Thirteen foreign distant water fishing vessels have been accused of abusing migrant fishers from Southeast Asia, in cases so severe it has been characterised by many as “modern slavery”.
A Greenpeace Southeast Asia report called Seabound: The Journey to Modern Slavery on the High Seas presents a snapshot of the living and working conditions of migrant fishers – mainly from Indonesia and the Philippines – who end up working onboard foreign-owned distant water fleets.
The report notes that forced labour, mistreatment, and rampant human rights abuses were common themes in 34 complaints as conducted through direct interviews, paper trail, and corroborative information. The main complaints identified in the report are deception, withholding of wages, excessive overtime, and physical and sexual abuse.
In one of the testimonials by a 24-year-old former crew member on Taiwanese-owned longliner Zhong Da 2, Mr Z said: “I was forced to work without enough rest and food. I was exhausted and could not continue my duty. I saw that others went for a rest. I stopped and went to the galley but food was not served anymore. My boss came to me and asked, “What’s your problem?” I asked back, “Don’t you know the rules, also I need to rest and eat food, what’s my fault?”
Greenpeace Southeast Asia reached out to representatives from Zhong Da 2, as well as each of the other fishing vessels mentioned in the report, but Zhong Da 2 provided no comment in response to these allegations.
The report also reveals a shady system of recruitment that traps many Indonesian migrant fishers in conditions of forced labour. Greenpeace Southeast Asia, with the help of Indonesian migrant workers union, Serikat Buruh Migran Indonesia (SBMI), analysed contracts, letters of guarantee and related documents.
In an investigation into illegal labour practices, one Indonesian migrant fisher onboard Taiwan owned fishing vessel Chin Chun 12 claimed to have not received any salary for the first six months; while another Indonesian migrant fisher onboard Taiwan fishing vessel Lien Yi Hsing 12 reportedly received only US$50 in the first four months. Chin Chun 12 did not respond to the opportunity to comment while Lien Yi Hsing 12 responded and denied the accusations, said the report.
“Despite national policies to protect migrant workers and international treaties on fisheries management, it is unthinkable that modern slavery continues to thrive within the fishing industry,” said Arifsyah Nasution, Oceans Campaigner for Greenpeace Southeast Asia.
“This business-as-usual can no longer continue, and the never-ending complaints of injustice and abuse must be addressed immediately by all stakeholders. One migrant fisher suffering is one too many. It is absolutely vital that national laws securing migrant fishers’ rights are fully enforced, or, where they are absent, must be developed as soon as possible.”
Greenpeace urges ASEAN to ratify ILO Work in Fishing Convention
With the upcoming UN Climate Change Conference (COP25) being labelled as the ‘Blue COP’ due to its focus on the oceans and on the eve of International Human Rights Day (10 December), Greenpeace Southeast Asia is calling for all 10 ASEAN member states – particularly Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand – to take the lead in addressing overfishing; illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing; and modern slavery at sea.
The environmental NGO recommends that all ASEAN member state ratify and implement of the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) Work in Fishing Convention (C-188) in order to protect their citizens from human rights abuses on fishing vessels.
It also recommends the ratification and implementation of the International Maritime Organisation’s Cape Town Agreement, the Food & Agriculture of the UN’s Port State Measures Agreement and eight of ILO’s Core Conventions.
Other recommendations include requiring mandatory pre-departure orientation to ensure migrant fishers know their rights and responsibilities as well as training on safety and basic IUU fishing education, having official labour inspectors at ports, and integrating fishing into national action plans on labour migration and human trafficking.
On an international level, Greenpeace Southeast Asia recommends that ASEAN members collaborate and advocate for a declaration or consensus on Work in Fishing that calls on flag states to end unequal treatment of ASEAN migrant fishers in the distant water fishing fleet and to include cases on human rights abuses in the Regional Fisheries Management Organizations’ IUU Vessel list.