Overlapping procedures, regulatory loopholes and fraudulent “agents” contribute to exploitation of Indonesian workers on foreign fishing vessels

Jakarta, INDONESIA — The Human Trafficking Task Force at the Indonesian National Police Criminal Investigation Unit (Bareskrim) and the Riau Police last week arrested a sponsor of two Indonesian workers who jumped overboard into the Straits of Malacca after being subjected to exploitation and abuse while working on a Chinese-flagged fishing vessel.

Bareskrim general crime unit director Ferdy Sambo confirmed the report, adding that the suspect was arrested in Bogor in West Java.

The two Indonesian workers, known as AJ and R, were saved by a group of fishermen from Tanjung Balai Karimun regency in the Riau Islands on 6 June.

Both Indonesians jumped off the boat after allegedly being tortured on the Chinese-flagged Fu Li Qing Yuan Yu 901 fishing boat.

“They decided to jump off the Chinese-flagged Lu Qing Yuan Yu 901 while they were underway in the Malacca Straits,” said the Foreign Ministry’s director for citizens’ protection, Judha Nugraha, in a press conference.

Exploitation at fishing vessels in numbers

The case of AJ and R was not the first recorded case of exploitation and abuse of Indonesian migrant workers on fishing boats — dubbed by human rights groups and observers as ‘modern slavery at sea’.

The Destructive Fishing Watch (DFW) reported that from November last year to June this year, 31 Indonesian vessel crew members have been subjected to exploitation while working on Chinese boats — even resulting in seven fatalities and three missing persons.

From 2018 to May this year, there were 415 cases involving Indonesian vessel crew members on foreign fishing boats, according to data from the Indonesian Migrant Workers’ Protection Agency (BP2MI).

“The 415 were during the two-year period. Imagine, there could be thousands of unexposed exploitation cases if we look at data from five to ten years ago,” BP2MI Head Benny Rhamdani told Tempo on 8 June.

Who is responsible for recruiting fishing boat’s crew members?

DFW Coordinator Abdi Suhfan told TOC that the recruitment of Indonesian workers at fishing vessel involves five channels — Indonesia’s Manpower and Transportation Ministries, regional administrations, the National Board for the Placement and Protection of Indonesian Overseas Worker (BNP2TKI), and independent channels involving agents.

The overlapping procedure makes it difficult to monitor the recruitment process, given that most of the manning agencies are not registered.

The recruitment agencies do not have a workers’ placement license from the Ministry of Manpower and vessel crew members’ recruitment licence from the Ministry of Transportation, based on the Ministry of Manpower’s findings.

Most of the fishing boat workers do not undergo training needed to be able to work at foreign-flagged fishing vessels.

“Most of them do not receive the two most important skills for working at fishing boats — fish-collecting and fish storage. Also, do not forget about the language. If they cannot speak Chinese, for example, how can they communicate with their Chinese employers and colleagues?” Mr Abdi added.

Most of the workers receive Basic Safety Training (BST) and sailor’s handbook issued by the Ministry of Transportation. The training is usually conducted for one to three months.

Scam agents try to lure candidates by promising a high salary. However, many workers do not get paid and are forced to work for long hours with poor working conditions.

“Regarding the most recent incident involving AJ and R, they have not received their salary since their departure date on 24 January. They suffered from physical abuse and intimidation on board,” Mr Abdi said in a release.

Based on the document obtained by Fisher Center Bitung, both Indonesians were entitled to receive a monthly salary of US$430 (S$597.55).

Most of such abuse takes place at Chinese-flagged fishing boats, while workers working at Taiwan-flagged fishing vessels usually have their salary withheld by manning agents which recruit them, Mr Abdi revealed.

Regulatory loophole

Mr Abdi added that Indonesia has Law No.18 of 2017 on Protection for Indonesian Migrant Workers, which includes protection for boat crew members and workers and fishers. However, technical regulation is needed to reinforce protection for vessel workers and fishermen.

Aris Wahyudi, the Acting Director-General of Working Opportunity Expansion and Workers’ Placement Management at the Ministry of Manpower, confirmed the regulatory loophole, adding that there is a manning agent which violated the recruitment procedure by using a trading agent from a respective regional trade office.

National sailor’s movement calls for harsh punishment for human trafficking actors in the fishing industry

Indonesia’s Law no.21 of 2007 on Combating Human Trafficking Crime is the most fundamental element in fighting against such a crime.

Head of the North Sulawesi Chapter of the Indonesia Sailors’ Movement Anwar Dalewa urged authorities to solve enslavement and exploitation suffered by Indonesian workers on foreign fishing boats transparently and quickly.

“Most of the human trafficking reports do not get responses from law enforcement institutions and those cases are rarely legally processed at court,” Mr Anwar said in a release from a discussion titled “Uncover The Crime of Trafficking In Persons and Forced Labor In The Capture Fisheries Industry” on Wednesday (10 June).

Mr Abdi said that many vessel crew members tend to refrain from suing the recruiting agents, as the workers are often too exhausted from their ordeal and only wanted to return home safely.

“They have lost their energy to take their cases to court. They think that at least they can return home safely, so they do not think about anything else,” he concluded.

Inter-country coordination, undetected boats’ activities, and understanding of human trafficking and territorial issues have posed a challenge to Indonesian law enforcers to disclose human trafficking cases in the fishery industry, said Among Pundi Resi from the Indonesia office of International Organization for Migration (IOM).

“The most urgent thing is an integrated approach on human trafficking in the fisheries sectors,” she stressed.

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