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Indonesia may bar citizens from working on foreign fishing boats after spate of deaths

  • Indonesia may issue a ban next month preventing its citizens from working on board foreign fishing vessels, citing lack of protection of their rights and safety abroad.
  • The announcement comes as the foreign ministry says it is looking into a new report that a Chinese-flagged boat dumped the body of a dead Indonesian crew member into the waters off Somalia on Jan. 16.
  • Earlier this month, three other Chinese vessels were exposed for dumping the bodies of three Indonesian workers into the sea after they died on board amid reports of inhumane working conditions.
  • The planned moratorium would last six months, with the government looking to use that time to improve the recruitment and placement process for migrant fishermen.

JAKARTA — Indonesia is considering a ban to prevent its citizens going abroad to work on foreign fishing vessels, after the latest report that one of them had died and was dumped at sea by a Chinese-flagged boat.

“The fisheries minister is pushing for a moratorium while we fix up the procedures for the future,” Zulficar Mochtar, the ministry’s director-general of capture fisheries, said in a recent online press conference. He added that the moratorium could be imposed as soon as June and last for six months.

The foreign ministry says it is looking into the allegation that the crew of the Luqing Yuan Yu 623 dumped the body of an Indonesian crewman in the waters off Somalia after he died on board on Jan. 16. According to the ministry, the work placement agency that recruited the man for the job claimed to have notified his relatives about his death and “burial” at sea. The company said it had also notified Indonesian authorities, but the foreign ministry, the manpower ministry and the national agency for migrant worker protection, or BNP2TKI, said they were never notified.

Many Indonesian migrant workers on board foreign fishing boats have been subjected to overwork, withholding of wages, debt bondage, and physical and sexual violence. Image courtesy of Greenpeace.

The latest report comes just days after news emerged, along with video, of three other Indonesians being dumped at sea after dying on board three tuna longliners operated by China’s Dalian Ocean Fishing Co. Ltd. The men and their fellow Indonesian crew had reportedly been subjected to inhumane working conditions, and at least one of the boats appeared to have been engaged in the illegal fishing practice of shark finning.

Reports of Indonesian migrant fishing crews being abused aboard foreign boats have been common for decades. The country is one of the biggest sources of the cheap migrant labor that fishing fleets from China, Taiwan and elsewhere rely on. There are an estimated 23,500 Indonesians currently working on foreign boats, according to the government.

But deadly conditions await the workers aboard the vessels, such as overwork, having their wages withheld, being forced into debt bondage, and experiencing physical and sexual violence. At the same time, many of the boats in these mostly distant-water fleets tend to be involved in illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing practices.

If the work placement moratorium is imposed, the Indonesian government will use the time to streamline the recruitment process of migrant fishermen to improve monitoring, weed out unscrupulous placement agencies, and ensure workers’ rights can be protected, Zulficar said.

At present, an Indonesian citizen can get a job on a foreign fishing boat through five different channels: the transportation ministry, the manpower ministry, the BNP2TKI, their regional government, or independently. Zulficar said this resulted in a lack of coordination between the various institutes when trying to investigate reports of migrant worker abuse.

“We’re now preparing the format, either a joint ministerial directive or formally issued by the manpower ministry, but we hope that in the next few days the moratorium can be finalized,” Zulficar said.

Working conditions can be deadly on board the distant-water fleets that rely on cheap labor from Southeast Asia. Image courtesy of Greenpeace.

He added the fisheries ministry was at the same time working to expand Indonesia’s domestic fishing fleet to give locals more incentive to work at home and not go abroad. For many migrant fishermen, and most Indonesian migrant workers in other sectors, the main attraction of working abroad is the promise of better pay than a job at home, despite the widespread reports of worker abuse.

Zulficar said Indonesia would increase its domestic fishing fleet by 7,000 boats of 100 gross tonnage to meet its maximum sustainable yield of 12.5 million tonnes of fish catch per year.

“We must set up the process first, but we are going to get there: intensification of our capture fisheries. But certainly without undermining the rights of small fishermen,” he said.

Marine observers say they support the planned moratorium and reforming the hiring process of migrant fishermen. But they also call for criminal charges to be pursued against the placement agencies both at home and abroad.

“The moratorium plan won’t be an effective solution if there isn’t strict law enforcement against the recruiting companies and their syndicates,” Arifsyah Nasution, oceans campaigner for Greenpeace Southeast Asia, told Mongabay.

Arifsyah said the Indonesian government must keep pressing the regional fisheries management organizations in which both Indonesia and China are registered members to investigate and resolve the cases. He said these organizations have the authority to punish those violating their regulations by reducing fishing quotas or fleet size and even freezing fishing permits.

Experts have also called for Indonesia to immediately ratify the International Labour Organization’s 2007 Work in Fishing Convention. The convention sets out standards for ensuring decent work for the world’s 38 million workers in the fishing sector, but only 18 countries around the world have ratified it. Like Indonesia, China and Taiwan have also not ratified the convention.

“To pay respect to our constitution which protects the rights of every citizen, I think there’s no reason for us to wait any longer to ratify [the convention],” said Riza Damanik, chairman of the Indonesian Traditional Fishermen’s Union (KNTI).

“It will also send a political message to the world that we are truly giving protection to every citizen who works on board foreign fishing vessels.”

Shark fins aboard the Chinese tuna fishing boat Long Xing 629. Image courtesy of the Environmental Justice Foundation.

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