Indonesia’s plans to report the alleged exploitation of Indonesian crew members on a Chinese fishing vessel to the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council is expected to raise worldwide concern over the ongoing “modern slavery” at sea.
“As there are statements that there will be a further investigation involving Interpol, we hope that the incident [the dumping of four Indonesian crew members from Long Xing 629 fishing vessel] can be an eye-opener that the exploitation at sea is still rampant,” Hariyanto Suwarno, chief of Indonesian Migrant Workers’ Union (SBMI) told TOC on Saturday (16 May).
Hariyanto added that this year would be the right time for Indonesia to strengthen diplomacy and pressure countries identified as fishing vessels’ owners such as China and Taiwan to urgently make changes, given Indonesia’s position as one of the permanent members of the UN Human Rights Council.
The incident at Long Xing 629 vessel in early May caught international attention when South Korea’s MBC TV station aired the poor working conditions on the fishing boats and how employers had dumped the dead bodies of Indonesian workers at sea.
Hariyanto added that what happened in early May was not the first case of its kind.
In 2012, 204 Indonesian vessel crew members were stranded in Trinidad and Tobago’s waters on a Taiwan-owned vessel.
In February 2014, 74 Indonesian workers were abandoned in Cape Town, South Africa. They worked for a Taiwan-owned boat.
Indonesian workers on foreign fishing vessels receive lower salaries than stipulated in contract, says insider
Workers on fishing boats are prone to exploitation as they are forced to work for 18-20 hours. They also do not receive the salaries stated in their contract.
“The contract states the salary is US$400, but they only receive US$150,” said an insider, who agreed to speak to TOC under the condition of anonymity.
He added that fishing boats usually remain at sea for months, or even years, posing a challenge to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to communicate with the fishermen aboard the vessels in the event of an emergency.
“Fish in fishing boats such as Long Xing are transferred to collecting boats that will provide logistics to that fishing vessel. Such boats remain at sea for more than two years,” the source explained.
Head of Indonesian Migrant Workers’ Protection Agency (BP2MI), Benny Rhamdani, told CNN Indonesia that overlapping procedures on sailors’ recruitment had contributed to the insufficient protection of fishers on a fishing boat.
He said that several institutions claimed they could issue a format letter on sailors’ placement, such as the Ministry of Transportation, Ministry of Manpower, Ministry of Trade, and Indonesian Migrant Workers Placement Company (P3MI).
“Such a complicated situation makes the Ministry of Foreign Affairs act like a firefighter, as they only act when something happens. This is because they do not have official figures, since many fishers are recruited to work illegally,” an anonymous source told TOC.
Hariyanto of SBMI, however, said that the Ministry of Transportation only focuses on marine transportation management, while boat workers’ recruitment and placement is the central core of the Ministry of Manpower.
Ratification of ILO Work in Fishing Convention No.188
Migrant workers’ organisations urged the Indonesian government to ratify the International Labour Organization (ILO)’s Work in Fishing Convention No.188, which the country had signed in 2007.
The ratification will provide legal certainty and protection for Indonesian sailors work in the fishing sector, said Ilyas Pangestu, Head of Indonesian Fishery Workers’ Union (SPPI) in a virtual press conference on 7 May.
The ratification of ILO Works in Fishing Convention matters because not all sailors are fishermen. Under international law, sailors are protected by the Maritime Labor Convention (MLC) 2006.
“Indonesia ratified U.N. Convention on The Protection of The Rights of Migrant Workers and Their Family Members (1990) in 2012, and it became the Law No.6/2012 on the convention’s ratification.
“That law was integrated into the Law on Protection for Indonesian Migrant Workers,” Hariyanto said, adding that Article 4 in the law stipulates that the definition of ‘migrant workers’ includes those working in the fishery sector.
“Let’s say Indonesia has ratified the ILO Work on Fishing Convention. The ratification is not enough as Indonesia needs to push countries like China and Taiwan to do the same so we can demand our fishers’ protection,” he added.
Indonesia signed, ratified UN human rights treaty for migrant workers
International human rights lawyer and academician Andrew Clapham in his book Human Rights: A Very Short Introduction highlighted that a treaty for migrant workers is one of the seven “core” human rights treaties under the United Nations Organisation (UN).
The International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families, which came into force in 2003, covers rights such as access to labour rights equal to those of citizens and protection from collective expulsion — including for workers at sea such as fishermen.
Indonesia, one of the Southeast Asian countries known to frequently export migrant labour to neighbouring countries and beyond, signed the treaty on 22 September 2004 and ratified it on 31 May 2012.
Professor Clapham noted, however, that UN Member States that “have accepted obligations under this treaty are mostly states that export migrant workers rather than those that host them” [emphasis by Professor Clapham].
Such a situation would also mean that “those states that host migrant workers avoid the reach of this treaty and the prospect of supervision by the monitoring body”, he added.
Treaties are considered legally binding between UN Member States at international law.
While the International Court of Justice (ICJ) hears disputes between Member States — and has the authority to issue binding decisions to the Member States involved in the cases at hand — a State must firstly accept and recognise the jurisdiction of the Court, whether generally or in relation to a particular case.
A State that has not accepted the Court’s jurisdiction cannot be compelled to appear before the ICJ.