Sunday 1 March 2015

Sardine fisherman left high and dry as 'productivity revolution' fails to deliver

Published 06/08/2014 | 02:30

Thinkstock Images
Thinkstock Images

The other night, where I am here on holiday, the local village had a huge festival. This involved part of the main square being turned into a massive inferno and once the embers were smouldering local people piled thousands of sardines on top of old iron bed frames, complete with ancient springs. These frames weighed down with fresh fish morphed into possibly the largest barbecue grill imaginable. The sardines were scoffed, washed down with lots of local wine.

The festival marks the passing of the full moon in early August on the Adriatic and the beginning of a period of moonless nights. Traditionally, on moonless nights, the local fishermen headed out, lanterns hanging from their boats and waited for the sardines.

They did this on moonless nights because the moon confuses the sardines.

Throughout the full-moon nights of late July, the plankton that the sardines eat can be easily seen shimmering on the surface of the water. The sardines come up from the depths to feed on the effervescent plankton, helped by the light of the moon to see their feast.

The sardines thus associate the light of the moon with food. The brighter the light, the more food the sardines believe they can gobble up. As a result, they love the full moon.

Traditionally, the fishermen wait for moonless nights, paddle out a mile or so, drop their nets and wait.

Then once there is no moonlight, they light up their own lanterns, the light attracts the sardines and, in no time, there would be thousands of sardines circling the boats.

Then the fishermen pulled in their nets, bulging with a massive hoard.

The night after the big sardine hunt was historically celebrated with this huge outdoor, communal sardine mega-grill.

Now decades later, the locals still celebrate the Night of the Sardines. But today it is a tourist event. These days, the sardines are caught by large trawlers using high-powered, German-made torches. But the basic principle is the same. Today, instead of the entire island out in boats helping each other, massive leaps in technology mean that only a few of the locals are fishing.

This development, where the few deliver more, is the so-called "productivity revolution". What used to be done by dozens of men can now be done by a handful.

Economic theory claimed that these increases in productivity engendered by technology would "free up" the others who no longer want to fish so they can take up work in other so-called higher value-added jobs.

But what if this doesn't work in practice?

What if the people displaced by technology don't get new high-paying jobs but languish in a half-existence between odd-jobs, underemployment and idleness?

This is an enormous dilemma and it seems that down here in the eastern Mediterranean, what might work in theory, doesn't work in practice. The last few decades have seen lots of local industry eliminated by competition from the north of Europe as more and more trade barriers have been lowered.

In return for Volkswagens, large swathes of previously employed manufacturing workers are laid off. The displaced workers have not taken up new jobs in new local enterprises but have relied in the main on the expanded government bureaucracy for permanent jobs.

So the countries in southern (and eastern) Europe not only lose their industries to northern Europe, but get into debt in the process. Their banks are privatised initially and then sold off to western European banks, which in turn, provide the elixir of consumer credit to the local people.

This debt is incurred mainly to achieve a lifestyle, which the less productive countries can't actually afford, but still seem to desire.

And of course, if they don't yearn for it, a blizzard of advertising ensures that only the truly enigmatic, eccentric and strong-willed can fight the prevailing corporate effort to turn a want into a need. However, if you and your country get into large amounts of foreign debt, it is essential to maintain a very strong exchange rate to make sure that you can pay this lolly back.

But maintaining a strong exchange rate means that whatever domestic industry the country might hope for, has little chance of competing against companies from stronger countries because local workers are too expensive. So the southern countries don't even get out of the blocks.

All the while, the unemployed sardine fishermen are kicking about looking for something to do - the productivity miracle doesn't seem that miraculous after all.

Communal work is replaced by seasonal bits and pieces, while industry is replaced by three months of tourism.

Wealth is concentrated in the hands of the politically connected who managed to grab the assets during privatisation, only to sell them on to foreigners.

This means that the political process is one large exercise in doling out sweets to your mates.

Ultimately, the country joins the EU or the euro and this bestows not northern European efficiency but a western European stamp of approval and credibility on the entire process, entrenching the 
new elite and painting the once hard-working fishermen as 
lazy, feckless and endemically 
work-shy.

Irish Independent

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