By Joshua Chiang
The last time Eril Morales Andrade contacted his family was through SMS telling them that he was safely in Singapore – “To c Eril da, iya eon ako sa Singapore owas ka text ka ina naobosan ako it load “Donato” (English translation: “I am in Singapore. I will not be replying to your text messages anymore, because I have used up all my credit on my SIM card.”). It was sent shortly before he boarded the Taiwanese fishing vessel where he would be working presumably for the next 3 years.
Eril died 5 months later on 22 February 2011 on board the vessel when it was fishing in the Bay of Bengal. But it was only 6 weeks later on 16 April, when the ship docked in Singapore that his family was notified of his death. (His body was placed in the ship’s cold store to prevent decomposition.)
The post-mortem performed in Singapore concluded that the cause of death was “consistent with acute myocarditis” (inflammation of the heart due to infection). According to Eril’s elder brother Julius, a secondary post-mortem performed in the Philippines concluded that Eril had died of a heart attack, and that he had sustained several injuries before his death. He also said that the Philippine pathologist told him that the pancreas and one of Eril’s eyes were missing, without any written explanation.
[Editor’s note: the Philippine post-mortem report seen by TOC did not mention these matters.] Julius believes Eril had died of unnatural causes. “He was 32 years of age when he died. He did not smoke or drink and he did not have any ailment when he left here,” he tells TOC in an email interview. Julius also suspects that Eril had been subjected to physical abuse while on the ship.
When contacted by TOC, the Philippine Embassy in Singapore declined to comment on Eril’s case, as it is currently still working on the case with both the Singapore and Philippine authorities. However, the Embassy revealed that in 2009 and 2010, it had received over 70 complaints by Filipino fishermen about harsh working conditions onboard their vessels, and non-payment of salaries. As most of these Filipinos did not have work passes in Singapore, they have had difficulties filing cases here.
According to Shelley Thio, a volunteer with migrant workers’ rights NGO Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2), the problems faced by these fishermen are exacerbated by the lack of legal protection for abuses committed against fishermen out at sea. Many countries are not legally obliged to help fishermen in trouble, and Singapore is no exception.
An article published on TOC last year documented how a fisherman onboard a fishing vessel docked in Singapore nearly couldn’t escape his harsh work conditions because of bureaucratic red-tape caused by an absence of legislation. But in Eril’s case, the Singapore connection may well have gone much deeper.
The Singapore connection
According to Julius, Eril first learnt about an opening for a job as a fisherman in Singapore in May last year when his cousin told him that a certain Mrs. Celia Flores-Robelo was recruiting workers to work abroad. When they eventually met up, Flores-Robelo apparently promised Eril a monthly salary of US$500 (S$652) plus US$50 (S$65) allowance if he would take up the offer. There was no mention of the work conditions or working hours. Eril eventually took up the offer and his family claimed they paid Flores-Robelo 10,000 pesos (S$297) for the ‘processing.
The Taiwanese vessel “Hung Yu #212”.
In late August 2010, Eril went to Manila (he was living in the province of Aklan at that time) to finish his application, and was asked to pay a further 15,000 pesos (S$446), which he did. He was then offered an employment contract by a Singapore firm called Step Up Marine Enterprise, to work onboard the Taiwanese vessel “Hung Yu #212”.
After Eril died, representatives from Step Up Marine got in touch with his family to offer ‘limited compensation’. The company offered 100,000 pesos (S$2,942), but Eril’s family asked for 1,000,000 pesos (S$29,000). After 6 months of negotiations, the talks fell through. In November 2011, Julius lodged a formal complaint to Singapore’s Ministry of Manpower against Step Up Marine.
In the letter, Julius wrote: “We believe that hundreds of Filipinos, most of them unqualified as seamen, have been illegally recruited from all over the country by Step Up Marine Enterprise and their agents located in Manila and the provinces.”
An illegal business?
The Philippine Embassy in Singapore believes that the Filipinos, who had sought help from it, had been illegally recruited in the Philippines and trafficked into Singapore. They would arrive in Singapore as tourists, and upon arrival, Singaporean agents would facilitate their employment as fishermen. The Embassy named Step Up Marine Enterprise, the Singapore firm that had acted on Eril’s employment, as one such agent.
The Embassy also noted that many of these Filipinos were former farmers without any seamanship training or experience. The fishermen would be subjected to harsh and dangerous working conditions, and would be made to work up to 18 to 20 hours a day.
When in Singapore, the men would be made to sign onerous contracts with salaries or as low as US$200 per month. These contracts would also stipulate that the men would have to pay a certain amount if they tried to terminate the contracts and ask to return to the Philippines. The contracts would usually not be properly explained to the fishermen, as they would be immediately asked to board the fishing ships.
The Embassy has seen contracts signed only by the fishermen, without any signatures from the employers or agents, which raised questions about the validity of any employment relationship.
Shelley from TWC2 has been working on Eril’s case. She told TOC that Eril’s case was not the first time complaints have been lodged against Step Up Marine. Since May 2011, TWC2 has assisted with the repatriation of 5 fishermen recruited by Step Up Marine. Shelley said that the fishermen complained about unpaid wages and that Step Up Marine did not inform them of the long working hours and the dangerous working conditions, which exposed them to life-threatening situations at seas.
Shelley had met Step Up Marine’s director Victor Lim several times, but he insisted that he runs a legitimate manning agency sourcing for workers for customers. He has also threatened lawsuits against Shelley. (When TOC approached Mr. Lim for an interview, he declined, and similarly threatened to sue TOC for defamation if it published a story on this case.)
Nonetheless, Shelley says that Victor Lim had admitted to her that he had to recruit Filipino workers through illegal channels because his clients didn’t want to pay the fees to lawfully hire workers who are registered with The Philippine Overseas Employment Administration. And yet, in spite of the numerous complaints lodged against Step Up Marine, one of which resulting in a raid by MOM on Step Up Marine’s premises in May this year (for an unrelated case), TWC2 believes that the company has not yet been charged with any offenses.
Who watches out for fishermen?
Shelley explains that part of the difficulty NGOs face in getting the authorities to act, arises from a lack of concrete evidence to substantiate complaints. In salary disputes for example, the manning agencies were often able to produce contracts signed by complainants – who often allege they were not allowed to first read the contents – to show that they had entered into the agreements willingly. But Shelley says that there are also legislative loopholes that leave fishermen unprotected.
MOM had advised the NGOs that the fishermen are not covered under Singapore laws as they are not holders of Singapore work passes, since they are performing work outside Singapore; the fishing vessels they worked on are usually not registered in Singapore and are usually foreign-owned; and finally, Singapore has yet to ratify the International Labor Organisation’s (ILO) Work in Fishing Convention. While Singapore has ratified the ILO’s Maritime Labor Convention (which obligates Singapore to apply provisions in the Convention for decent work for seafarers), this Convention does not apply to crew working on fishing vessels.
Presently, there is no system in place in Singapore for fishermen to address their grievances and seek assistance to settle their disputes with the ship owners and manning agents. This is in contrast to seafarers, who have a right to appeal to the Director of Shipping Division of the Maritime Port Authority (MPA) of Singapore. The Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore Act covers the employment of seafarers only.
The only recourse is for the complainants to lodge a civil suit, but the legal fees and court charges involved make this an unlikely option for impoverished families such as Eril’s.
“We want justice for my brother, Eril,” Julius tells TOC.
But until the State ensures that manning agencies for fishermen are, at a minimum, abiding by the same set of rules and principles that apply to manning agencies for seafarers, ‘justice’ for fishermen like Eril will be hard to come by.
Victor Lim is now facing charges of trafficking and illegal recruitment in the Philippines.
The case went to trial last Monday at the Aklan Regional Trial Court. He faces up to 40 years in prison if convicted.
Victor Lim’s alleged recruiter, Filipina Celia Robelo, has also been charged. Robelo had allegedly promised them US$550 ($700) a month to work as fishermen.
Victor Lim denies the allegations, saying he was only a middleman and that he was a victim of a conspiracy. He did not comment if he would be facing trial in Philippines.
There is no extradition treaty between Singapore and the Philippines.
The Manpower Ministry investigated the agency in 2011 but found that it handled only administrative work for overseas clients. Mr Kandhavel Periyasamy, director of MOM’s Joint Ops Directorate, also added: “We cannot take action based on bad HR practices.”