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Indonesian migrant fishers trapped in modern slavery

Recent viral cases highlight horrors on the high seas as migrant workers face violence and abysmal conditions

Published: June 08, 2021 02:44 AM GMT

Updated: June 08, 2021 03:47 AM GMT

Indonesian migrant fishers trapped in modern slavery

Apri on the Taiwan-owned distant-sea fishing vessel 'Da Wang'. (Photo supplied)

Apri was lured by promises of a well-paid job when he decided to work on a foreign fishing vessel. However, it didn't take long for his hopes to be dashed when he experienced the working conditions on a Taiwanese-owned distant-sea fishing vessel, the Da Wang, in 2019.

“We worked really hard. We only got about 3-4 hours of sleep a day,” he said, recounting his experience to UCA News.

The 29-year-old from Medan, North Sumatra, said the poor working conditions were exacerbated by the violent practices that were commonplace during work.

He was once struck by the foreman with a fishing rod used to catch big fish. "The rod was about 6 meters long. He threw it at my right thigh, leaving it bruised. I was moaning in pain, but I was still forced to work," he said.

The violence was not the worst he witnessed because days later his colleague Sugiaman Rambalangi was punched to the ground by the foreman.

The next day, they found him dead on his bed with his hands covering his ears and blood coming out of his mouth.

This happened while they were sailing off New Zealand and led them into conflict with the captain, who insisted on burning Rambalangi’s corpse while they refused to work unless it was sent to Indonesia. This left the captain with no choice but to dock in Suva, Fiji.

After the autopsy, they were told that Rambalangi had died of lung disease.

"We questioned the autopsy result as we believed he died from being beaten. But what could we do? Officials from the Indonesian embassy who were present with the captain during the autopsy believed the captain's explanation," Apri said.

That case saw him and dozens of his colleagues sent home earlier than the two-year contract period.

Apri, who is now working in South Jakarta, said he was lucky to have returned earlier even though his dream of bringing in a lot of money did not come true.

“I no longer think about working as a migrant fisher. It was enough that I was trapped in those inhuman conditions,” he said.

Apri (front, second right) with his friends on 'Da Wang'. (Photo supplied)

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Slavery practices

Apri's story is typical of many similar bitter experiences of Indonesian migrant fishers who generally work on distant fishing fleets of countries such as Taiwan and China.

As of July 2020, 22,244 migrant workers from Indonesia were estimated to be on Taiwanese boats, making them part of a US$2 billion industry and one of the top five distant water fishing fleets on the high seas.

The exact number of forced migrant fishers from Indonesia remains unknown as it continues to go unreported and unmonitored, including those on Chinese vessels.

Hariyanto Suwarno, chairman of the Indonesian Migrant Workers Union (SBMI), said that between 2015 and 2020 they received at least 388 cases related to migrant fishers, 11 of whom died, including Rambalangi.

"Generally, they died because of being tortured, beaten by the foreman or captain and tired from long working hours," he told UCA News.

He said some of the corpses were thrown into the sea without proper procedures being complied with, including notification of their families.

In a report entitled “Forced Labour at Sea: The Case of Indonesian Migrant Fishers” released on May 31 by Greenpeace Southeast Asia and the SBMI, there were 62 reported cases of forced labor between May 2019 and June 2020, a sharp rise on the 34 reported between December 2018 and July 2019.

The report noted four main complaints: deception involving 11 foreign fishing vessels; withholding of wages involving nine foreign fishing vessels; excessive overtime involving eight foreign fishing vessels; physical and sexual abuse involving seven foreign fishing vessels.

"Cases of forced labor have been well documented over the years with no signs of improving. In fact, we're seeing cases and complaints increase," said Ephraim Batungbacal, regional oceans research coordinator for Greenpeace Southeast Asia, during the launch of the report.

Tip of the iceberg

Suwarno said this is likely only the tip of the iceberg because it only refers to what was reported to them. “Meanwhile, there are many other cases that we have not handled, including those that occurred after the report was issued," he said.

It is supported by the fact that there have been many sad cases that have surfaced in the past year.

In a video circulated on May 3, dozens of Indonesian migrant fishers stranded in Suva, Fiji, asked the Indonesian embassy to help them return to Indonesia after their contract expired last year.

Seprian Faisol, a former migrant fisher who uploaded the video on Facebook, said they were his friends. "They insist on coming back. Apart from the fact that the contract period has expired, they can no longer stand the working conditions on their vessel,” he told UCA News.

He said that while waiting to return to Indonesia, they chose to stay on a damaged ship at a port in Fiji because of Covid lockdown regulations which did not allow them to go outside the port area.

In May last year, there was an outcry in Indonesia after a video posted by South Korea's Munhwa Broadcasting Corporation went viral showing crew members of a Chinese fishing vessel, Long Xing 629, throwing the corpse of an Indonesian fisherman into the sea.

A day later 14 Indonesian fishermen returned home complaining of having been treated as slaves. They complained of working long hours for little or no money and being subject to physical abuse. Police investigations later found that four Indonesians on the vessel had died after enduring poor working conditions.

In August, another video went viral in which four crew members who worked on the Chinese ship Liao Yuan Yu 103 revealed that they did not receive any salary, worked excessive hours, had inadequate food and experienced violence. This case prompted the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to lodge a protest with the Chinese government.

Mashuri, a crew member on the Chinese-flagged vessel Fu Yuan Yu 1218, also revealed in an interview with BBC Indonesia in May how his friend died from being tortured and his body was kept for a month in a freezer before being dumped at sea.

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Meanwhile, he and three friends chose to jump into the Malacca Strait and arrived in Malaysia after being adrift at sea for 12 hours. They then returned to Indonesia after being assisted by the Indonesian embassy.

Activists from the Indonesian Migrant Workers Union in Tegal, Central Java, facilitate a meeting between fishers and a manning agency over a salary dispute. (Photo supplied)

Fake documents

Suwarno said they found that migrant fishers had experienced problems since they were recruited.

He said the men, who usually come from Central Java and Jakarta, generally do not have a seafaring background and are not adequately prepared.

"We found that many of their documents were fake. The Ministry of Transportation has confirmed that there are thousands of fake sailor books in the hands of migrant fishers," he said.

He said they also found the mafia was involved in the process, so there was an increase in costs during the recruitment process, which were then charged as debts that had to be paid off by the fishers.

Another factor, said Suwarno, is the lack of supervision of the recruitment agencies and no firm action against them. He said that in cases they were handling many migrant fishers were sent out by companies that did not have a permit.

Scalabrinian Father Ansensius Guntur, director of the Stella Maris Center in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, a Catholic Church-run organization that provides care for migrants, seafarers and refugees, said that over the past year they have met more than 3,000 Indonesian migrant fishermen working on Taiwanese ships, where the majority claimed they did not get adequate information about the work situation and the rules in force in the country of origin of the ship.

"In fact, it is very important so that they know the steps that must be taken when there is a problem. It means something has gone wrong since they were recruited,” he told UCA News.

Cases go nowhere

Meanwhile, legal protection by the state is still weak. Sarwono said of all the cases they reported to the police, so far not one has made it to court.

Even in a case of slavery experienced by 74 fishers stranded in Trinidad and Tobago in 2013, where nine recruitment companies were suspects, there was no follow-up.

"We have checked progress several times with the police, but there has been none," he said.

Because of this situation, he said, they have finally tried in recent years to take steps so that fishers get their rights and abuses are reported to law enforcement.

This has brought results and seen many fishers who experienced problems related to their salaries able to get their rights.

However, he said there were also obstacles in continuing the legal process because after that they generally did not want to take things further.

Suwarno said the bitterness experienced by migrant fishers happened because Indonesia did not have strong rules regarding the protection of crew members.

Indonesia has not ratified the International Labour Organization's Work in Fishing Convention No. 188 which provides standards for fishers’ work agreements (FWAs) and living and working conditions onboard vessels.

In addition, even though it already has the 2017 Law on Protection of Indonesian Migrant Workers, the government has not yet included specific regulations related to migrant fishers.

"In fact, the law mandates that two years later, the regulations will be in place. This means that they should have been completed by 2019," he said.

In a recent webinar, Minister of Manpower Ida Fauziah said the regulation was being reviewed by the State Secretariat.

However, according to Suwarno, this was an old song being sung by the government.

"The uncertainty over the issuance of these regulations has resulted in migrant fishers, without guarantees of protection from the state, being increasingly vulnerable to exploitation," he said.

The absence of rules has seen most of them put under "Letter-guaranteed placement," a placement scheme that puts their fate in the hands of private fishing firms, making them vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.

Activists from the Indonesian Migrant Workers Union and Greenpeace Indonesia hold a protest in front of the presidential palace in Jakarta in August 2020 to demand the president immediately ratify the regulation to protect migrant fishers. (Photo: Greenpeace Indonesia)

Protection needed

Suwarno said the government needs to ensure legal protection, either by ratifying ILO conventions or issuing government regulations. "Supervision of agencies must also be tightened," he said.

Father Guntur echoed this statement. "The government should also ensure that every problematic agent is blacklisted," he said.

The priest said Indonesia must work with ASEAN countries to jointly establish a protection agreement and urge countries using migrant fishers to comply with it.

"If ASEAN countries are united, then I am sure countries that use migrants will also want to improve because they are very dependent on ASEAN, especially Indonesia," he said.

"If only one country like Indonesia applies strict rules, then they can switch to another country." 

Afdillah Chudiel, oceans campaigner for Greenpeace Indonesia, said the key is in the political will of the Indonesian government. "Before Indonesia presses other countries, Indonesia must set an example," he said.

He also said that it needed a continuous campaign so that this issue would get global attention since, despite the severity of such cases, this issue is only discussed when a case goes viral. "After that, the issue seems to be forgotten," he said.

He said one of their efforts was the launch of a special website, seabound.greenpeace.org, in April, which exposes migrant fisher problems.

Father Guntur said that in Taiwan, although it has a large fishing industry, not many people understand this issue. Therefore, he said, he and his center continue to educate people so that more and more become concerned about the issue.

Carmelite Father Aegidius Eko Aldianto, executive secretary of the Indonesian bishops' Commission for Justice and Peace and the Pastoral Care of Migrant-Itinerant People, said the commission's involvement in this issue is limited to certain cases handled by the diocesan commission.

However, he said, there are also parishes near ports that have shelter for fishers, such as near Tanjung Priok port in Jakarta.

Father Guntur said the issue of crew members is actually an issue concerning all humans "because perhaps the various types of seafood that we eat are the result of the sweat of enslaved men."

"We should be ashamed if our fellow humans are continuously treated like this. I hope everyone will work together to end this form of slavery.” 

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