The stinky truth about canned tuna

This article is available in PilipinoBisayaHiligaynon

Working in a tuna cannery in General Santos City is no joke. According to the workers here, working conditions are so bad that they feel like their skins are being “peeled off.” The canned tuna stewing in an oven have it better, they said. They are overworked but receive paltry wages and benefits.

General Santos City is considered as the Philippines’ tuna capital due to the abundance of tuna from its seas. In 2020, it produced 254,779 metric tons of different kinds of tuna. This made up 26.12% of the entire 975,205 MT of all commercial fishes in the country.

There are currently seven tuna canneries in the city. The biggest operations belong to Century Tuna Corporation of the Po family. (Last year, the Pos amassed a wealth of $1.45 billion and was the 16th in the list of the country’s wealthiest families and individuals.)

The seven canneries employ around 25,000 workers. These have a combined capacity to process 950 MT a day. Almost the entirety (90%) of their products are exported to the US, Germany, Japan, and in other countries in Europe, Asia and South America.

In 2020, the local tuna industry exported 134,412 tons of tuna worth $480.90 million (₱23.74 billion). Canned tuna consisted the bulk of the exports at 88,547 MT with a worth of $344.406 million (₱17.0028 billion.)

Tuna canneries here mainly use skipjacks (a tuna variety) supplied by large local and foreign commercial ships. Manufacturing goes through eight stages: storage; butchering/precooking); skinning; picking/loining; quality control and segregation into “classes” of tuna; filling/vegetable tuna; seamer/sealing of cans; and retort/baking the cans in a large oven.

Every stage, except for machine butchering, are done manually. Machines are only later used for stamping dates, cleaning and labeling cans.

Every factory has its own quota and incentive system designed to squeeze the highest surplus value from the workers. Supervisors set the quotas and receive cash incentives if their team makes the quota. Smaller incentives are given to workers when they overstretch their bodies to produce beyond their quotas.

There are frequent work-related accidents such as wounds from bones or burns from handling hot pre-cooked fish.

Workers frequently work at 12-hour rotations especially when tuna supply is high. They work standing and handle hot fish almost the entire time and under the strict watch of their supervisors.

A great number of workers in these canneries are from various provinces in Mindanao and the Visayas. The majority (85%) are women who are employed by labor agencies and “cooperatives” who have direct contracts with the capitalists.

Contractual workers have contracts lasting five to six months only. Those directly employed are given a yearlong contract. They are contracted to receive the regional ₱326/day, which is not even a third of the living wage. In reality, many receive wages that are 12%-15% less. Having benefits depend on the capitalist. The “no work, no pay” policy is in place in the canneries.

Harsh disciplinary actions such as suspensions are meted out without due process. Workers are laid off arbitrarily.

Organizing or joining unions is strictly prohibited, according to the workers. They have no representation inside the factories. Because of this, many remain silent for fear of being fired if they complained.

The stinky truth about canned tuna