The Factors Behind the Disturbing ‘Burial at Sea’ of Indonesian Migrant Fishers

By Ratu Ayu Asih Kusuma Putri

May 11, 2020 – Early last week, footage of dead Indonesian crew members being tossed into the sea by crews of Chinese-flagged fishing vessels sparked an outcry among the Indonesian public. The video went viral after a popular Korean YouTuber, Jang Hansol or Korea Reomit, translated and explained in Bahasa Indonesia the initial report of the incident broadcasted by MBC (Munhwa Broadcasting Corporation). This devastating story has been trending news in South Korea as investigations by the local authority are underway.

The report revealed that in the past few months, two other Indonesian crewmen on vessels owned by the same company, Dalian Ocean Fishing, Co. Ltd, had died aboard ship, and their bodies were dumped into the ocean by other crew members. The report also unearthed the poor working and living conditions of the Indonesian crewmen in the vessels. They had been forced to work up to 18 hours per day and received an extremely low payment of $150 after working for 13 months. They were allegedly forced to drink filtered seawater. The workers had to stay on the vessel in terrifying conditions without proper health care. When some of them fell ill, their request for medical treatment onshore was rejected by the shipmaster, resulting in the much-reported deaths.

In response, the Indonesian government, through the minister of foreign affairs, has promised to take necessary measures to address the issue. A statement released by Minister Retno Marsudi demands that the Chinese government investigate Dalian Ocean Fishing, Co. and punish the company if the suspected human rights violation are proved. The government has since arranged the repatriation of the remaining Indonesian crewmen who had disembarked from the Chinese vessels in Busan, South Korea.

Marsudi also said that the families of the deceased workers had been informed about the deaths and agreed with the subsequent burial at sea. The families reportedly received insurance money of $10,000 as stipulated in the employment contract. Intriguingly, this claim has been refuted by the families, who testified that they were made aware of the unlawful disposal of corpses after the case went viral.

This case sheds light on the exploitation and mistreatment of foreign workers, particularly in the fishing industry. It also unveils significant loopholes in the existing protection systems of the stakeholders involved: Indonesia, China, and South Korea. Who should be responsible for protecting Indonesian workers on a vessel owned by a Chinese company caught operating illegally in South Korean water?

This case is the tip of the iceberg. While many are quick to judge that this is a typical practice of Chinese companies, carelessly embracing racial stereotypes, we are missing the important points here. The absence of an adequate protection regime for Indonesian overseas workers exacerbate such coercive, exploitative working conditions.

Recent trends within the fisheries sector have shown that companies are looking for ever-cheaper labor to offset the potential profit loss from the depletion of fish stocks due to overfishing. The demand for cheap labor in this sector is high, and the supply side is startlingly responsive to such inquiries. These circumstances have led to not only a growing number of illegal fishing activities, but also trafficking in persons as well as forced labor (including practices such as the retention of identity documents, debt, and prohibition on movements).

Both China and South Korea have their weaknesses in protecting the vulnerable. Mistreatment of migrant workers continues to be reported, encompassing verbal and physical abuse and racial discrimination. Employers often arbitrarily reduce workers’ payments and increase their working hours without consent. Sadly, the fear of losing their employment permit has forced workers to endure such abuses.

Despite South Korea’s reputation for providing relatively higher minimum wages than other destination countries, the working environment is not without flaws. Early this year, a coalition of workers’ right groups organized a rally calling for a revision in South Korea’s labor law. The existing law was condemned for its severe restrictions while granting some privileges to employers, thus allowing the exploitation of migrant workers.

Indonesia, China, and South Korea have not ratified the 2007 International Labor Organization (ILO) Work in Fishing Convention – the only existing international protocol to guarantee decent working and living conditions for fishing vessel crewmen. Therefore, those countries have limited obligations under the international legal framework to ensure the protection of workers in the fishing industry.

Other international legal frameworks — such as the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and the 1974 International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS Convention) V/33.1 — obligate the master of a ship at sea to provide assistance and seek rescue should there be any persons in distress at sea and to arrange disembarkation as soon as reasonably practicable. However, the illicit activities allegedly conducted by the Chinese vessels in question have made such disembarkation nearly impossible. Such a breach of the law is also frequently linked to the practice of bribery involving local authorities.

Another major problem lies in the recruitment process. Recruiters with nefarious motives often manipulate the poor and uneducated with promises of good wages at sea. The fishing industry, in particular, requires much lower qualifications from workers than other sectors. Limited information about working conditions, workers’ rights, and available labor protection mechanisms are given to the applicants. As seen in the case of Chinese-flagged vessels, many Indonesian overseas workers are made to sign work contracts before they arrive in the destination country. The lack of awareness at the local level of human trafficking and associated criminal activity has allowed deceptive recruitment and exploitation to prevail.

Despite rampant labor exploitation and denial of workers’ rights, there has been no significant progress made by Indonesia in reforming its protection policy. The national regulations on overseas workers have been criticized by human rights activists for ambiguity and a lack of required instruments to ensure protection and a prompt response to complaints. The Law No. 18/2017 on Protection of Indonesian Migrant Workers promises an improvement on the entire protection system – expected to be a major departure from its predecessor (The Law No. 39/2004).

However, a robust manifestation of the law has yet to be seen, particularly in the verification and monitoring of migrant worker workplaces. Such processes are necessary to prevent human rights violations against Indonesian overseas workers. Overlapping legislation and confusion over who should take the responsibilities to oversee worker recruitment and conditions continue to limit the effectiveness of protection policies. As seen at the onset of the body disposal controversy, the ministers are entangled in a buck-passing game amid growing public scrutiny.

The Indonesian government continues to adopt ad hoc policies and fails to establish a systematized protection regime that can address human rights violations against overseas workers. As a result, Indonesian overseas workers rely heavily on dozens of self-organized social networks, including human rights advocacy networks, religious-based and hometown-based organizations, to help them with livelihood assistance and, to some extent, safety net provision.

Overseas workers have been recognized as the second-largest contributor to Indonesia’s foreign exchange income. Unfortunately, as they continue enduring poor working environments, their vulnerability is left unaddressed. Without a major overhaul of protection policy and meaningful engagement with worker organizations, the news about ill-treated Indonesian sailors soon will be buried at sea and (again) forgotten.


Ratu Ayu Asih Kusuma Putri is a Lecturer at the Department of International Relations, Bina Nusantara University, Jakarta.

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