More slavery on our seas

Business Week tells a story that should shame us:

On March 25, 2011, an Indonesian fisherman named Yusril became a slave. Yusril (which is not his real name, to protect his identity) is 28, with brooding looks and a swagger that compensates for his slight frame. That afternoon he went to the East Jakarta offices of PT Indah Megah Sari (IMS), an agency that hires crews to work on foreign fishing vessels. He was offered a job on the Melilla 203, a South Korea-flagged ship that trawled in the waters off New Zealand. “Hurry up,” said the agent, holding a pen over a thick stack of contracts in the windowless conference room with water-stained walls. Waving at a pile of green Indonesian passports of other prospective fisherman, he added: “You really can’t waste time reading this. There are a lot of others waiting and the plane leaves tomorrow.”

Yusril was desperate for the promised monthly salary of $260, plus bonuses, for unloading the fish. His young wife was eight months pregnant, and he had put his name on a waiting list for this opportunity nine months earlier. After taking a bus eight hours to Jakarta, he had given the agent a $225 fee which he had borrowed from his brother-in-law. Other fishermen had taken debts from loan sharks to cover the fee, and a few had sold their possessions, such as livestock, or land. The agent rushed him through signing the contracts, at least one of which was in English, which Yusril could not understand.

The terms of the first contract, the “real” one, would later haunt him. In it, IMS spelled out terms with no rights. In addition to the agent’s commission, Yusril would surrender 30 percent of his salary, which IMS would hold unless the work was completed. He would be paid nothing for the first three months, and if the job was not completed to the fishing company’s satisfaction, Yusril would be sent home and charged over $1000 for the airfare. “Satisfactory” completion was left vague. The contract only stated that Yusril would have to work whatever hours the boat operators demanded.

The last line of the contract, in bold, warned that Yusril’s family would owe nearly $3,500 if he were to run away from the ship. The amount was greater than his net worth, and he had earlier submitted title to his land as collateral for that bond. Additionally, he had provided IMS with names and addresses of his family members. He was locked in.

Slavery may be too harsh a term, but serfdom at least.

What followed, according to Yusril and several shipmates who corroborated his story, was an eight-month ordeal aboard the Melilla 203, during which Indonesian fisherman were subjected to physical and sexual abuse at the hands of the ship’s operators. Their overlords told them not to complain or fight back, or they would be sent home, where the agents would take their due. Finally, Yusril and 23 others walked off in protest when the trawler docked in Lyttleton, New Zealand. The men have seen little if any of the money they say is owed them for their work. Such coerced labor is modern-day slavery, as the United Nations defines the crime.

The owners of the Melilla ships did not respond to requests for comment.

The experiences of the fishermen on the Melilla 203 were not unique. In a six-month investigation spanning three continents, Bloomberg Businessweek found cases of debt bondage on the Melilla 203 and at least nine other ships that have operated in New Zealand’s waters.

Now let us be clear. What is happening is illegal under NZ law. The problem is now the law. The problem is enforcement and monitoring. Around half the quota went to Maori interests as party of a treaty settlement. The idea was to allow Maori to resume their traditional fishing activities, not to make money out of Indonesian slaves.

Note, that non-Maori quota holders are also doing the same.

On that boat, the Korean officers had hit Yusril in the face with fish, and the boatswain had repeatedly kicked him in the back for using gloves when he was sewing the trawl nets in cold weather. Most unnervingly, the second officer would crawl into the bunk of Yusril’s friend at night, and attempt to rape him. Sanford CEO Eric Barratt said that his company’s New Zealand observers, which they placed on all of their foreign-chartered vessels (FCVs), reported that those ships “don’t have any issues with labor abuse.”


The boatswain would grab crew members’ genitals as they worked or slept. When the captain of the ship drank, he molested some of the crew, kicking those who resisted. As the trawl nets hauled in the catch—squid, ling, hoki, hake, grouper, southern blue whiting, jack mackerel and barracuda, along with occasional high-priced bycatch like orange roughy—the officers shouted orders from the bridge. They often compelled the Indonesians to work without proper safety equipment for up to 30 hours straight, swearing at them if they so much as requested coffee or a bathroom break. Even when not hauling catches, 16-hour workdays were standard.

Again, this is happening in our waters.

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