What can Indonesian fishers and happiness data teach us about the COVID-19 economy?

Indonesian fishing boats. Photo: Rosino / CC BY-SA

A new study suggests fishers in Indonesia report relatively high levels of happiness and well-being, despite facing poverty, risks and instability. As COVID-19 hits workers around the world, the findings show how governments might look to data on happiness to help build new economic and labor policies.


As COVID-19 hammers the Indonesian economy, new research suggests that fishers in the country are happier than other workers in similar socioeconomic situations. 

Though the findings are based on data from before the pandemic, they point to how well-being and happiness are vital indicators that can help governments shape policies to protect workers and keep their economies afloat.

A recent study by researchers at Padjadjaran University in Bandung shows that despite very low  incomes, fishers are largely “more optimistic in life” than other workers and that working as a fisher is tied to higher levels of happiness.

Workers in Indonesia’s fishing industry are among the lowest-paid in the country: 11.34% of them are classified as “poor”, according to the 2017 National Socioeconomic Survey (SUSENAS), compared to 9.86% in construction or 5.56% in the service portion of the restaurant industry.

The industry is hazardous and unpredictable—independent fishers have reported that their earnings are down to as little as US$65 per month this year, compared to $355 before the pandemic.

Buti in a study published in Marine Policy, Professors Zuzy Anna and Arief Anshory Yusuf of Padjadjaran University compared the life satisfaction of Indonesian fishers to other workers with similar incomes, educational backgrounds and other variables. They found that fishers who are self-employed and receive help from others in their community enjoy a “happiness bonus” compared to workers in other professions. 

Fishers that work for other people or who only fish alone don’t report the same levels of happiness, but they were happier than expected given their very low incomes and highly unstable livelihoods.

The researchers’ findings present the Indonesian government with an opportunity to support fishers in their livelihoods, and to develop policies that could increase levels of happiness in other professions. The study points to how focusing on workers’ well-being and happiness offers a new framework for labor policy: rather than pitting workers’ rights against economic productivity, pro-worker policies could be based on data about workers’ happiness and well-being.

Happiness could add key indicators to rights-based labor policy

Fishers face a complex list of challenges: from uncertain catches, to competitors operating illegally, to depleted fish stocks from over-fishing. The Indonesian government is already struggling to help fishers deal with these challenges, and the first step is to provide them with social support and financing options, and take steps to increase their income.

Zuzy Anna and Arief Anshory Yusuf’s findings showed that fishers’ well-being and life outlook was highly dependent on their economic situation. Lower incomes correlated with lower well-being, as in many professions, and fishers in more self-directed work situations reported higher rates of life satisfaction.

As Iwan, a fisherman in the Natuna islands, recently told Channel News Asia, “If the government wants to give aid, it has to be in line with our needs. And please increase the value of our products so the livelihoods of all fishermen will improve.”

To succeed, the government’s fishing industry policies—as with all labor policies—need to be based on the voices of workers themselves. The new research from the team at Padjadjaran University highlights the kind of data that will show what’s working—and what isn’t—as far as improving workers’ quality of life.

For example, as self-employed fishers reported higher levels of happiness, the government could adopt policies and programs to support entrepreneurship and to further study its impact on happiness.

A second study from the team at Padjadjaran, published in April in the Malaysian Journal of Applied Sciences, also found fishers in the Indramayu regency of West Java reporting high levels of well-being and life satisfaction. 

But the study also showed that the active participation of women—usually fishermen’s wives—in livelihoods was highly correlated with subjective well-being. Further research might look into how gender equity is a factor in well-being and be used to shape policy.

Government and labor advocates alike can integrate these subjective factors, like happiness and well-being, into existing human rights and economic justice approaches to labor policy.

Indonesian fishers remain optimistic despite an industry in decline

Government policy can support fishers, for the sake of the economy and the country’s food supply, by strengthening the factors that make fishing a desirable livelihood while addressing the poverty-level incomes and dangerous work environment. 

The working conditions and livelihoods of fishers are vital in Indonesia, as the country has one of the largest fishing industries in the world, worth US$1.34 billion annually, by one estimate.

But fishing is a declining profession in the country. Data from the Indonesian Statistics Bureau shows that the number of families dependent on fishing for income has dropped by more than half since 2000.

Despite this, the study in Marine Policy found that “being a fisherman is associated with a positive attitude toward future change in economic status.”

As the pandemic has uprooted the livelihoods of workers around the world, labor and economic policymakers need more data like this—on people’s economic prospect and worker happiness—in order to find effective solutions.

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