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Singapore pastor's lifeline for trafficked fishermen

Absence of enforced laws leaves seafarers prey to slave labor

Theodora D'cruz, Annabelle Liang and Danson Cheong, Singapore

Theodora D'cruz, Annabelle Liang and Danson Cheong, Singapore

Published: February 26, 2014 04:56 AM GMT

Updated: February 25, 2014 07:31 PM GMT

Singapore pastor's lifeline for trafficked fishermen

Pastor Wilson Wong, second left, talks with foreign fishermen at the Seafarers' Welfare Centre in Singapore's Jurong Fishery Port

At the crack of dawn every day, Pastor Wilson Wong of the International Lutheran Seafarers' Mission (ILSM) in Singapore fills two bags with newspapers, brochures and reading material, and heads to the Jurong Fishery Port.

For the last seven years, ministering to the fishermen that dock at the port has been his routine and that of his colleagues at the ILSM.

“These men sometimes spend many months at sea and they don’t have newspapers so they don’t know what is going on,” said the 55-year-old.

The ILSM is an international organization that helps seafarers and fishermen in distress.

They are one of the few groups in Singapore – or anywhere else for that matter – that these migrant workers can approach for help.

Indeed, the International Labour Organisation classifies fishing as one of the most hazardous and physically exploitative industries in the world.

Fishermen often work between 18 and 20 hours daily, have no contact with their family for months at a time and are paid next to nothing despite their two to three-year bonds, Pastor Wong said.

In Southeast Asia, migrant fishermen hail largely from impoverished nations such as Cambodia, Indonesia and the Philippines. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Asia accounts for 85 percent of the world’s 45 million fishermen and 75 percent of motorised fishing vessels. 

A growing group of these men are trafficked to serve as what the UNODC calls “forced slave labor” on fishing boats.

These boats dock in Southeast Asian ports, including Singapore, said the 2013 US State Department’s Trafficking in Persons report.

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The report added that these workers face “severe abuse by fishing boat captains, the inability to disembark from their vessels, the inability to terminate their contracts and the non-payment of wages”.

Yet there is scant hope for help and justice from governments. Singapore, for instance, has not specifically outlawed human trafficking and court cases charging traffickers in countries like the Philippines and Cambodia remain mired in process and bureaucracy.

So Christian and Catholic ministers have stepped in to fill the void. They lend a sympathetic ear, provide counsel and in some cases launch investigations of their own to help the men get home.

“I see poor people getting bullied. It’s the 21st century, yet this is still happening," said Pastor Wong. "They’re treated like slaves.”

Former fishermen such as Condrad Banihit Vincente from Aklan province in the Philippines have men like Pastor Wong to thank for their eventual escape from the industry. 

Three years ago, Vincente was working 20-hour shifts, hauling tuna from the depths of the Indian Ocean aboard a Taiwanese longliner.

The 34-year-old was initially promised a monthly salary of US$550 by a broker in his village but after paying close to US$560 in broker fees, he found out he was only going to be paid US$200 when he arrived at a staffing agency in Singapore.

“The first time I saw the contract I was shocked,” he said. But it was too late and saddled with debt, Vincente signed off the next three years of his life to an uncertain fate.

He got lucky when, after 10 months, his boat docked at Cape Town, South Africa. For the first time since he set sail, he was able to call his family.

“My family told me to come home, but this was one week before my ship was going to leave for the Indian Ocean,” said Vincente in his home in Aklan.

His family scrambled and contacted Reverend Monsignor Isagani Fabito from the Iglesia Filipina Independiente Church in Aklan for help.

Reverend Fabito raised hell, bent on getting Vincente back.

“We were desperate, I contacted the recruitment agency in Singapore, the ILSM and the Apostleship of the Sea (AOS) in Singapore,” he said.

He finally managed to find someone from the International Transport Workers’ Federation in Cape Town to help Vincente get off the boat and on a plane home.

The recruitment agency paid for the flights, but it was the reverend who arranged for a priest from the AOS to meet him after the transiting flight in Singapore.

“I was afraid someone from the agency would come and get [Condrad] at the airport and put him on a ship again,” Fabito added. “I told him, never mind if you don’t bring home any money as long as you come home safe.”

This is the fate many migrant fishermen face after being trafficked aboard commercial boats, often after being duped by informal brokers and recruitment agencies in their home countries.

Rights groups have said many men have begged to be sent home, unable to withstand the laborious conditions on the high seas. 

But doing so incurs early termination fees and flight ticket costs, which often offset the already meagre wages, said Father Romeo Yu-Chang, the East Asia regional coordinator at the AOS.

So Father Romeo tries to use church funds to put fishermen on a flight home. He also prays with these men and sometimes offers them a bed in the church’s retreat centre.

The AOS in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, also has a shelter and assists seamen. The shelter can house about 40 people and is usually fully occupied, mostly by fishermen, said port chaplain Father Ranulfo Salise.

He added that the AOS there has been observing an increasing number of complaints from fishermen since 2009, mostly from Indonesians.   

That said, only 32 have filed legal cases to pursue their unpaid salaries since 2009.

“Most of them come to [our] shelter to sleep and go home. They don’t usually chase legal disputes,” said Father Salise. 

The situation is similar in Singapore, although both Father Salise and Pastor Wong feel the men keep silent out of fear of repercussions.

Said Pastor Wong: “A lot of them swallow their pain because they don’t want to be blacklisted. They need the job.”

Many of the Taiwanese fishing companies seem to have no qualms about overworking them to minimize costs, said Father Salise.

It is easy for the companies to be irresponsible because they “do not necessarily have a contract with the workers,” but with the agencies and brokers who recruit the men.

And although convictions for forced labor have been increasing – according to the US State Department’s 2013 TIP report – this has not done enough to reduce these incidents, said Father Salise.

Drawing loopholes in the Taiwan legal system, he added: “It is necessary to enact a more just labor policy for foreign workers.”

Labor protections are often lacking because there are few international legal instruments that protect the rights of fishermen. The Work in Fishing Convention has only been ratified by four countries and is not yet in force.

In contrast, the Maritime Labour Convention, which covers seafarers, has been ratified by 54 states, including Singapore.

But despite the legal hurdles that hinder progress in the treatment of migrant fishers, these men of the cloth still find ways to go the extra mile.

Since June 2013, ILSM has been providing assistance to the crew of an Australian tuna longliner, the Pacific Raider No 4 – left stranded in Singapore after the vessel’s owner went bankrupt.

This includes engaging lawyers and filing a case for the wages of these six men in the courts. The ship is currently up for auction.

“When they come on board, they give us telephone cards to call home,” said second engineer Jing Qingshun, who is owed almost US$40,000 in wages. “They have been a great help to us.”


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