International Women’s Day has passed by for another year. This is the time when we speak about the achievements and challenges for women in our communities and companies. Our company, Opportunities is committed to providing equal opportunity for all workers. Our company produces cobia, a healthy white fish for worldwide markets. With an overall workforce of 279 workers, (Dec 2018) with 262 of them based in Panama, we are growing – both in size and learning – as we continue our commitment to enhance day-to-day workplace culture, increase productivity and improve operations.
Our workers have a wide range of education and expertise from veterinary science to marine biology to engineering. We support diversity and inclusion and hiring locally is a key factor for our operations in Panama. Our workforce is young, and we provide internship and partnership opportunities with local universities. We are focused on increasing the number of women in our workforce.
In the fishing and aquaculture sector worldwide, women workers account for more than 15 percent of those engaged in the fisheries primary sector but they dominate in the labour-intensive fish processing business representing 85% to 90% of the total worldwide workforce. At the managerial end of the seafood value chain men dominate with 90% CEO’s, 90% Board members and leaders of professional organizations.
At Open Blue our workforce follows this trend with predominantly male workers in our farm and hatchery operations and an even split in our processing plant. Encouraging women to accept positions that are non-traditional is a challenge but we have had some successes.
In Costa Arriba, Colon Province where our farm and hatchery operations are based the challenges experienced by the residents in this remote area of Panama were well articulated in a paper written for Open Blue in May 2012. The authors of this paper from the International Community Foundation described the situation in the region this way in 2012: “Costa Arriba is located in a remote rural part of Panama with small villages and towns that hug the northern exposure. The communities send workers to Colon for long days in the port, while the remaining residents fish, tend cattle, or grow subsistence crops.” 2012.
The main change in the economy of the region has been the large investment of Open Blue Sea Farms, both in the major construction of the hatchery facility in Viento Frio completed in 2014 and the Miramar base to serve the offshore farms. As the farm operations grow, it is critical to attract skilled workers. The company’s emphasis has been to hire locally when possible but recruiting qualified, trained and experienced workers has been an ongoing challenge.
As part of the fish health management plan, injecting all fish going into the sea pens with a preventative vaccine was a critical element to prevent disease. Specially designed vaccines were developed but because of the lack of expertise available the company was required to bring in workers from Chile in order to perform this work. The head of the Office of Sustainability for Open Blue, Mary Ellen Walling, a Canadian now resident in Panama encouraged and challenged the local Human Resources specialist, Esther Gonzalez to recruit more women into traditional men’s roles.
“I saw that we could use this opportunity to fill the vaccination team need with a local team of women as a solution.” Said Esther. Using her local connections and with the full support of the Hatchery Director, 4 women were identified, trained and started work. They have been very successful in this role. Their ability to manage and care for the fish during this critically important stage of their life cycle has resulted in major benefits for them, their families and the company. Recently they were upgraded to hatchery technicians and enjoy increased pay and a full benefit package. Mrs. Walling puts it this way, “By identifying the company need and finding a creative solution we benefited not only our company by strengthening the team, but we also showed tangible results for this group of women to achieve through their effort and hard work a benefit for them, their families and the community. Together we are stronger.”
Panama was included in the list of the 25 countries in the world with the highest incidence of lethal violence against women and girls according to the Global Burden of Armed Violence 2015 prepared by the Secretariat of the Geneva Declaration. Panama approved in 2013 a law which prevented acts of violence towards women, and the same was regulated by the executive decree Nr. 100 on 2017. This is a forward looking action and enhancing economic opportunities strengthens women’s options to avoid domestic violent situations.
In Open Blue’s opinion, providing opportunities for women and men to advance their economic interests through a connection to skilled, well paid, year-round employment is a key part of the solution for communities facing sexist cultural patterns and subordination of females.