WWhen Sepri and Ari boarded a Chinese tuna fishing vessel in February 2019, 24-year-old best friends were thrilled with the idea of working together and having adventures at sea. Attracted by the promise of wages raised after being unemployed in their village in Indonesia, they told their families that they would bring back “a lot of money” and that they would be proud.
None of them has seen their family again. The two men died at sea after weeks of agony: they worked 18 hours a day without adequate food and water and threatened with violence, according to survivors who gave the Guardian poignant accounts of the death – including their bodies thrown overboard.
A total of 24 Indonesian crew members sailed on the Long Xing 629, owned by the Dalian Ocean Fishing Company, which is said to have engaged in illegal fishing. Only 20 survived. Those who did so said they were “treated like animals”, and crew lawyers described the case as an “example manual” of forced labor and human trafficking at sea Interpol has long warned of a link between illegal, unregulated and unreported (IUU) fishing and human rights violations, including modern day slavery.
The Long Xing 629 was legally authorized to catch tuna, but was also involved in the finning of endangered sharks: cutting the fins, which are highly prized as a delicacy, and discarding the body. During the year, he was at sea, he would have amassed nearly 800 kg of shark fins.
The crew was recruited from small villages, said Yudha, one of the survivors. In the summer of 2018, Yudha, then 18, and a graduate of the Makassar Nusantara fishing school in southern Sulawesi, was approached by a “soft” broker via a Facebook page used by Indonesian fishermen in looking for work.
He was promised a two-year contact earning around $ 450 (£ 360) per month, plus bonuses, he told The Guardian. “He [the recruiter] said the work was good, “said Yudha. He was told he could start in a month on an octopus vessel.
But when he went to Pemalang to sign a contract with the recruitment agency, he discovered that the monthly salary was only $ 300, he said. The contract called for a “security deposit” of $ 900, and there was an additional $ 750 deduction for “document processing”, which he should have worked to pay.
Once on board, he declared that his passport had been confiscated, and he discovered that the boat was in fact registered as a “tuna longliner”, where work is notoriously difficult. He also had to catch sharks for their fins. The consumption of shark fins is not illegal in China, but the shark fin is banned by the fishing organization that manages the western central Pacific Ocean, of which China is a member.
The hours were punishing, he said, usually 18 hours a day. A shift, they didn’t sleep at all.
“There was no break except for eating and only five minutes,” said Yudha. “They would ring the bell:” Let’s go back to work. »»
The Indonesian crew was forced to drink distilled, yellow and salty seawater, he said. Chinese officers drank bottled water. The food consisted of fish with expired noodles and almost no fresh produce. Sometimes, if a tuna stalled and the captain was angry at the missed catch, the crew would not eat at all.
Yudha also claimed to have witnessed physical violence. “My friend was beaten because he was slow,” said Yudha. The crew stood up for themselves. “In solidarity, the Indonesians showed the Chinese crew their knives and their machetes until the captain’s descent. There are a lot of Indonesians. To fight one is to fight everything. The Chinese crew no longer dared. “
But living conditions caught up with them. In November, Sepri started complaining of shortness of breath, chest pain and swollen limbs. On December 21, 2019, he collapsed.
“I checked his pulse, he was gone,” said Yudha. Against the will of the crew, the captain threw the body overboard.
Yudha, too, had started to suffer from the same symptoms as her friend. Another man too, Alfatah. The couple became frightened. “I was afraid the same thing would happen to me,” said Yudha. “I begged the captain, if I die, I want you to send my body to my parents in Indonesia.”
The master called a sister ship, the Long Xing 802, to take the sick crew to Samoa. He arrived seven days after Sepri’s death.
Shortly after their transfer to the new boat, “Alfatah said to me, ‘Yudha, I can’t take it anymore’. He said it hurt so much. I said to him: “Wait for my brother, try to settle down”. But after eight hours, before my eyes, he died. “
Again, the new captain dropped Alfatah’s body overboard instead of repatriating him to Indonesia. Yudha learned that the deaths were due to a virus and that the bodies were to be thrown into the sea.
Meanwhile, back on the first boat, more crew fell ill. At the end of March, nine other crew members were transferred to another ship, the Tian Yu 8. They suffered from shortness of breath and swollen feet, according to Yusuf, a crew member of the new boat.
On March 30, a third crew member, Ari, died. Again, the captain decided to throw his body into the sea. The furious crew decided to record the evidence.
“We tried to beg the captain not to do it,” said Yusuf. “I was sad and angry because of the body of my friend who entered the sea. They treated human beings like animals. That’s why they took the video. “
The Tian Yu 8 finally reached shore in Busan, Korea, where the crew was taken to a medical center. A fourth sailor, Efendi, died there.
No autopsy was ever performed on any of the deceased crew members, although Efendi was negative for Covid-19. The medical center is said to have declared that he died of pneumonia.
Yudha said he had been dropped off in Samoa and had received just enough money to go to Jakarta, as well as a total salary of $ 638 for 10 months at sea. He said that an Indonesian doctor had told him says he was malnourished and suffered from beriberi, a disease caused by a vitamin B1 deficiency.
When the team released their video footage to the media in Korea and Indonesia, it hit the headlines. The Indonesian authorities have described the treatment of the fishermen as “inhuman” and have demanded an investigation by China.
Sepri’s sister Rika Andri Pratama, 31, said the recruiting agency’s explanation was insufficient.
“They told us Sepri [had been] sick and died after being treated with medication, ”she recalls. “I just burst into tears.” She asked why the body had not been returned to Indonesia for a proper burial and was told that the recruiters “could not contact the ship”.
The agency has paid her 250 million rupees (£ 14,000) in compensation, but she also wants measures to be taken to prevent this from happening again.
“The Indonesian government should be firm with this incident. This needs to be treated with care, ”she said. “It should be written into our law for the Indonesian crew to be protected. We want justice. “
On the merits, Indonesia launched an investigation into human trafficking against Indonesian recruiters and has since arrested the heads of three agencies, accusing them of paying as little as $ 30 a month, less than a dollar a day.
Labor rights activists say thousands of Indonesian workers working on foreign ships are unprotected. Neither China, South Korea nor Indonesia has ratified the 2007 International Labor Organization Convention on Work in Fishing, an international protocol that guarantees decent working and living conditions for crew. fishing vessels.
Azizah Hapsari of the Environmental Justice Foundation called the Long Xing 629 case “the tip of the iceberg”.
“In an effort to maintain profits against a backdrop of declining fish populations, unscrupulous operators resort to human rights abuses and refuse basic crew medical care,” she said. declared. “This is possible because a large part of the global fishing industry operates in the shadows, out of sight of government and the public.
“We know this from the video. But how many do we not know? “
Jong-chul Kim, a South Korean lawyer from Advocates for Public Interest Law, who interviewed part of the crew in Busan, said: “This is a classic example of human trafficking at sea and it is clearly related to IUU fishing. “
The conditions imposed on the Indonesian crew amount to forced labor and trafficking in human beings, he said.
“Their passports were held by the captain, they could not leave the ship and have not seen the port in 13 months,” he said. “Under their abusive contracts, if they cancel in the middle, the cost of the return ticket is borne by the crew. And half of their salary was taken as a security deposit. “
The Chinese foreign ministry told the South Morning China Post and the Indonesian foreign ministry that it was investigating the matter, but that some of the allegations were “inconsistent” with its own information.
The Dalian Ocean Fishing Company did not respond to a request for comment.