Drying Fish: A Woman's World | Daily News

Drying Fish: A Woman's World

Essential self employment path for women
Maldive fish for sale in Kudawella.
Maldive fish for sale in Kudawella.

Along the country’s Southern coast, stalls selling dried fish are as common a sight as palm trees and thambili and the ocean itself. Manning these stalls are male vendors who hawk the processed and preserved seer, tuna, and sprats—staples of the Sri Lankan diet—to passersby.

But beneath the surface, this industry is held up not by men but by women—mothers and daughters and wives and widows. In the seaside village of Kudawella, Hambantota district, these women comprise an estimated ninety to ninety-five percent of the trade. They work not commercially but as part of an intergenerational cottage industry, clusters of women drying fish by hand in the front and back yards of each other’s homes.

Without these women, the dried fish industry would cease to function as it currently does. The women fuel the industry, the industry fuels the country—but who, or what, is fueling the women? And do they get as much from working in dried fish as they give?

A day in the life

For the women of Kudawella, days ideally begin early in the morning, when fish by the hundred and sometimes thousand are delivered to their homes by local fishermen in the backs of their small lorries. Working in groups that range from two to six people, depending on the size of the delivery, the women unload the fish and lay them out on tarps outside. Then they get to work.

What follows can vary depending on the type of dried fish being produced. For the traditional dried style, this involves a meticulous routine of cleaning, gutting, boiling, salting, and laying out the fish to dry. For the Maldivian style, the fish are also smoked.

The work is tough and laborious. The women are required to be on their feet all day, or hunched over buckets. When smoking the fish, they are forced to watch the fire for hours on end—despite the heat, despite the flames ending up in their eyes. And without enough and adequate equipment, the work takes even longer.

But even accounting for the arduous physical labor it entails, a typical day in dried fish production is hardly so simple, and near impossible to approximate. This is because the industry is affected by so many variables that are beyond the control of the women who allow it to function.

No set hours

To start, there are no set working hours. Once the fish arrive, the women have a limited amount of time to complete the drying process, which acts as a natural preservative. If they take too long to tend to the fish without properly refrigerating or cooling them—technology which the dried fish cottage industry, for the most part, lacks—the fish spoil and rot. So the women work non-stop, from the time the fish are delivered until the time the drying is complete. 

“If we’re lucky, they bring the fish in the morning and we work until eight or nine in the night to finish,” said D. V. Sunita, a 42-year-old producer of Maldive fish. She spoke to us in her yard as she loaded firewood into the base of a barrel used for the smoking process. The temperature outside hovered around 32°C, and with the humidity felt closer to 37°C. 

She explained that based on the amount of fish delivered that day, she and the five other women working alongside her expected to have all the fish laid flat or hung on metal racks, ready to bake in the sun for the next few days, within twelve or so hours.

On some days, the women aren’t as lucky. V. M. Anulawati, aged 33, lives on Sunita’s street and is one of the women who work with her. She said there were days when fish had been delivered by 9.00 am but the drying process wasn’t completed until the following morning. When this happens, the women are forced to stay up all night.

Ramini Hettige, a 52-year-old producer of traditional tried fish, said much the same. “I have to work until the fish is hung and dry. I have no choice.”

Weather permitting

Extended unseasonal rainfall can be detrimental to the dried fish cottage industry which, absent any electric heating or dehydrating technology, relies on sunlight to preserve the fish. Such rainfall can put the women who rely on this work out of business for weeks or months on end.

“It is very hard for us to do this work when it rains,” said Hettige, speaking to us while hunched over a bucket, snapping the heads of and then gutting one fish after another.  She added that many a fish have gone to waste when rain showers start while she is still in the process of drying them.

“Even if it rains once I finish but before the fish have been in the sun for two or three days, they will be ruined.”

Detrimental costs

Weather is not the only variable that puts a damper on the dried fish industry. If fish are scarce, and therefore priced higher than usual, drying them becomes untenable.

“We work only on the days we can afford to,” said Sunita.

“In the past months, we had very little work. There was a shortage of fish and the prices were very high. Only recently, we started to work again.”

Sunita’s husband, Anura Muthungala, said that the average price of the fish they purchase to dry—balaya and alagoduwa, two types of tuna—is Rs. 120 per kilogram. To make one kilogram of Maldive fish, six kilograms of fresh fish are needed, which means it costs Rs. 720 to make one kilogram of dried Maldive fish.

On the market, the Maldive fish are sold by size: the price of a small dried fish is Rs. 750 - 800 per kilogram, the price of a medium dried fish is Rs. 1,050 per kilogram, and the price of a large dried fish is Rs. 1,050 – 1,200 per kilogram. This means Sunita’s dried fish accrues, on average, a profit of around Rs. 250 per kilogram. Yet this doesn’t account for any of the expenses she and her coworkers must pay: for firewood, for salt, for transport, and for equipment.

When fish prices are in flux—between the third and fourth week of December, for instance, the price of balaya jumped 64 percent—drying it is no longer cost-effective, and as such production stalls.

Hettige was also affected by the recent peak in fish prices.

“We faced financial difficulties in the past few months,” she said. Her husband is paralyzed, so their daughter and two granddaughters rely on Hettige’s income to make ends meet; lately, she said, she makes just Rs. 50 in profit per kilogram of dried fish sold.

Competing against imported fish

In November of 2017, in an attempt to give relief to consumers hit by recurring droughts and floods in the preceding months, the government slashed import taxes on several food items. On dried fish, the tax was nearly halved, from Rs. 102 to Rs. 52, and implemented immediately.

Predictably, this caused an upswing in the importation of both types of dried fish. According to data from the Ministry of Fisheries, from 2016 to 2017 there was a 2.4 percent increase in the imported quantity of dried fish and a 5.3 percent increase in the imported quantity of Maldive fish.

For the women working in the dried fish industry with whom we spoke, this is not a good thing. Every one of them lamented about the tax cut and subsequent importing increase.

“We need to limit the importing of dried fish to increase the demand for locally-produced fish,” said Sunita. “We are losing our market to sell local dried fish.”

D. V. Sagarika, age 40, is a widow who works with Sunita. Her husband died by suicide eight years ago, leaving her to care for their three children alone. She said that the government easing the import of dried fish from abroad only adds to the problems that women working in the dried fish cottage industry already face.

“From the moment we get the fish delivered, we can’t keep it raw for a long time. We have to complete the whole process within a few days. So we expect and need the government to help us have a market to sell our products,” she said.

“We live on an island surrounded by sea, but we still import dried fish from other countries. I see it as a huge loss for the country.”

Advisor to the Ministry of Fisheries Claude Fernando said in an interview that “no measures will be taken by the government to reduce or stop the import of dried fish to Sri Lanka,” adding that it is supply-and-demand driven.

In need of help, but ignored

Fernando insisted that there are gender-specific organizations working with the social development sector of the Ministry to help women engaged in the industry, specifically by providing them technical assistance. He also said the Ministry has “decided to provide them grants for improvement.”

But Fernando wouldn’t specify which women’s organizations are involved in these efforts, nor would he identify the grants or explain how they would be doled out. 

The women in Kudawella, for their part, feel abandoned by the government. They say they’ve reached out to both their provincial MPs and the Fisheries Ministry but have received no appropriate response.

“They are all the same,” said Sunita. “None of them have done anything. And if they answer now, it’s only because of the [upcoming local government] elections.”

What the women of Kudawella want is simple: some help. They are not looking for handouts; they like working, despite the strain drying fish places on them. They joke of being unable to remember a time they didn't smell of the sea, and say the scent is now part of them. But they’re hoping that the government can ease some of the burden they currently carry—through providing the women with bare minimal equipment, adjusting the import tax scheme, or helping them secure a profitable share of the market.

Until then, the women of Kudawella will keep working, holding up the dried fish industry like they have for so many decades.

As Sunita said, “It might seem like I have problems. And I do. But when I don’t work, that is when it’s most difficult. That is the worst kind of problem. ” 

A lorry-bed of fish in Kudawella.

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