INDONESIA — Enslaved, beaten, malnourished, and so desperate for water he had to collect condensation to drink: Rahmatullah left Indonesia seeking better prospects at sea — instead he endured a living hell.
The global fishing industry is riddled with forced labor, anti-trafficking experts say, warning that consumers are unaware of the “true cost” of the seafood they buy in stores and restaurants.
Exploited workers face non-payment, overwork, violence, injury, and even death. Indonesia and Southeast Asia are major sources of such labor and unscrupulous brokers target the poor and uneducated with promises of good wages at sea.
Rahmatullah was told he was heading to Peruvian waters where he would receive $400 a month salary, plus a per ton bonus, but he was allegedly duped by an Indonesian recruiting agency and trafficked to Somalia, where he spent nine brutal months aboard a Chinese fishing vessel, working 18-hour days.
“I felt like a slave,” the 24-year-old told AFP, adding: “The Chinese crew drank clean water while we had to collect water from the air conditioning.”
“We were often beaten when we didn’t catch enough, even if we were sick.”
‘Couldn’t fight back’
Rahmatullah is one of 40 Indonesians pushing for compensation after allegedly being tricked with false promises by recruiter PT Maritim Samudera.
Some were sent to vessels in the seas off Japan, and others to boats sailing the Somalian coast.
In interviews with AFP and accounts provided to police and government officials, the men recounted beatings and psychological abuse, hunger, and dehydration.
Two crewmates died from thirst and exhaustion, according to Rahmatullah’s testimony.
Most of the men subsisted on white rice scattered with cabbage or boiled fish, while some grew so desperate for water they collected condensation from the air conditioning unit.
“The food was terrible,” said 21-year-old Arianus Ziliwu, who was on a boat in Japanese waters.
“And the sleeping conditions didn’t seem fit for humans,” he explained.
Cellphone video footage and images provided to AFP showed some men slept without mattresses in a grimy cargo hold.
“We couldn’t fight back — I’m from a village and didn’t know any better,” added Rahmatullah, who had never worked on a fishing boat before.
Both groups were rescued after sending SOS messages in brief windows of access to mobile internet.
Targeting the vulnerable
The young men spent between six and nine months manning nets and packing fish before being saved, and all are owed thousands of dollars in unpaid wages, according to sworn statements to police.
Faced with plummeting global fish stocks due to overfishing, seafood companies have increasingly turned to vulnerable migrant workers in a bid to remain profitable, anti-trafficking advocates said.
“If you want cheap tuna or squid, the way to do it is with cheap labor,” said Arifsyah M. Nasution, oceans campaigner at Greenpeace Indonesia.
“And cheap labour comes from Southeast Asia,” he added.
The Global Slavery Index says labour exploitation and modern slavery in some fisheries are well documented.
But few shoppers know about these high-seas horrors.
“There is still very little awareness among consumers about the true costs and hidden facts of the seafood products that they buy at stores and supermarkets,” he said.
Critics say the Indonesian government is not doing enough to combat widespread abuse of its migrant sailors, despite efforts to clamp down on human rights violations in its own territorial waters.
Although there are no reliable estimates on the number of Indonesian migrant fishermen that fall victim to trafficking, authorities estimated in 2016 that some 250,000 Indonesians were working as “unprotected” crew on foreign fishing vessels.
Most are destined for fishing fleets that often obscure their origins through foreign flagging, a system that complicates monitoring and jurisdictional oversight by allowing ships to register in a country other than the owner’s own, to avoid strict labor and environmental standards.
Both public and private agencies in Indonesia are licensed to send people abroad, but some recruiters — and fishermen — choose to work outside formal channels, and poor oversight puts workers at risk.
“The first problem is lack of supervision, the second is toothless enforcement,” said Imam Syafi’i, from the Indonesian Seafarers’ Movement (PPI).
‘No more victims’
PT Martim Samudera Indonesia, the company that recruited Rahmatullah, was not legally registered to send people abroad and falsified documents for some workers, according to PPI, the union which is advocating on behalf of the 40 men.
Despite paying about $100 in processing fees, Rahmatullah was sent overseas without basic training, a seaman’s book or a medical certificate, Syafi’i said.
Indonesia’s manpower ministry, which is responsible for overseeing migrant workers, has recommended that the men be compensated for their ordeal, but the recruiter has so far refused to pay, according to the union.
Police are looking into possible trafficking charges, although progress on the case has been slow, Syafi’i said.