh are not suitable for semi-intensive/intensive culture (Rahman et al., 1995).

Although per hectare shrimp yield has considerably increased from 20-50 kilograms in 1971 to 240 kilograms in 1992-93 (Hussain, 1994), it is still very low as compared to other Asian countries (Hossain, 1995; Hussain, 1994; Kashem, 1996) and second lowest in the world after Vietnam (Rosenberry, 1995).

Three distinct shrimp farming systems predominate the coastal aquaculture in Bangladesh:

(1) shrimp monoculture;

(2) rice production alternates with shrimp culture in South-West Bangladesh; and

(3) salt production alternates with shrimp culture in South-East Bangladesh.

Fresh water prawn culture is also expanding in inland aquaculture. Fresh water shrimp-fish polyculture is emerging as another shrimp farming system in Bangladesh.

Out of several shrimp species available in coastal areas of Bangladesh, Penaeus monodon (black tiger shrimp) is the most preferred species in brackishwater shrimp aquaculture with very high international demands. It constitutes 70 per cent of the farmed shrimp production, while Macrobrachium rosenbergii (giant river prawn) comprises 25 per cent of total production (Ahmed, 1996). Fresh water prawns, particularly M. Rosenbergii, have higher potential for expansion for many reasons, viz. they are more profitable than salt water shrimps (Rutherford, 1994), they grow quickly and yield more crops from the same land in the same period of time, they are bigger in size, and can be grown both in salt and fresh water.

The country has chosen the path of rapid expansion of shrimp aquaculture on agricultural land in order to satisfy the world market demands. Several studies (Ali, 1991; Karim and Ahsan, 1989; MPO, 1986) identify technical and managerial constraints to shrimp cultivation. The introduction of commercial shrimp farming has generated different social, economic and environmental consequences. While the recorded export and employment gains are quite remarkable, they have incurred considerable costs. These relate to environmental and ecological problems, among other things, in the form of loss of green vegetation and lower rice production. These findings are supported by recent studies (Alauddin and Tisdell, 1996; Mozid, 1994; Rahman et al., 1995).

2.3. Status of different sub-sectors of the shrimp industry

The shrimp industry consists of four sub-sectors - shrimp farms, shrimp hatcheries, feed mills and processing plants. All these sub-sectors are linked together where the shrimp farm is the central to the industry. Figure 1 portrays the linkages among the sub-sectors of the shrimp industry. A balanced growth and ultimate success of the industry largely depend on the concurrent development of all of its subsectors. The status of the shrimp farm sub-sector has already been discussed above. The remaining sub-sectors are discussed below.

2.3.1. Shrimp hatcheries. The very first component of shrimp farming technological package that was adopted by the farmers in Bangladesh in the early 1980s was supplemental stocking of shrimp fries. This adequately underscores the importance of this subsector. The increased production to date has been possible due largely to increased stocking densities. Shrimp fries from wild catch account for about 95 per cent of seed stocking in shrimp farms (Ahmed, 1996). There is an acute shortage of shrimp fries in Bangladesh (Karim, 1995). Both further expansion of shrimp area and increase in production would greatly depend on the establishment of shrimp hatcheries. Currently only ten hatcheries are in operation (DOF, 1995) with very limited fry production capacity. Consequently, farmers rely mostly on shrimp seeds from wild collection, and partly on imported shrimp fries from overseas and local hatchery-bred shrimp post-larvae.

It is important to mention here that only one of the existing hatcheries produces black tiger fries, the most preferred shrimp species. The present fry outputs from local hatcheries are far from adequate for the total requirements for the country's expanding shrimp aquaculture (Hussain, 1994; Karim, 1995). Karim (1995) reveals that fry producing capacity of local hatcheries is 20 million against the total requirement of 2,600 million (C.f. Rahman and Pal, 1995). Rahman and Pal (1995) note that Bangladesh's shrimp hatchery sector produces 30 million post-larvae. Construction of 12 private sector hatcheries is in progress (Haque, 1995) that would significantly ease the shrimp fry crisis in Bangladesh.

2.3.2. Shrimp feed mill. Although shrimp feed is a key component of modern shrimp technologies, there is a huge shortage of shrimp feed (Hossain, 1995; Hussain, 1994; Karim, 1995). Application of supplemental feed in shrimp farms is apparently a recent trend. There are only two feed mills in Bangladesh, with a production capacity of 6,000 metric tonnes while the total requirement is 100,000 metric tonnes (Hussain, 1994). In addition, there are a few small-scale fish feed manufacturers. Most shrimp feeds are imported from foreign countries, which significantly increases costs of shrimp production. Furthermore, owing to delay in shipment and government customs procedures, these imported feeds often arrive with a marginal period approaching their expiry dates. Use of such stale feed has many adverse effects on shrimp farms (Karim and Aftabuzzaman, 1995), and on the surrounding ecology as well. Lately, a few private sector feed manufacturing plants have been established. Lack of any updated statistics makes it impossible to furnish the exact number of plants that are in operation in Bangladesh.

2.3.3. Shrimp processing plants Processing plants have experienced such a rapid growth which is more than in concert with the expansion of shrimp farming and its total production. This has culminated in a big discrepancy between the quantity of farm produce required for optimum efficiency of those plants and the total amount of harvested shrimp crops. As of 1993-94, there were 115 processing plants with a daily capacity of 800 metric tonnes (Hussain and Uddin, 1995). In 1994 there was a mere 13 per cent capacity utilisation of these plants (Haque, 1994). In that period most of the plants were idle because of the raw material shortage. Recently Bangladesh Frozen Foods Exporters Association (BFFEA) has formulated a quota system that would help all the plants to stay in operation (Economic News, 1995) until shrimp production matches the requirements of existing processing facilities.

It is evident from the above discussion that while shrimp farms and processing plants have registered substantial growth, the other two sub-sectors have lagged behind. As discussed earlier, sustained growth and development of the shrimp industry require parallel and compatible development of all its subsectors. In this connection, shrimp hatcheries and feed mills deserve both public and private sector interventions immediately.

2.4. Bangladesh's shrimps and export trade

Bangladesh's shrimp industry is exclusively an export-oriented industry. Although shrimp is a food crop, because of its vital role in the Bangladesh economy, it assumed the role of a cash crop since the introduction of commercial shrimp farming on a larger scale. Shrimp is a popular food item almost everywhere in the world because of its taste and boneless meat. Value added shrimp products which are often available in self-ready form in developed countries make it more attractive to consumers therein. In 1994-95 the shrimp and frozen fish category earned US$312 million having a growth rate of 49 per cent in export earnings from the previous year. This ranked frozen foods as the second largest export earning group of items after ready-made garments and knitwear (BFFEA, 1995). In contrast, the lead group of export items - ready-made garments and knitwear attained 20 per cent growth in the same period (Daily Star, 1996). Bangladesh is the seventh largest farmed shrimp producer in the world, supplying 4.2 per cent of total world production.

3. Socio-economic implications of shrimp aquaculture

Although shrimp farming is apparently a late-comer in the primary industry sector of coastal Bangladesh, it is a sign of prosperity. Since the advent of commercial shrimp farming in the shrimp belt of Bangladesh, there has been substantial economic and social transformations in those areas. The majority of shrimp farmers made a quick fortune from growing this crop often called "golden crop" or "silver crop" of Bangladesh. However, those who are working for shrimp growers on a wage basis are still struggling to meet their basic needs. Increased demands for shrimps in the world market made a significant departure from capture fisheries to shrimp aquaculture in coastal regions. This has left the bulk of fishermen folk, who were previously engaged in shrimp capturing, unemployed. While one group (shrimp farmers) is enjoying increased income, the others (small/marginal farmers and landless/wage labourers) are confronting more hardship than ever before. In a recent study, Alauddin and Tisdell (1996) report an uneven distribution of gains from shrimp aquaculture between shrimp farm owners and land owners, particularly small land-owning households. Socio-economic problems stemming from population boom, shortage of arable land, reduced on-farm work, lack of alternative employment options, poor infrastructure and recurrent natural disasters in coastal regions have been aggravated by the rapid expansion of shrimp aquaculture. These socio-economic constraints lead to self-incompatible resource use pattern and leave severe strain on the natural reserves in the shrimp belts.

Shrimp farming being a relatively new productive activity, which heavily relies on land resources, requires a new land-use pattern. It is important to examine the interaction between this relatively new and previously practised traditional land use patterns. Influenced by high demands for shrimps and increased income, farmers are bringing more and more agricultural land and salt beds under shrimp culture. As a result, the land areas that were previously occupied by other crops, especially rice, or remained fallow (grazing land), and used for salt production has been brought under shrimp farming. Several interest groups have emerged through the process of expansion of shrimp farming.

Both rice and shrimp farming play a very significant role in the Bangladesh economy. Rice is the staple food of its ever growing population while shrimp is an important export item that has created a significant amount of employment including employment for rural women. While rice production is primarily determined by local market demands, shrimp production is dictated by international market signals. Rice is produced by numerous small farmers who use the bulk of their harvest for household consumption. Rice growers are based in the rural villages in the vicinity of farming areas. Shrimp production, on the other hand, is pursued by a relatively few larger farmers and entrepreneurs where almost all farm produce is destined for export markets. Many of the shrimp farmers are based in urban or semi-urban areas. More often they are politically and socially powerful having close links with the local and regional administrations, and ruling political party machineries. Shrimp producers and other key stakeholders of the industry are much more organised and powerful than rice farmers - who are in most cases are powerless and lack organisational and financial abilities - and are capable of influencing relevant government policy that would favour their exclusive profit motive without being considerate to the surrounding socio-economic milieu like the rice producers.

An increasing volume of literature indicates the growing conflicts between rice farming and shrimp culture in greater Khulna region. The conflicts relate to those in resource use as well as the interests of various groups engaged in the process. Some recent studies (Ahmed, 1996; Chowdhury, 1988; Das, 1992; Islam, 1983; Rahman et al, 1995) identified similar problems. The findings indicated that owing to the effect of shrimp cultivation, the yield of both paddy and salt decreased in Khulna and Cox's Bazaar regions respectively as well as uneven distribution of gains from shrimp culture.

As shrimp farming is perceived as a more profitable venture among primary industry, namely crop production, it is expanding to other coastal areas, particularly to the south-central coastal region of the country. In addition, fresh water shrimp culture, which is more profitable than salt water shrimp farming and can be carried out both in fresh and tidal waters, has also made its way to inland aquaculture. Fresh water shrimp-fish polyculture is practised in ponds, irrigation canals and closed rivers in old Noakhali district to a limited scale (DANIDA, 1989). This emerging trend of shrimp aquaculture in the south-central region and inland waterbodies would spread the above stated socioeconomic implications to other parts of the country which were until now confined only to the coastal belt of Bangladesh.

4. Employment implications of shrimp farming

4.1. Overview and background information

The fisheries sub-sector provides 1.2 million full-time and 10 million part-time employment (DOF, 1995) in fishing, fish trading, fish transportation, packaging and other ancillary activities. It is estimated that about 8 per cent of the population directly or indirectly rely on fishing and ancillary sectors for their living (Ahmed and Imam, 1988). According to a World Bank estimate, more than ten million rural people are involved in subsistence fishing (World Bank, 1989). In other words, about 10 per cent of the total population is engaged in subsistence fishing. It is interesting to note that one-fifth of the members per rural household carry out subsistence fishing (BFRSS, 1986).

Shrimp aquaculture has created a significant volume of employment both in off- and on-farm activities in coastal areas in recent years through backward and forward linkages. To appreciate the impact of Bangladesh's shrimp aquaculture on the employment opportunities in the coastal regions, one requires an understanding of the related factors, viz. land tenurial pattern, rural power structure and centre-periphery issues, that influence employment pattern in the shrimp belt. Different factors that influence the employment situations in the coastal belt and the genesis of employment generation by large-scale shrimp farming are highlighted below.

4.1.1. Land tenurial arrangements. Like other parts of the country, there is an uneven distribution of land in coastal regions. A significant proportion of land is in the hands of a few large land owners. Over the past decade, the land holdings of marginal and small farmers have declined while large and very large farmers have acquired more land (DDP, 1985a); 50 per cent of the rural population is effectively landless.

A study conducted by the Delta Development Project (DDP, 1985b) has identified the following shrimp farm ownership and/or control pattern in South-West Bangladesh:

* single or household operation on own land, using own/domestic labour (negligible percentage of sample total area);

* single control on own or rented land, using hired labour (only 1 per cent of sample total area);

* multiple owners, all or most of whom participate in, and hence control the farming operations (32 per cent of sample total area);

* small number of owners and local people farming shrimps on land which is partly owned and partly rented (24 per cent of sample total area); and

* outsiders control shrimp farming, using rented land and hired labour with some local people participating (43 per cent of sample total area).

Guimaraes (1989) points out that this grouping is not exhaustive and sometimes overlapping. Therefore, it is rather a continuum of possible patterns It is important to note that category (1) ideally follows peasant mode of production (Guimaraes, 1989), which accounts for a very negligible percentage of shrimp farms. Both in south-east and south-west parts of Bangladesh, shrimps are cultured in both private and government lands. Land tenurial pattern is similar both in south-east and south-west when shrimps are grown in privately owned lands (ESCAP, 1988).

4.1.2. Rural power structure. Rural power structure plays a prominent role in shaping the shrimp industry. Because marginal and small farmers, and sometimes medium farmers as well, lack power and are far from being empowered, they have very little to determine/influence the lease terms for shrimp fields. Shrimp culture by its inherent nature is more like community farming which entails co-operation and co-ordination among surrounding farmers and land owners. Shrimp farming requires more financial capital than rice cultivation (FRI, 1994a). This is a natural barrier to the entry in shrimp farming by marginal/small farmers. In general, marginal/small landowners are somehow not welcome to engage in shrimp aquaculture as main stakeholders, rather they are encouraged to rent out their land and to work as wage labourers eventually. Given the uneven distribution of wealth and power in rural areas, marginal/small farmers are often forced to either lease/rent out their land or join large landowners' farms with minimum incentives (ESCAP, 1988; Rahman et al., 1995). In a typical peasant society possession of land is the basis of social power. In some extreme cases, small farmers are driven out from their land without even any lease money (Bichitra, 4 March 1983, quoted in ESCAP, 1988, p. 53). The president of the Bangladesh Frozen Foods Exporters Association in its 9th Annual General Meeting criticised the government policy for allocating 4-4.5 hectares of government shrimp land per marginal farmer, who generally follows extensive culture. This reflects the standing of BFFEA that does not favour the presence of marginal/small farmers as main stakeholders in shrimp aquaculture. It is worth mentioning here that often members of BFFEA are also large shrimp growers. This inherent mechanism of the shrimp industry has accelerated the process of landlessness in coastal areas. Again unlike rice culture, landless farmers are excluded in sharecropping arrangements for shrimp farming where land owners prefer leasees who have some land and related resources of their own. Subsequently existing landless and newly emerged near-landless farmers from the process of shrimp farming are left only to sell their labour in coastal regions (Guimaraes, 1989).

Among the types of ownership/control of shrimp farms, category 3 is most common in the shrimp belt and constitutes 47 per cent of the total number of farms. Although outsiders (category 5) control one-fifth of all farms, they occupy 43 per cent of total shrimp area (DDP, 1985b). The outsiders come to shrimp growing areas during the production season and take shrimp fields on lease. Outsiders who do not have any shrimp fields, in many cases, take control of land by providing capital and forming alliance with local big farmers and thereby take a big chunk of profit from shrimp production (DDP, 1983, quoted in ESCAP, 1988, p. 50).

4.1.3. Centre - periphery issues. The dominance of outsiders in shrimp farming is a sensitive issue. Shrimp culture was turned into a commercial proposition by outsiders in response to international demands (Rahman et al., 1995). Local people, especially small farmers, express various reasons why they do not welcome outsiders in shrimp production. Outsiders, who are based in urban centers (towns/cities), entered into this industry because of its profit potential. Basically, they are very powerful individuals having direct links with government bureaucracy and political parties. They are very much concerned about their private profitability only and are insensitive to local socio-economic and ecological problems. This has led the local people to be very critical of shrimp culture (Rahman et al., 1995). As stated earlier, in order to expand their farm areas these outsiders normally take lands from local small landowners through coercion. However, they pay rent money to the locals. In many cases landowners do not get the lease money in time. Subsequently, increased salinisation of land makes it difficult or uneconomic for marginal/small farmers to grow any other crops, particularly rice, which leads them to either rent out their land or start shrimp culture. Although the number of outsiders engaged in shrimp production declined over time, the area under their control is still staggering and creates social tension in shrimp belts (Rahman et al., 1995).

4.2. Employment generation

Shrimp farming on a commercial/larger scale has created a new employment structure in the coastal regions of Bangladesh. Shrimp farming itself is less labour-intensive than rice cultivation. But the overall labour requirement of the shrimp industry (including employment opportunities in other ancillary activities) is higher than that of rice production. To this end, it is logical to assume that the shrimp industry would play a pivotal role in absorbing the surplus rural labour force of the coastal areas. The existing situation does not exactly follow this assumption. The whole employment pattern in the shrimp

industry is complicated. The departure of the traditional employment pattern associated with the predominantly rice-based farming systems and subsequent introduction of existing labour-use need a brief review for a sound appreciation of the process.

In the past rice farming followed very much the peasant mode of production using family labour. The landless farmers had access to land through share cropping and other land tenurial arrangements which they could afford. In this way, the rural labourers were engaged in subsistence farming and selling their labour as well. However, there was always a group of seasonally unemployed landless labourers even before the advent of wide-scale shrimp farming. Since the arrival of commercial shrimp production, the poorer categories of farmers in the coastal areas have been affected more adversely because their employment opportunities have been reduced (Rahman et al., 1995). Advocates of shrimp farming argue that additional shrimp aquaculture-related activities have created a significant volume of new and varied off-farm work options which were non-existent before. In a recent study Alauddin and Tisdell (1996) report that shrimp production has resulted in increased employment opportunities off the shrimp farms and there has been an overall increase in employment.

In Bangladesh, aquaculture is still an emerging sub-sector within the fishing industry with significant potential for employment generation. About 3 million people are directly or indirectly employed in the fish and shrimp aquaculture industry that includes fish and shrimp farming, and other ancillary activities (ODA, 1990). An MPO estimate depicts that in 1983, shrimp aquaculture generated 10.2 million person days of on- and off-farm employment for 51,000 hectares of shrimp area (MPO, 1986). Area under shrimp farming has increased at a fast pace in recent years. It is conjectural to assume that volume of work has also increased proportionately along the expansion of area and increased shrimp production. Table I shows the estimated labour requirement for the shrimp industry. Figure 2 depicts the projected growth of employment in Bangladesh's shrimp industry.

A closer look at the employment situations give rise to the following issues that need to be taken into account in assessing the current state of affairs in the employment sector:

* According to the MPO (1986) estimate, area under shrimp farming in 2005 is expected to be 135,000 hectares. As of 1994, already about 138,000 hectares of shrimp farms were producing shrimp crops. Therefore, the estimated volume of employment by the year 2005 might have already been created by 1994.

* The MPO estimate has not included all avenues for employment opportunities within the industry. Some other ancillary activities of the industry have generated substantial volume of off-farm works, namely delivery of ice to shrimp depots, manufacturing and supply of packaging materials, production and supply of raw materials for farm construction and maintenance, trading shrimp feeds and other agri-business products, shrimp fry and harvested shrimp crop trading, shrimp feed (e.g. snails) collection, specialised transportation of shrimp crops, and working in shrimp hatcheries and feed mills. If we add up the labour requirements for these activities, total employment generation of the shrimp industry would be much higher.

* The MPO estimate of labour requirement is based on the shrimp farms in the greater Khulna and Cox's Bazaar regions. In recent years, shrimp aquaculture has expanded to other parts of the country particularly the south-central part of Bangladesh. In addition, fresh water shrimp culture is gaining increasing popularity in inland waterbodies because of its high profit potential. In this connection, any valid estimate of labour requirement for shrimp aquaculture must take into account all shrimp farming areas.

* Finally, it is evident from Figure 2 that shrimp fry collection is the most significant contributing activity to the total employment implication of the shrimp industry followed by on-farm works. Establishment of private sector hatcheries, declining fry availability in brackish water mainly due to rapid destruction of mangroves, non-discriminatory wild catch of shrimp larvae and decreasing standing shrimp stock in deep sea, and importation of shrimp fries from overseas in recent years may have adverse effects on employment prospects for wild shrimp fry collection.


There are 227 ice plants in Bangladesh (Hussain and Uddin, 1995). In addition, about 200 firms are involved in the shrimp export trade (Begum and Banik, 1995). All these have employment implications for the shrimp industry.

As stated earlier, about half of the total shrimp farming area is controlled by multiple ownership. Another 43 per cent of shrimp area is occupied by outsiders. In the multiple ownership pattern farmers who own some lands are included in shrimp farming, while some local land owners and influentials may also join outsiders in the later pattern of shrimp farming. Thus landless farmers are not encouraged in shrimp farming other than just selling their labour. By the same token, local landless rural labourers are sometimes not even favoured for work in shrimp farms. Existing literature portrays various reasons for these situations, which include:

* mistrust of outsiders towards local people;

* negative attitudes of locals towards outsiders;

* outsiders think that if they hire labour from outside areas it is less likely they would be able to unite against outsider shrimp growers;

* practices, (e.g. poaching shrimp crops) that are believed to be done by local labourers, who can also act as part-time security staff etc. (for details see Rahman et al., 1995).

Outsider shrimp producers prefer hiring labourers from outside areas. The process they believe would increase profitability from shrimp farms. The opponents of shrimp farming in coastal areas argue that outsiders hire labourers from outside areas only to consolidate their power and strength so that they can keep on producing shrimps without owning lands in those areas and stay as lead stockholders in the shrimp industry. In sum, the outsiders' control of large shrimp farms is the prime cause for social imbalance and deteriorating law and order situations in rural coastal areas. This supports the argument that although coastal shrimp culture has seen a rapid and unplanned growth, it has suffered from conflicts that have stemmed from, among other factors, increased negative social impacts and social unrest (FRI, 1994a; Pullin, 1995). This has serious implications for coastal employment structure leading to two-way migration flow of landless labourers. Figure 3 sets out the two-way labour migration in the shrimp belt of Bangladesh.

In the past, transformation of traditional agriculture in rural Bangladesh has initiated rural-urban migration flow. Unemployed "surplus" rural labour force used to migrate to cities/towns for better work opportunities with a higher wage prospect. In recent years urban-based industrialisation like the ready-made garments industry has accelerated this process.

In contrast, the shrimp industry has generated a two-way migration flow. Because of reduced on-farm employment opportunities, the majority of the unemployed landless labourers migrate to urban areas in search for work. Furthermore, as stated earlier, the tendency of outside shrimp growers of hiring outside labourers has also forced them considerably to leave the rural areas. Therefore, it has also apparently engendered urban-rural, more specifically semi-urban-rural migration. Another interesting aspect to point out is that the hired outside labourers could be from urban areas as their employers are, but they may not be of urban origin. Again, most of the outside labourers are from coastal towns, and labour flow from big cities to coastal farming areas is minimal to nil, although some management personnel are from big cities. In some cases, outside labourers hired by outside shrimp growers could be from other shrimp farming areas who have migrated to urban areas with hopes of securing jobs. In sum, the shrimp industry has displaced the rural labour force. It has created a cyclic-flow of rural labour force encompassing rural, semi-rural and urban areas [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 3 OMITTED]. However, the increased employment opportunities in urban areas have failed to absorb all rural workers. Consequently, urban unemployment rate is on the rise. Those who could not find jobs are reluctant to go back to rural areas because of the absence of any immediate employment prospect. While they keep looking for jobs, as an alternative, they expect the female members of their families to work and make a living for the families they left behind in search of a better future. This has increased the number of split families in rural areas.

5. Employment for women

Shrimp farming has an important implication for employment of rural women. It has entailed a new employment pattern for rural women. Under the previous farming systems, which centred around rice cultivation, women used to work in and around their homesteads. Their involvement in the agricultural sector in addition to carrying out routine household duties did not normally require them to go outside their homes. While they used to perform agricultural activities, they had enough time to look after their children and do other household works. Under the traditional values and norms, in a male dominating society the women are not expected to go out of home to do any work in order to earn their livelihoods. However, poorer rural women are encouraged to undertake household chores in others' families as a secondary occupation to supplement household income. In subsistence rural households, women are primarily full-time housewives. Nevertheless, rural women from landless households always undertake odd jobs preferably inside the house or within the homestead.

Before the advent of commercial shrimp farming in the coastal regions of Bangladesh, there were times when local administration had to deploy police to prevent destitute women and beggars from coming to Khulna city from neighbouring urban and semi-urban areas. This situation is long gone. These women are now working in the shrimp industry and earning their livelihoods (Islam, 1996). In that regard, shrimp aquaculture has not only created employment opportunities for rural coastal women, it has also accommodated homeless, destitute women from the semi-urban and urban areas into gainful employment.

As of 1993, women accounted for only 8 per cent of the total labour force in Bangladesh (World Bank, 1995). Until recently Bangladeshi women who were involved in off-farm agricultural activities, especially homestead-based tasks, were not included in workforce statistics. There is a lack of statistics about women labour force in Bangladesh agriculture. It is more prevalent in the fisheries subsector. The introduction of the Bangladesh Fisheries Resource Survey System (BFRSS) has been instrumental in collecting various data on the fishing industry including workforce statistics on the aquaculture industry. It will take some time to streamline all these information systems and to come up with detailed information. Up until now there are no valid statistics on the women labour force in the aquaculture industry, and available data vary widely from one author/source to another.

5.1. Female labour force in the shrimp industry

By now the role of women in Bangladesh agriculture and aquaculture is well recognised. In the past, i.e. until the advent of commercial shrimp culture, the rural women used to perform various backyard-based agricultural/aquaculture activities like winnowing, threshing, parboiling, drying rice crop, grading, processing and storage of agricultural produces, rearing livestock and poultry, kitchen gardening, fish culture in the backyard ponds/ditches. Shrimp farming on a commercial scale has narrowed down the employment opportunities of the male members of the households as its on-farm labour requirement is less than that of rice production. This has forced women to go out of their homes and to become income earning members. Although rural women are not encouraged to be involved in on-farm activities of shrimp culture, they are now working in ancillary activities of shrimp production, namely in shrimp fry and feed collection, shrimp depot and processing industry for beheading, grading, packaging etc. In other words, while their male counterparts got out of employment from on-farm activities, they made their way into off-farm ancillary activities. This process has saved many rural landless poor families from starvation and hunger. Table II shows the estimated employment pattern in the shrimp industry. It is evident from Table II that there are no women working in on-farm activities, fry trading and transportation, and shrimp van/boat operation.

The following sections describe the nature and extent of involvement of coastal rural women in different sectors of the shrimp industry.

5.1.1. Shrimp fry collection. Shrimp fry collection is a major source of employment for rural women. Mostly women from marginal and landless rural families are engaged in this sector. All women involved in fry collection are self-employed. It needs very minimal capital to purchase and repair the net. It involves work sometimes in adverse weather.

There is abundance of fly during high tide. Men, women and children wait on the river bank for high tide to catch wild fly. It is a seasonal work. Although shrimp flies are available round the year in estuarine waters, their abundance occurs during February to mid-April. Fry collection provides employment for six to eight months for rural labour force as an individual or as part of family labour (FRI, 1994a) During the peak season, each fry collector can catch on an [TABULAR DATA FOR TABLE II OMITTED] average 78 fries (FRI, 1994b). Almost all shrimp fly collectors are part of the unskilled labour force. As a result, they are not aware of the adverse impact of undiscriminatory catch of wild fries on the ecology and natural reserves. They destroy lots of other aquatic species in the process of fry collection.

There are 55,000 coastal women engaged in fry collection, constituting about 36 per cent of the labour force of fry collection and about 14 per cent of the total labour force of the shrimp industry (Karim and Aftabuzzaman, 1995, cf. FRI, 1994a). According to a FRI (1994a) study 31-32 per cent of fry collectors in greater Khulna and Cox's Bazaar regions are females. Since fly collectors operate in public water bodies in tidal areas, they can catch any time anywhere they want. Fry collectors have open access to fry catching spots. A recent study portrays that marine water fishing operates on the basis of "first-come first-choose a fishing site" (Skagerstam and Brattstrom, 1991). Brackish water fishing follows the same rule as that of marine water. Fry collection involves catching fries from tidal waters, counting them and then placing them in earthen or aluminium pots.

5.1.2. Employment in shrimp depots. Works in shrimp depots include mainly washing, de-heading, grading, peeling and icing shrimp crops. There are 1,500 shrimp depots in Bangladesh. These depots are located in the districts of Satkhira, Bagerhat, Cox's Bazaar, Jessore, Potuakhali, Barisal, Pirojpur, Chittagong and Chandpur (Karim and Aftabuzzaman, 1995). It is important to note that all these districts are not leading shrimp farming areas. Of equal importance is that all these depots are not situated in the coastal shrimp belt.

According to an estimate, there are 11,000 women depot workers representing 73 per cent of the labour force involved in depot works (Karim and Aftabuzzaman, 1995, cf. FRI, 1994a). A FRI (1994a) study reveals that 93-95 per cent of depot workers in greater Khulna and Cox's Bazaar regions are females. In this sector of the shrimp industry, women largely outnumber male workforce.

5.1.3. Employment in processing plants. There are 115 processing plants located in different urban and semi-urban areas of Bangladesh. It is estimated that 3,750 females work in the processing industry representing 65 per cent of the labour force involved in this sector. It is worth mentioning that since most of the processing plants are situated in urban and semi-urban areas, women working for these plants may not be exclusively from rural coastal areas. It is highly likely that there would be a combination of female workers with rural, semi-urban and urban origins.

In addition, a substantial number of women are engaged in shrimp feed (e.g. snail) collection and production of raw materials (e.g. bamboo fences, bamboo traps etc.) for farm construction.

5.2. Working women in the shrimp industry: some observations

Generally speaking, all sectoral activities of shrimp production in Bangladesh are dictated by international market demands. When there is a strong market demand for Bangladesh's shrimp crops, more often women workers have to work hard in night shifts and for extended hours in order to meet shipment deadlines. As Bangladeshi rural women are not accustomed to night works on their own, the risks of mishappening are not unfounded. Despite social norms and values which, to a large extent, restrict their movements at night, they are forced to work after hours. Otherwise they would face termination from work, against the backdrop of declining employment opportunities in the coastal rural sectors, which they can not afford. There has been a number of reported abuses and assaults in recent time in and around shrimp depots and processing factories in coastal regions. In a male dominating society it is not a very welcoming situation for the male folks. The simple logic is - male labour' force is out of work and are somehow compelled to allow their women folk for work outside their homes for extended hours. However, there are some opposing views to this connotation. Experts of "women development", "equal opportunity" and "women freedom" suggest that the process set in motion towards achieving true liberalisation of women's rights. They further argue that the increased employment opportunities for coastal women in the shrimp industry would provide them a solid platform to empower themselves. However, women's employment outside the homesteads, more specifically in and around business or industrial centres in the presence of males, are still not regarded as a respectful profession in rural Bangladesh. Male and female alike in rural Bangladesh still preferred women to work in home-based activities.

It is often argued that by becoming active earning members in rural households women have risen to the position of equal decision makers in their day-to-day business. They have also been enjoying more buying power and thereby more access to foods and clothing, and in some cases to some luxury goods. But lower wage for females is an obstacle to this aspiration of the rural women. Most women work as temporary employees in the depots and processing plants. There are no formal employment contract arrangements, which means they can be sacked at any time without being even given any notice. Women are remunerated with lower wage for a given task than their male partners. Women and children work in shrimp depots and processing plants for cheaper wages (FRI, 1994a). There has also been reporting of exploitations in terms of wage and employment contracts.

Another important aspect which impedes women is access to different consumables is the total employment status of a household. It is particularly fitting when other members, more specifically male members of the households, are out of gainful employment. In that case the sole income by the female members of the household is shared by all for meeting household expenditures and even pocket money for their male partners. Expression of women's rights for their own income and the rights for spending money in their own way often leads to domestic conflicts. Given the norms and values of rural Bangladesh, from a social anthropological point of views, this situation might disintegrate social fabric and inflict instability in family lives. A study conducted by FRI (1994a) reports that despite increased employment opportunities for rural women in coastal areas, their standard of living has not improved significantly. But their living standard warrants immediate improvement since the bulk of these women workforce are widows, divorcees, and oppressed rural poor.

Often women work in unhygienic working conditions. There is no provision of occupation health and safety. Workplace occupational safety systems are almost non-existent in the rural industry sector. In the case of any work related accidents, female labourers are not covered by any insurance policy. They rely on the mercy of their employers. On very rare occasions they are compensated with a mere one-off payment for a workplace accident. There is no provision of sick or maternity leaves. Most employers operate on the basis of "no work no payment".

It is interesting to note that although women are enjoying increased work opportunities, none of them are in a central role. However, only a few women own fresh water prawn farms in Bangladesh. Women who are self-employed in shrimp fry collection, none of them has been involved in fry trading. Shrimp fry trading to date is a male domain. Fry traders determine the price of wild fries. There is a widely disproportionate profit margin between shrimp fry collectors and traders. Shrimp fry collectors perform the hard part by collecting and preserving fry catches from open water sometimes even in harsh weather, while fry traders reap the most benefit from the sector. This is one type of exploitation where women are not getting their fair share for their hard work. Furthermore, establishment of new private sector hatcheries will leave a severe strain on employment for women in fry collection. Although only a few shrimp fry hatcheries are in operation now, fully operated increased number of hatcheries will create increased unemployment in the shrimp belt since the bulk of the post-larvae shrimp fry will come from hatcheries.

A question arises: while outsider shrimp producers prefer outside workers in shrimp farming, why not they hire outside workers for what local women are doing? First, they consider that most of the ancillary activities, for example beheading, grading, icing and packaging are best suited for women. These are less physically demanding and mostly indoor works. So depot and processing plant owners can get the job done by women with less money. It is a well established fact that in Bangladesh female labourers get less wage than their male counterparts in the same situations. This is because females are considered physically weaker than males. In addition, industry leaders feel safe employing local females realising that they will never be able to confront their employers in a united front. This does not approve the statements of the advocates of women freedom. The only way females in a male dominating society can free themselves from any form of discrimination and exploitation is through empowerment - a catch phrase of recent vocabulary. Through participation in more economic activities they become more active income earning members in the households and can enjoy more participation in the decision-making process and thereby more freedom in their lifestyles.

Again, if this is the case why do not depot and processing factory owners hire outside female workers? The argument is although it is feasible to hire outside male workers, it is difficult in the case of outside female labourers. Male outside labourers often live in watch tower, thatched house near shrimp farms, which is less than practical for their female counterparts. So they employ local women labourers. By doing so depot and processing plant owners also minimise some social tensions to some extent that culminate over the issues of employment in the shrimp industry.

6. Concluding comments

Bangladesh has experienced a rapid expansion of shrimp farming in the coastal regions in recent years. The increase in both area and production has been influenced by the financial profit motive of rural farmers coupled with high international demands for shrimps and ecological congeniality for shrimp aquaculture. In the past the traditional farming systems in the coastal belts of Bangladesh centred around rice crop. In contrast, the introduction of shrimp aquaculture on a larger/commercial scale has developed shrimp-based farming systems. Shrimp farming itself is less labour-intensive than rice cultivation, especially when extensive methods of shrimp culture are practised. Hence, it has reduced on-farm employment opportunities for rural landless. Nevertheless, shrimp production requires a substantial volume of labour in off-farm ancillary activities, namely shrimp fry collection, shrimp feed collection, and shrimp processing and packaging for export. Most of this off-farm work is performed primarily by rural women. This process has engendered a major shift in rural employment and occupational structure in the shrimp belt.

Shrimp production has enabled rural women to earn more cash income and to become more active income earning members in rural households. While they used to contribute to their share of agricultural work in the homestead before the shrimp cultivation was introduced, now they work mostly outside their homes. This has forced them to stay outside of their homes for longer hours, which limits their time for household duties, more specifically looking after children. All these factors together have implications for the socioeconomic changes in the rural society. One relevant question that arises is: are rural women empowering themselves in this process? This paper explores the relationship involving the process of shrimp production and the status of rural women in Bangladesh. Furthermore, it examines whether the terms of employment and working environment conflict with existing values and norms of rural society. Finally it investigates the extent to which rural women have extricated themselves from various forms of discrimination and exploitation.

The findings that emerge indicate that a range of factors including rural power structure, centre-periphery issue, rural-urban migration determine the pattern and extent of employment. It is unclear whether greater employment opportunities for rural women have empowered them or have helped extricate them from various forms of discrimination and exploitation.

This research is financially supported by the Australian Centre for International Agriculture Research (ACIAR) Project No. S10039


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Author:Hamid, M. Akhter; Alauddin, Mohammad
Publication:International Journal of Social Economics
Date:Feb 1, 1998
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