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Deadly conditions for Indonesian migrant crews tied to illegal fishing

  • A recent report by the environmental group Greenpeace highlights harrowing testimonies from Indonesian migrant workers about dire conditions on board foreign distant-water fishing vessels.
  • The workers told of being overworked, having their wages withheld, being forced into debt bondage, and experiencing physical and sexual violence.
  • Experts say slavery on board fishing vessels is strongly linked to illegal fishing activities.
  • Greepeace has called on governments and boat operators to resolve human rights issues at sea as part of efforts to achieve sustainable fisheries.

KUTA, Indonesia — D, 28-year-old Indonesian man, was witness to a deadly assault on a fellow boat crew member by the captain when they worked aboard the Taiwanese fishing vessel Da Wang a few years ago. The captain hit his friend in the head, then forced them to continue working.

“In the morning when we woke up for breakfast, we found him dead in his room. The captain wrapped up my dead friend’s body with a blanket and then stored him in the freezer,” D said in an interview in July 2019.

D is one of 34 Indonesian sailors featured in an investigative report by the environmental group Greenpeace and the Indonesian Migrant Workers’ Union (SBMI) published on Dec. 9. The organizations looked into their complaints of forced labor during their employment on 13 fishing vessels registered in China, Taiwan, Fiji and Vanuatu.

The crews’ statements described conditions in which they experienced overwork, withholding of wages, debt bondage, and physical and sexual violence. These conditions eventually forced them to cut short their working contracts, which typically run about two years, and forfeit the deposits they were typically required to pay to get the jobs.

Indonesian migrants on board foreign fishing boats describe conditions in which they experience overwork, withholding of wages, debt bondage, and physical and sexual violence. Image courtesy of Greenpeace.

“There’s a strong interrelation between illegal fishing and forced labor of crews aboard fishing boats — it’s two sides of the same coin,” Arifsyah Nasution, oceans campaigner at Greenpeace Southeast Asia, told Mongabay.

With coastal fisheries being depleted due to overfishing, vessels are heading farther out into open waters and high seas, in turn racking up higher operating costs. Companies look for cheap labor to reduce costs and stay profitable — and much of that cheap labor comes from Southeast Asia.

“The way for [companies] to survive is by doing illegal activities: unreported catch, shark finning, transshipment so they can stay out in the seas longer, and sacrificing standards for salary and life on board,” Arifsyah said.

Citing the Taiwan Fisheries Agency, the report says 21,994 Indonesian fishers were working on Taiwanese coastal and distant-water fishing vessels as of June 2019. Migrant boat crews from Indonesia and the Philippines make up a large component of Taiwan’s distant-water fleets, one of the top five in the world and responsible for an industry valued at $2 billion a year, according to Greenpeace.

While the abuse mostly occurs once the crews are aboard the vessel, exploitative working arrangements begin with recruitment by fly-by-night hiring agents, the report says.

Many Indonesian migrant fishers are reportedly given false seafarers’ papers by the hiring agencies, which in most cases aren’t even licensed to send workers overseas; only two of 124 registered manning agencies had permission from the Indonesian Transportation Ministry to recruit and place migrant fishers aboard foreign vessels, according to government records cited in the report.

The migrant fishers also have to agree to a payment scheme in which their salaries are deducted to pay “guarantee deposits” and processing fees for the first six to eight months of their employment, forcing them to work long hours for little or no pay, the report says. And when a crew member fails to complete their contract, they will lose the deposit, it adds.

“The clauses in the contract are already unfair,” Arifsyah said. “There’s an indication that [working conditions] are designed to be inconvenient [for the boat crews], and it’s being used to benefit the local recruiters and agencies abroad.”

A flyer advertising factory and fishing jobs in South Korea by LPK Nakdong, a migrant worker placement agency that also provides Korean language training in the city of Tegal, Central Java. Image courtesy of Greenpeace.

Despite the onerous conditions, many Indonesians still seize on the opportunity to break free from poverty, the report says. Some even consider it a “prestigious” first work experience because of the overseas placement, Arifsyah said.

According to Arifsyah, most of the migrant fishers come from Indonesia’s most populous island, Java, with hiring agencies concentrated in the province of Central Java and the cities of Jakarta and Bekasi. There’s also been an increase in the number of candidates coming from eastern Indonesia and the Sumatran provinces of Lampung, North Sumatra and Aceh, Arifsyah said.

“It’s likely that [recruiters] are looking for new pockets to source the boat crews,” he said. “It seems that there’s a network that consolidates them all so that people from outside Java can register to the agencies in Java.”

Greenpeace and SBMI, the migrant workers’ union, reached out to the companies and individuals operating the respective fishing vessels. All of them denied accusations of withholding or deducting salaries paid through the recruitment agencies. Some of the boat operators also promised to investigate the allegations and to improve efforts in upholding the human rights of their migrant boat crews.

Arifsyah said some key aspects of the trade still needed to be exposed, such as finding out where the fish caught by these vessels end up, and also identifying the middlemen involved in the recruitment process.

“But that should be a concern of the law enforcers as this is a cross-country issue and involves multi stakeholders. Law enforcers should up their game, for instance, by involving Interpol,” Arifsyah said.

In response to the report, the Indonesian fisheries ministry said it would compile a comprehensive database of Indonesian migrant fishers and hiring agencies in the country. It also vowed to improve coordination with other government institutions — including the ministries of labor, transportation and foreign affairs, and the national agency for migrant worker protection — to set up clear jurisdictional authority for resolving these issues.

“Protecting our boat crews is an absolute [necessity] — not only for our fishermen or businesses, but also boat crews,” Zulficar Mochtar, the ministry’s head of capture fisheries, told Mongabay on the sidelines of a recent event in Kuta, Bali.

Greenpeace is calling on governments across Southeast Asia to resolve slavery at sea as part of efforts to achieve sustainability for fisheries and marine protection. This includes ratifying and implementing the International Labour Organization’s Work in Fishing Convention to protect their citizens from human rights abuses on fishing vessels, Greenpeace said.

“We can’t continue to ignore both environmental and social issues [in global fisheries], and only resolve one of them,” Arifsyah said. “It has to be both.”

Many Indonesian migrants experience life-threatening challenges when they work on foreign vessels fishing in distant waters. Image courtesy of Greenpeace.

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