Can you sniff tang of slave-caught fish?

| Harry Pearl 11 Jun 2019

Enslaved, beaten, malnourished and so desperate for water he had to collect condensation to drink. For Rahmatullah left Indonesia seeking better prospects at sea but instead endured a living hell.

The global fishing industry is riddled with forced labor, anti-trafficking experts say, warning that consumers are unaware of the true cost of the seafood they buy.

Exploited workers face non-payment, overwork, violence, injury and death. Indonesia and other parts of southeast Asia are major sources of such labor, and unscrupulous brokers target the poor and uneducated with promises of good wages at sea.

Rahmatullah, 24, was told he was heading to Peruvian waters where he would receive US$400 (HK$3,100) a month salary, plus a per tonne bonus. But he was allegedly duped by an Indonesian recruiting agency and trafficked to Somalia, where he spent nine brutal months on a Chinese fishing vessel, working 18-hour days.

"I felt like a slave," he says. "The Chinese crew had clean water while we had to collect water from air-conditioning. We were often beaten when we didn't catch enough fish even if we were sick."

Two crewmates died from thirst and exhaustion, he said.

Rahmatullah is one of 40 Indonesians pushing for compensation after allegedly being tricked by a recruiting agency. Some were sent to vessels off Japan and others to near Somalia.

The men recounted beatings and psychological abuse, hunger, and dehydration to police and other authorities.

Most of the men subsisted on white rice with bits of cabbage or boiled fish. "The food was terrible," says 21-year-old Arianus Ziliwu, who was on a boat in Japanese waters.

"And sleeping conditions didn't seem fit for humans," he adds. Images show men slept without mattresses in a grimy cargo hold.

"We couldn't fight back - I'm from a village and didn't know better," says Rahmatullah, who had never worked on a boat before.

Both groups were rescued after sending SOS messages in brief windows of access to mobile internet.

They spent six to nine months manning nets and packing fish before that, and all are owed thousands of US dollars in wages.

Faced with plummeting stocks due to overfishing, firms have increasingly turned to vulnerable migrants to remain profitable.

"If you want cheap tuna or squid the way to do it is with cheap labor," says Arifsyah Nasution at Greenpeace Indonesia. "And cheap labor comes from southeast Asia."

The Global Slavery Index says exploitation in some fisheries is well documented. But few shoppers know about high-seas horrors.

"There is still very little awareness among consumers about the true costs and hidden facts of seafood products they buy," he says.

Critics say Jakarta is not doing enough to combat widespread abuse of its migrant sailors, despite efforts to clamp down on human rights violations in its own territorial waters.

Although there are no reliable estimates on the number of Indonesian fishermen who fall victim to trafficking, the estimate in 2016 was some 250,000 "unprotected" crew overseas.

Most are with fishing fleets that often obscure their origins through foreign flagging, a system that complicates monitoring and jurisdictional oversight by allowing ships to register in a country other than the owner's to avoid labor and environmental standards.

Public and private agencies in Indonesia are licensed to send people abroad, but some recruiters - and fishermen - choose to work outside formal channels, and poor oversight puts workers at risk.

"The first problem is lack of supervision, the second is toothless enforcement," says Imam Syafi'i of the Indonesian Seafarers' Movement.

Martim Samudera Indonesia, which recruited Rahmatullah, was not registered to send people abroad and falsified papers for some workers, according to the union advocating on behalf of the 40 men.

Despite paying about US$100 in processing fees, Rahmatullah was sent overseas without basic training, a seaman's book or a medical certificate, Syafi'i says. Police are exploring trafficking charges.

Although the government has taken steps to minimize the problem by revising regulations, enforcement is haphazard and complicated by overlapping laws and poor cooperation between agencies.

Yuli Adiratna, head of Indonesia's sub-directorate for protecting workers abroad, concedes that "supervision of seafarers could improve," admitting his inspectors have been more focused on other migrant workers at risk.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

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