Floating sweatshops: Is the fish you eat caught by 'slaves'?

Mr Rahmatullah was allegedly duped by an Indonesian recruiting agency and trafficked to Somalia, where he spent nine brutal months aboard a Chinese fishing vessel, working 18-hour days.
Mr Rahmatullah was allegedly duped by an Indonesian recruiting agency and trafficked to Somalia, where he spent nine brutal months aboard a Chinese fishing vessel, working 18-hour days.PHOTO: AFP

JAKARTA (AFP) - Enslaved, beaten, malnourished, and so desperate for water he had to collect condensation to drink: Mr Rahmatullah left Indonesia seeking better prospects at sea - instead he endured a living hell.

The global fishing industry is riddled with forced labour, anti-trafficking experts say, warning that consumers are unaware of the "true cost" of the seafood they buy in stores and restaurants.

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

Mr Rahmatullah was told he was heading to Peruvian waters where he would receive a US$400 (S$552) 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 aboard a Chinese fishing vessel, working 18-hour days.

"I felt like a slave," the 24-year-old told AFP, adding: "The Chinese crew drank clean water while we had to collect water from the air-conditioning.

"We were often beaten when we didn't catch enough, even if we were sick."

'COULDN'T FIGHT BACK'

Mr Rahmatullah is one of 40 Indonesians pushing for compensation after allegedly being tricked with false promises by recruiter PT Maritim Samudera.

Some were sent to vessels in the seas off Japan, and others to boats sailing the Somalian coast.

In interviews with AFP and accounts provided to police and government officials, the men recounted beatings and psychological abuse, hunger, and dehydration.

 
 
 

Two crewmates died from thirst and exhaustion, according to Mr Rahmatullah's testimony.

Most of the men subsisted on white rice scattered with cabbage or boiled fish, while some grew so desperate for water they collected condensation from the air-con unit.

"The food was terrible," said 21-year-old Arianus Ziliwu, who was on a boat in Japanese waters.

"And the sleeping conditions didn't seem fit for humans," he explained.

Cellphone video footage and images provided to AFP showed some men sleeping without mattresses in a grimy cargo hold.

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

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

TARGETING THE VULNERABLE

The young men spent between six and nine months manning nets and packing fish before being saved, and all are owed thousands of dollars in unpaid wages, according to sworn statements to police.

Faced with plummeting global fish stocks due to overfishing, seafood companies have increasingly turned to vulnerable migrant workers in a bid to remain profitable, anti-trafficking advocates said.

"If you want cheap tuna or squid, the way to do it is with cheap labour," said Mr Arifsyah Nasution, oceans campaigner at Greenpeace Indonesia.

"And cheap labour comes from South-east Asia," he added.

The Global Slavery Index says labour exploitation and modern slavery in some fisheries are well documented.

But few shoppers know about these high-seas horrors.

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

Critics say the Indonesian government 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 migrant fishermen that fall victim to trafficking, the authorities estimated in 2016 that some 250,000 Indonesians were working as "unprotected" crew on foreign fishing vessels.

Most are destined for 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 own to avoid strict labour and environmental standards.

Both 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," said Mr Imam Syafi'i from the Indonesian Seafarers' Movement (PPI).

'NO MORE VICTIMS'

PT Martim Samudera Indonesia, the company that recruited Mr Rahmatullah, was not legally registered to send people abroad and falsified documents for some workers, according to PPI, which is advocating on behalf of the 40 men.

Despite paying about US$100 in processing fees, Mr Rahmatullah was sent overseas without basic training, a seaman's book or a medical certificate, Mr Syafi'i said.

Indonesia's manpower ministry, which is responsible for overseeing migrant workers, has recommended that the men be compensated for their ordeal, but the recruiter has so far refused to pay, according to the union.

Police are looking into possible trafficking charges, although progress on the case has been slow, Mr Syafi'i said.

The firm declined to answer AFP's questions about the allegations and said it was cooperating with the police investigation.

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

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

Jakarta is looking to beef up monitoring and inter-agency cooperation, Mr Adiratna said.

That can't come quickly enough for some, who want to stop the exploitation.

"I want the company to be punished so that there are no more victims," said Mr Lufti Awaludin Fitroh, another fishermen allegedly tricked by PT Maritim Samudera.

"It's enough for me and my friends to be the last - no more."