Joshua Chiang –
For 15 months, Mozambican Augusto Faustino Jorges endured frequent beatings, long working hours and dangerous conditions on board a Taiwanese fishing vessel. Had it not been for the sudden death of a crew-mate – forcing the vessel to dock in Singapore – and the timely intervention of a local NGO, Jorge’s ordeal might have lasted much longer. TOC reports.
On 10th June 2010, Taiwanese fishing vessel Tai Yuan 111 arrived and docked at Singapore’s Jurong Fishery Port. A few days earlier, the ship’s chief engineer had suddenly died from what was likely a rupture in the brain.
A few days later, Jolovan Wham, executive director of H.O.M.E (Humanitarian Organization for Migration Economics), a local NGO focused on migrant worker welfare, learnt that some of the Filipino workers on board the ship were not allowed to leave and return home, even though they were promised they were free to go whenever the ship docks. After a month of protracted negotiations, the workers’ local agent, ‘Jet’, finally agreed to release the workers, and allow Jolovan to board the ship. That was when he met Augusto Jorges.
Jorges is from Mozambique, a country in southeastern Africa with a per captia GDP of USD $933, one of the lowest in the world.
From Mozambique, he was flown to Johannesburg and from there to Mauritius, where he boarded the Tai Yuan 111, in March 2009.
At the time, Jorge’s passport was six months from its expiry date. His agent assured him that he would be at sea for only six months, and could disembark and renew his passport or else fly back before it expired. It was only after the ship set sail that he was told the ship would stay at sea for the next 18 months – a whole year more than what he was previously informed of. But more was to come.
The living conditions on the ship were harsh.
Everyday, the men were made to work 16 to17 hours at a stretch, with only 4 to 5 hours of sleep in between. Their work comprised of managing some 3,000 fishing lines, hauling in the lines when the fish bit, and then slicing, cleaning, gutting and then storing the fish in the deep freezer. It was dangerous work. Each fish could weigh as much as 65 kg,. The men were also not given safety vests, or any safety training.
The men were also subjected to frequent beatings by senior crew members for lacking experience and not following instructions – which were given in Chinese. Even after a year, the beatings continued. Jorges recalled the captain telling the senior crew that it was ‘no matter’ if anyone of them were beaten to death.
For Jorges, the 15 months at sea was ‘like a death sentence’. He feared that he would never see his wife and five-year old son again.
Thus it was no wonder that when Jolovan Wham boarded the ship and asked if anyone else other than the Filipino crew wanted to leave, Jorges jumped at the opportunity.
But he nearly didn’t make it.
“I’m sorry, your passport has expired.”
On 20th July 2010, Jorges finally touched land for the first time in 15 months. Jolovan had secured a Special Pass from the Immigration Authority that gave the Mozambican just four hours to get on a flight home. The Special Pass was issued at 10pm, and Jorges’ flight was at 2am. If he were still in Singapore by the time the Special Pass expired, he would be sent to the ship, where he would most certainly face reprisals.
A Singapore Airlines ticket was purchased that would take Jorges to Johannesburg where he would take a connecting flight back to Mozambique. But when Jorges – accompanied by Jolovan and a volunteer – arrived at Changi Airport, he was not allowed to check in as his passport had expired. The staff refused to accept his seaman’s book as identification. (A seaman’s book is a record of a seaman’s career certifications and experiences.)
Jolovan then negotiated with the Immigrations and Checkpoint Authority (ICA) for an extension of the Special Pass, so that the issue could be sorted out. ICA relented – Jorge’s Special Pass was extended till 5pm the following day.
The next day, on 21st July, Jorges and a volunteer went to the South African embassy. The embassy refused to give Jorges a transit visa, but told him that since he would only be in transit at Johannesburg, it ‘should be fine’.
The volunteer also called the Mozambique embassy in Jakarta (Mozambique has no embassy in Singapore). The Mozambique High Consulate in Johannesburg agreed to assist Jorges if there was any trouble when he lands in Johannesburg. An email was sent to confirm the arrangement.
But upon arrival at the check-in counter at Changi Airport that night, Jorges was told once again that he could not board – apparently, the immigration at Johannesburg has given this directive. The email that was sent earlier could not be accepted as proof of any prior arrangements.
There was very little Jorges could do except to renew his passport – but the nearest Mozambique Embassy was in Jakarta. It was unlikely that ICA would extend Jorge’s Special Pass by the several days that would be needed for him to renew his passport by mail. Jolovan decided to take the next available flight to Jarkata to renew Jorge’s passport, but not before securing another extension – till 2 a.m. on 23rd July – for Jorges’ Special Pass.
Jolovan departed for Jarkata the following morning while Jorges waited at a shelter. At 11.30 a.m., the good news came – his passport had been renewed till 2013. Jorges was relieved. He was finally going home.
“Just a routine check.”
That evening, Jorges, Jolovan and the volunteer returned to Changi Airport. At 11.30 p.m. Jorges went through the departure gates and approached the immigration counter. His passport and air ticket were taken from him and he was directed to a room and told to wait. When the volunteer called Jorges, he said he did not know why he was asked to wait in the room. Subsequent calls to Jorges by the volunteer went unanswered.
It wasn’t until 1 a.m. that Jorges called back. His passport, documents and handphone had finally been returned to him, and he was waiting to board the plane. Jorges has arrived in Mozambique. He is now finally home safe and sound.
The episode however has raised several questions:
– What are Singapore’s responsibilities regarding seafarers, such as fishermen, and vessels which dock in Singapore?
– The workers, as in the above example, can only leave the ship if the agent responsible for them sign a release form. What about workers who want to leave (for example, because they’re being abused) and the agent does not want to sign any such release forms?
– What are the responsibilities and liabilities of the vessel’s local agent, such as “Jet” in the case of the Tai Yuan 111?
– Jorges and the Filipino workers were only able to leave after the intervention of aid workers like Jolovan Wham. And Jolovan only came to know of the situation because one of the Filipino workers on the ship had contacted his friend who was already working in Singapore. This friend in turn contacted Jolovan Wham and HOME. What avenues are open to such workers to seek help when they dock in Singapore?
– What assistance do the ICA, MOM and other government departments provide in such cases? In the above incident, it was entirely HOME and volunteers who provided Jorges with shelter and helped him with his passport problems.
– Lastly, what legal rights does a person like Jorges have under Singapore laws in such a situation?
For a more detailed account of Jorges’ ordeal, read “Getting Jorge home” by Little Ms Kaypoh.