Indonesian Seamen in the Middle of Chinese Fishing Industry

Indonesian seamen stand out of the crowd; but this has nothing to do with their good achievements. Instead, it is about their perennial miserable fate of being victims of slavery at sea. The issue takes center stage after a video footage released by a South Korean media corporation MBC News depicting the burial of a deceased Indonesian seaman at sea by the Chinese trawler Tian Yubelonging to Dalian Ocean Fishing Co. Ltd. The video also revealed that prior to his death, AR (the deceased seamen) was treated inhumanely by the captain of Long Xin 269, another trawler which belongs to the same company.

So far, the handling of the case at the domestic front by the Indonesian government is reactive. Much of the attention is on the international dimension leaving the main cause untouched. After the video footage went viral, for instance, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs arranged communication with the Chinese Ambassador in Jakarta to discuss what had actually happened. In a communique,Minister of Foreign Affairs RetnoMarsudi said she condemned the torture of Indonesian seamen onboard Chinese fishing armada. Although Indonesia has formally brought the issue of exploitation of seamen before the UN High Commission on Human Rights in Geneva, any significant action at the national level is still unseen.

Sea slavery in Indonesia is a perennial problem given that hundreds of local people are trafficked overseas to work on foreign fishing fleet. It is difficult to establish the exact number since the practice has many covers, ranging from charity activities to commercial ones. Lack of government control on the recruitment and placement of Indonesia’s migrant workers further adds to the complexity of the issue.

Indonesians trapped in the sea slavery are young,generally poor,less educated, and unskilled. They hail from villages across the nation with the primary intention to be out of the poverty cycle and help other members of their family to live a decent life. In reaching this aim they basically have not the slightest idea what kind of job to do. Their sincere motive unfortunately is then capitalized by a bunch of persons who can be friends oreven relativeswhose purpose is to take advantage of these people.

The recruiters lure them with the idea of working overseas onboard ships, specially fishing trawler. They covercosts for the trip but the person being hiredmust take care of all other expenses (for passport, seaman book, bribery, etc.) for which they become victim of loan sharks. In both cases, all the spending must be paid back by them through their salary. The problem is that they do not get salary as a slave.In interviews with local media, the family of Indonesia’s seamen working onboard Chinese trawlers admitted that they did not received any salary transfer from them for months. The parents even got no information on the condition of their loved sons.

Indonesian seamen are popular among Chinese fishing armada; however there no statistics available on the exact numbers. Similarly, it is also difficult to reckon the number of Chinese fishing vessels employing them. That’s simply because not all of them are registered under their country’s flag.

The fishing vessels are generally more than 300 tons gross tonnage, capable of catching tunas and sailing for months. Thecatch is transferred on the high seas to bigger vessels for further process or delivery. These floating factories are owned by Chinese ship owners, manned by multinational crews,and are registered under flags of convenience.

Chinese fishing industry is both very active and aggressive, serving both local and international market but competition amongst the players is very tight. Consequently, they are prone to abusive practices including slaveryto make profits. Unfortunately, the Chinese government does not appear to have any intention to monitor its fishing fleet.

The question today is how to reduceIndonesian sea slavery onboard Chinese vessels? The Indonesian government has a pivotal role and it should be active in recruiting and placement of the country’s seamen. Currently, the two processes are handled by the private firms but the government and its administrative machineries can reach out to grassroots to solve the problem. Perhaps, what is needed is political will from the top man on top of the power pyramid.

The idea to involve the government in recruiting and placing the workforce in the international market is not new. A couple of years ago the policy was carried out by a state-run body in charge of migrant workers (BNP2TKI presently BP2MI); but seamen recruitment and placement was not one of their line of business. The President needs to issue an executive order or PeraturanPresiden/Perpres to activate the institution for the mission.

Furthermore, the recruited seamen can be placed under a specific G-to-G agreement between the government of Indonesia and the administration of destination country which in the next turn distribute the seamen to their fishing fleet. To make sure that it works effectively, a special status should be provided to BP2MIas the sole service provider. As a consequence, the existing private firms or charity organizations (yayasan) doing similar business can be dismissed. Beside recruitment and placement, the agency handles training and certification for the seamen as well. With this additional tasks, BP2MI could transform the unskilled into professionals whocan then work not only onboard fishing vessel but across the fisheries industry worldwide. These options if well managed may establish Indonesia as the capital of trained fishing boat crew.

Mr Siswanto Rusdi is Director of National Maritime Institute (NAMARIN), an independent maritime think tank in Jakarta

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