Rough sailing for Indonesian crew on board Chinese fishing vessels

Life aboard a Chinese fishing vessel was a nightmare of abuse for Mashuri, who says he’s never going to sea again. The 22-year old Indonesian is now safely back on dry land, working as a technician at a motorcycle garage in Lumajang, East Java.

Mashuri says he escaped the brutal conditions by jumping overboard on April 7 with three other Indonesian crew members when they determined that the vessel was sailing in the Malacca Strait.

“Our mobile phone detected a roaming signal from a Malaysian operator, so we knew we were near Indonesia,” he said.

“The four of us jumped out of the boat at two o’clock in the morning. We were floating in the sea for about 12 hours until a cargo ship that was on its way to Kalimantan rescued us.”

The men were transferred to a Malaysian maritime vessel, disembarked in Johor and were handed over to the Indonesian Embassy, which then arranged for their return to their respective hometowns a few days later.

Initially, there were five of them on board the Fu Yuan Yu 1218, Mashuri said, and they had been sailing to fish in the Arabian Sea off Somalia and Oman. One of the Indonesian crewmen fell ill as a result of the slave-like working conditions, during which they were only able to rest for three hours a day, and died on board. He was buried at sea off Somalia. Two more Indonesian crewmen had been transferred from another boat, so there were six of them on board the vessel.

“They were supposed to let us disembark in Singapore but because of the (Covid-19) pandemic, they ditched the plan and were going to take us to China. I refused, and we got into a fight with the Chinese crew,” Mashuri said.

“They often hit us and I just couldn’t stand it anymore with the abusive working conditions. So, we decided to jump off the vessel.”

According to Mashuri, the men had been deceived, having been told that they had landed jobs on a Korean-flagged fishing vessel. But when they were in transit in Singapore, they were ushered onto a small Chinese-flagged boat, which then transferred them to a bigger one in the middle of the sea, and that was when their hardship began.

They were promised a US$300 monthly salary but in the end, Mashuri said he only received $200 per month as the other $100 was deducted every month by the agency that recruited them to pay for related costs, including preparing the necessary documents.

Mashuri and his three colleagues were not the only ones who resorted to the same desperate escape method from a Chinese fishing vessel.

Judha Nugraha, director for protection of Indonesian citizens abroad at the Foreign Ministry, said two Indonesian crew members, Andry Juniansyah and Reynalfi, also jumped off the Chinese-flagged Lu Qing Yuan Yu 901 when it was sailing in the Malacca Strait on June 5. They were rescued by fishermen from Riau Islands province in the early hours of the next day.

Mohammad Abdi Suhufan, the national coordinator for the fishermen’s advocacy group Destructive Fishing Watch (DFW), said that there were 12 Indonesians on board the Lu Qung Yuan Yu 901 but the other 10 refused to take the risk of jumping overboard. This was the sixth such incident within the last eight months.

“We noted there have been at least 30 Indonesian crew members who have been victims of abusive working conditions onboard Chinese vessels, with seven dead, three missing and 20 survived,” Mr Suhufan said.

In May, Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi summoned China’s ambassador to clarify the deaths of Indonesian crewmen from two Chinese-flagged vessels.

The ministry acted after a video was circulated on social media, appearing to show a burial at sea from a Chinese-flagged ship. The footage showed a group of men praying around an orange body bag before it was tossed into the ocean.

Ms Retno said last month that three Indonesian crew members had died aboard Chinese-flagged fishing vessels since December and had been buried at sea.

The captain of the fleet said the sailors had to be buried at sea because they died from an infectious disease, and that the process followed international maritime rules, Reuters reported.

The conditions that Indonesian sailors had to endure amounted to human trafficking, Mr Suhufan told Asia Focus. Most of the complaints that DFW received involved an agency identified by its initials MTB, he added.

The Central Java police said they had arrested two recruiters who worked for the company on human trafficking charges. Brig Gen Ferdy Sambo, head of the general crimes unit at the National Police headquarters, said last month that officers had declared three others working for different agencies as suspects in a trafficking ring specialising in fishing vessel crews.

Mr Suhufan urged the Indonesian government to impose a moratorium on both legal and illegal recruitment and placement of crew members onboard Chinese fishing vessels, and improve governance in the recruitment process, including cracking down on the issuance of forged sailors’ log books.

Mr Nugraha of the Foreign Ministry said officials had recorded at least 1,095 cases of abusive and forced labour that Indonesian sailors had to endure while working at sea and most of them occurred onboard foreign and national fishing vessels.

But Mr Suhufan said the number is just the tip of the iceberg as many have departed without being properly documented.

“There are too many doors to recruiting crew members,” he said. “The least we can do is to crack down on the chain at the initial stage during recruitment.

“The government could forge a bilateral agreement with another country so that the sailors’ log books issued by the Indonesian authorities could be accredited by the authorities in countries where the crew members are placed to work.”

On May 8, Indonesia raised the issue with the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva and requested that it pay closer attention to human rights violations in the fishery industry.

Hasan Kleib, Indonesia’s permanent representative to the UN in Geneva, Hasan Kleib said in a statement that Indonesia made specific reference to the often perilous conditions faced by Indonesian fishing crew members working on foreign vessels. Their rights are often violated as they have to endure inhumane living and working conditions, which in turn have resulted in casualties.

“During the virtual meeting between the president of the Human Rights Council, member and observer states, and civil society representatives, Indonesia underlines the urgent need for the council to protect the rights of vulnerable groups, specifically the rights of people working in the fisheries sector,” Ambassador Kleib said.

Such protection, he said, is not only crucial, but also strategic, as the fishery is a key component of food security, particularly at a time when the global pandemic could threaten food supplies.

The story was first published in Bangkok Post

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