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Indonesia pursues agreements to protect its fishers on foreign vessels

Migrant fishers haul a shark aboard DOF’s Long Xing 621 vessel in the mid-Atlantic in September 2021. Image by Tommy Trenchard for Greenpeace.

  • The Indonesian government says it hopes to sign agreements with other governments to improve protection of its citizens working in those countries’ fishing industries.
  • Indonesia is thought to be the largest source of labor in the global fishing fleet, but Indonesian deckhands are often subject to predatory recruitment processes, labor abuses, and even deadly working conditions.
  • In May 2021, the Indonesian government signed one such agreement with the South Korean government, addresses key issues such as recruitment and placement mechanisms, and a dedicated training center for Indonesian fishers.
  • The Indonesian foreign ministry is now seeking similar agreements with Taiwan and China, with the latter’s fishing fleet accounting for nearly as much activity in distant waters as the next four top countries combined.

JAKARTA — The Indonesian government is forging bilateral agreements to protect the rights of its citizens working on fishing boats under other countries’ flags, in a bid to tackle labor abuses and modern slavery.

The foreign ministry in Jakarta said recently that it was establishing a body of “sea-based” agreements with other countries that receive many Indonesian migrant fishers and seafarers aboard international vessels. The Southeast Asian nation is widely believed to be the industry’s biggest supplier of labor, although quality data is lacking. But Indonesian migrant deckhands often become victims of labor abuse due to deadly working conditions and unfair recruitment processes. Experts note that forced labor on board fishing vessels often goes hand in hand with illegal fishing.

“It’s how we create a safe corridor for our migrant workers,” Judah Nugraha, the ministry’s director for Indonesian citizen protection abroad, said in an online seminar on Aug. 31. “So far, these [agreements] have been land-based, meanwhile sea-based work is completely different to land-based in terms of protection.”

Indonesian migrant deckhands on board Chinese fishing vessel Ning Tai 95. Image courtesy of Zulfam Afandi.

Judha said Indonesia has signed one such agreement with South Korea and aims to seal similar deals with Taiwan and China. The latter is by far the world’s largest fishing power, accounting for nearly as much activity in distant waters as the next four top countries combined, but is often described as having the worst fleet for migrant fishers to work in.

Migrant boat crews from Indonesia and the Philippines make up a large component of the distant-water fleet of Taiwan, one of the top five in the world and responsible for an industry valued at $2 billion a year, according to Greenpeace. The group cited the Taiwan Fisheries Agency as saying that 21,994 Indonesian fishers were employed on Taiwanese coastal and distant-water fishing vessels as of June 2019.

The agreement between Indonesia and South Korea, signed in May 2021, aims to protect the labor rights of Indonesians working on board South Korean coastal fishing vessels larger than 20 tons. It addresses key issues such as recruitment and placement mechanisms under the government-to-government scheme, and the operation of a dedicated training center for Indonesian fishers. Indonesia is the largest supplier of seafarers to South Korea, followed by the Philippines, Vietnam and Myanmar.

“We’ve already made one [agreement] with [South] Korea, we’re now trying to replicate it in other countries, and of course we’re doing it gradually,” Judha said.

Many Indonesian migrant workers experience life-threatening challenges on board foreign vessels fishing in distant waters. Image courtesy of Greenpeace.

Former migrant deckhands from Indonesia have previously described dire and even deadly working conditions on board foreign vessels, including overwork, withholding of wages, debt bondage, and physical and sexual violence. Under these conditions, many are forced 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.

At home, Indonesia has recently issued a much-anticipated decree to boost the protection of Indonesian deckhands working aboard foreign commercial and fishing vessels. The new regulation also includes working scheme and condition standards based on a global convention on work in fishing by the United Nations’ International Labour Organization, known as ILO C188; the introduction of collective-bargaining agreements for migrant workers; and establishing an integrated database on migrant workers between related government agencies.

“The point is how both countries can understand how to provide the best protection not only for our migrant workers but also for the interest of vessel owners in the destination country,” Judha said.

See related: Mongabay’s award-winning investigation of worker abuse aboard a Chinese tuna fishing fleet, here.

Basten Gokkon is a senior staff writer for Indonesia at Mongabay. Find him on Twitter @bgokkon.

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