Ordeal of 75 Indonesian fishermen forced into 'slavery at sea'

Indonesians worked for years without pay and were then left stranded on boats like prisoners

PUBLISHED : Monday, 02 December, 2013, 5:30am
UPDATED : Monday, 02 December, 2013, 5:30am


Dozens of Indonesian fishermen who spent months stranded in Cape Town's harbour have been taken ashore to a repatriation centre after being stuck at sea for years without pay.

The group of 75 fishermen told of slavery-like working conditions aboard seven Taiwanese-owned vessels - an ordeal that only grew worse when South African authorities impounded their trawlers for illegal fishing.

The crew spent three months stranded in Cape Town's Table Bay, sleeping crowded together in dirty, airless quarters that reeked of diesel, until they were moved to a repatriation centre in Johannesburg on Saturday.

The captain was arrested, but the men lacked the legal papers to go ashore. They had been living like prisoners on the trawlers, depending on the compassion of locals for food. Some of the men said they were recruited by agents in Jakarta with promises of earning up to US$200 a day for fishing tuna.

But once on board they were forced to work round-the-clock with little food and no pay.

"You can start at two o'clock in the morning and work all the way to 10 at night. And then, at two o'clock in the morning, you start again," one worker said.

After local media began covering the men's story, immigration officials took them ashore. But the men said they were determined to wait for payment, saying they could not afford to go home penniless.

A 44-year-old man said he had worked on various vessels for 37 months without pay. The men also claimed they were sometimes ordered to repaint the name of their vessel five times a day to evade fishing authorities.

Cassiem Augustus, a ship inspector for the International Transport Workers' Federation, said the trawlers were like "floating shanties".

He said: "This is a blatant case of abuse and human trafficking. They were abandoned by their agents. The conditions were inhumane. None of these men has been paid a cent, despite working 20-hour days. It's slavery at sea."

Maritime lawyer Alan Goldberg, who has applied for the vessels to be auctioned on behalf of the crew, believes the trawlers were owned by fishing cartels.

"These tales of abuse are the ordinary course of business in the longline fishing industry," he added.