As I began my quest to search for and celebrate unsung workers in lesser-known industries, I was drawn towards the fishing industry in Singapore. In the wee hours of the morning, you’ll find a sense of camaraderie unlike any other; amongst the fishermen, the fish merchants and the buyers.
Nestled on the far fringes of the Southwestern region of Singapore, the Jurong Fishery Port has been the centrepiece of the fishing industry since 1967.
It is here where supplies of seafood are exchanged from the fishermen to the fish merchants, and then on to buyers ranging from supermarket chains and hawker centres, to high-end restaurants and fishmongers.
Work begins late in the night, lasting until the crack of dawn on a near daily basis, regardless of the weather.
The first step of the seafood’s journey to our markets and tables, begins when deckhands from the fishing boats offload them in containers marked with the fish merchant’s name.
Through sheer human strength, forklifts and teamwork, these containers — most weighing more than 100kg — are taken off the transports and dragged to the allocated fish merchants by the workers.
Many aspects of the port have not changed even in the digital era. Most of the furniture in the port is as old as the port itself, and parts of the pathways have sunken in from the overtime movement of the heavy-ladened containers.
The fishery port still retains the tradition of a cash-only business, and the making of ice using old traditional machines is still a practice.
Within the fish merchants’ space, their workers begin opening up the delivered boxes, signalling the second phase of the seafood’s journey.
Containers that came from the neighbouring islands tend to have a mixture of wild-caught fishes of different varieties, prawns and stingrays. Whereas supplies coming from local fish farms and abroad contain only specific species of fish.
As I stood and observed these workers as they expertly gutted, cleaned and prepared the fish for sale, I realised that most of them are not Singaporeans. In fact, perhaps, one of the only aspects of the port that has changed over time is the workforce itself.
Throughout the journey of Singapore’s development to a modernised society, the pool of local workers has gradually dwindled to a number that’s close to none.
In their place, workers from all over Southeast Asia, from Vietnam to Malaysia, have taken the helm, eventually forming a ‘transnational’ workforce for the fish merchants.
At the last stage of the journey before arriving at our markets, the fish are placed on display for the buyers to see, after the merchants and their workers have inspected and verified the seafood’s quality.
At this point, the lines between the buyers, merchants and fishermen blur. Here, all wild-caught fishes do not have a fixed price; it fluctuates on a daily basis, and a commission is given to the fishermen after the sales are made.
Competitions arise amongst fish merchants when the fishermen notice a different price for their catch from another merchant.
Hence, that is when relationship and faith amongst the two play a part. If the merchants are having a bad day, sometimes fishermen will overlook the bad sales and still support them.
So with the faith and relationship of these fishermen, the fish merchants represent them on their behalf, to sell their catch to the buyers.
These buyers will, like all industries, seek discounts on the prices through their own friendships made with the merchants themselves, eventually coming to a compromise that both parties can agree on.
I left the bustling port with a newfound appreciation for the industry. The people here are bonded together by a livelihood revolving around the world of seafood, supplying the daily catch to consumers who are mostly unaware of them and their work.
So the next time you have seafood, why not take a moment to celebrate the trade and the people who have worked tirelessly behind-the-scenes. Fish definitely don’t magically appear in supermarkets.
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