PSYCHOSOCIAL CHARACTERISTICS OF THE WORKFORCE IN ON-SHORE FISH PROCESSING

 

 Marit Husmo

 

 

On-shore fish processing includes a variety of activities. The range is from small, low-technology fish processing, like drying or smoking of local catch for the local market, to the large, high-technology modern factory, producing highly specialized products that are consumer packed for an international market. In this article the discussion is limited to industrial fish processing. The level of technology is an important factor for the psychosocial environment in industrialized fish-processing plants. This influences the organization of work tasks, the wage systems, the control and monitoring mechanisms and the opportunities for the employees to have influence on their work and the corporate policy. Another important aspect when discussing psychosocial characteristics of the workforce in the on-shore fish-processing industry is the division of labour by sex, which is widespread in the industry. This means that men and women are assigned to different work tasks according to their sex and not to their skills.

 

In fish-processing plants, some departments are characterized by high technology and high degree of specialization, while others might use less advanced technology and be more flexible in their organization. The departments characterized by a high degree of specialization are, as a rule, those with a predominantly female workforce, while the departments where the work tasks are less specialized are those with a predominantly male workforce. This is based on an idea that certain work tasks are either fit for males only or females only. Tasks seen as fit only for males will have higher status than the tasks done by female workers only. Consequently, men will be unwilling to do “women’s work”, while most women are eager to do “men’s work” if allowed to. Higher status will also as a rule mean higher salary and better opportunities for advancement (Husmo and Munk-Madsen 1994; Skaptadуttir 1995).

 

A typical high-technology department is the production department, where the workers are lined up around the conveyor belt, cutting or packing fish fillets. The psychosocial environment is characterized by monotonous and repetitive tasks and a low degree of social interaction among the workers. The wage system is based on individual performance (bonus system), and individual workers are monitored by computer systems in addition to the supervisor. This causes high stress levels, and this type of work also increases the risk of developing strain-related syndromes among the workers. The workers’ restriction to the conveyor belt also reduces the possibilities for informal communication with the management in order to influence corporate policy and/or promote one’s self for a raise or a promotion (Husmo and Munk-Madsen 1994). Since the workers of highly specialized departments learn only a limited number of tasks, these are the most likely to be sent home when the production is reduced due to temporary lack of raw material or due to market problems. These are also the ones that are most likely to be replaced by machines or industrial robots as new technology is introduced (Husmo and Sшvik 1995).

 

An example of a department of lower technology levels is the raw material department, where workers drive trucks and fork-lifts at the pier, unload, sort and wash the fish. Here we often find high flexibility in the work tasks, and the workers do different jobs throughout the day. The wage system is based on an hourly rate, and individual performance is not measured by computers, reducing stress and contributing to a more relaxed atmosphere. Variation in work tasks stimulates teamwork and improves the psycho- social environment in many ways. The social interactions increase, and the risk of strain-related syndromes is reduced. Possibilities for promotion increase, since learning a wider range of work tasks makes the workers more qualified for higher positions. Flexibility allows informal communication with the management/supervisor in order to influence corporate policy and individual promotion (Husmo 1993; Husmo and Munk-Madsen 1994).

 

The general trend is that the level of processing technology increases, leading to more specialization and automation in the fish-processing industry. This has consequences for the psychosocial environment of the workers as outlined above. The division of labour by sex means that the psychosocial environment for most women is worse than it is for men. The fact that women have the work tasks that are the most likely to be replaced by robots adds an additional dimension to this discussion, as it limits the work opportunities for women in general. In some cases these implications might apply not only to female workers, but also to lower social classes in the workforce or even to different races (Husmo 1995).