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Fishermen carry their fishing nets along the shore in Banda Aceh in 2019. Photo: AFP

Letters | Seafood slavery: Indonesia must better protect the rights of its fishermen

  • In Asia, only Thailand has ratified the International Labour Organization’s 2007 Work in Fishing Convention
  • Indonesia, which has the world’s second largest fishery sector worth US$27 billion, has to do more to better protect maritime worker rights
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The ocean is one of our most valuable natural resources. Yet ocean inequities abound. According to the Indonesia Ocean Justice Initiative, there are six major areas of concern: sustainable economic development, blue carbon management, human rights protection for maritime labour, the North Natuna sea issue including marine debris generated by foreign vessels, fisheries management, and the protection for small fishermen.
Of these, the issue of human rights abuses has been taken up in the Geneva Declaration on Human Rights at Sea announced this year.

From piracy, violence at sea, modern slavery and migrant smuggling to child labour and socially responsible seafood, many issues need to be addressed. As an ocean constitution, the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea makes no explicit mention of human rights. However, Article 99 specifically prohibits the transport of slaves and Article 98 makes it clear that ships must help anyone at sea who is lost or in distress.

In 2014, the Indonesian government unveiled its vision for the archipelagic country, which stretches from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific Ocean, to become a “global maritime fulcrum” to capitalise on its vast maritime potential. This has since been codified as the national sea policy and expanded. This policy is based on, among other things, the equality and equity of ocean development.


Body of Indonesian fisherman dumped overboard amid allegations of abuse on Chinese ship

Body of Indonesian fisherman dumped overboard amid allegations of abuse on Chinese ship
The 2015 Benjina seafood slavery case shocked the Indonesian public when it was revealed that more than 2,000 migrant fishermen had been kept on the remote Indonesian island. Much of the slave labour came from Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos, on Thai fishing vessels.
Still, two years ago, news emerged of the shocking deaths of four Indonesia fishermen on a Chinese vessel along with allegations of overwork and mistreatment. Three of the four bodies had been simply dumped overboard.

The most relevant convention on the protection of maritime labour is the International Labour Organization’s 2007 Work in Fishing Convention. Unfortunately, in all of Asia, only Thailand has ratified it. This means that for most countries in the region with established fishing industries, including in the South China Sea, their workers may not be fully protected.

These countries include Indonesia, which has the world’s second largest fishery sector worth around US$27 billion in gross domestic product, and providing seven million jobs. The Indonesian government must realise that protecting the rights of maritime workers is essential to achieving ocean equity and living up to the vision enshrined in its national sea policy.

Taufik Rachmat Nugraha, research fellow, and Achmad Gusman Siswandi, acting director, Indonesian Centre for the Law of the Sea, Universitas Padjadjaran, Bandung