Opinion editorial

Migrant fishers prone to modern slavery

An opinion editorial by Tauvik Muhamad, program manager for ILO's skills development and Muhammad Nour, ILO's programme coordinator for Accelerator Lab 8.7, in conjunction with the commemoration of the International Migrants Day. The opinion article was published by the Jakarta Post on 20 December.

Comment | Jakarta, Indonesia | 20 December 2021
From left to right: Tauvik Muhamad and Muhammad Nour
The commemoration of International Migrants Day on Dec. 18, the theme of which this year was “Harnessing the potential of human mobility”, has highlighted the need for the government to pay closer attention to migrant fishers and their plight.

Migrant fishers engage in difficult, dirty and dangerous jobs in poor working conditions offshore and are vulnerable to exploitation. They contribute a lot to the seafood industry’s global supply chain. Sadly, their poor working conditions are the result of regulatory overlap, little access to skill development and a lack of inspection or intervention on their behalf.

Different government agencies have issued overlapping rules and regulations on the recruitment and placement of migrant fishers.

Most of the migrants are made to endure excessive working hours, poor accommodation and limited access to clean water and healthy food. They also risk injury and accidents due to a lack of safety equipment in workplaces that do not meet international labor standards.

In 2020 alone, the Foreign Ministry received 1,451 complaints from Indonesian migrant fishers working for foreign fishing fleets. In the same year, four Indonesian migrant fishers working on Chinese fishing vessels were found dead in South Korean territory.

To make matters worse, Human Rights Watch has reported that a number of migrant fishers of different Asian nationalities have fallen victim to modern slavery. Cases involving repatriation followed by unpaid salary, violence, death and trafficking have reportedly been rampant, numbering thousands a year.

Protecting migrant fishers is not an easy job, first and foremost because there is no clear or detailed information about their actual number. While the Indonesian Board for Migrant Worker Protection (BP2MI) estimates 9,000 Indonesian migrant fishers work offshore, the Indonesian Migrant Union (SBMI) estimates 22,000 are working on Taiwanese fishing vessels alone.

This discrepancy indicates flaws in data processing. The official number of migrant fishers is probably underestimated and may only be the tip of the iceberg due to the current registration system. Regardless, labor protection and safety for all is mandatory.

The unavailability of proper statistics has led to difficulties in monitoring migrant fishers and protecting their rights in compliance with international labor standards.

Despite the existing Migrant Worker Protection Law, which mandates that the BP2MI govern the recruitment and placement of migrant workers, including migrant fishers, the Transportation Ministry also manages the recruitment and placement process of merchant sailors and migrant fishers.

Most migrant fishers have inadequate skills due to a lack of practical training like exercises and fishing simulations. These minimal skills lead to limited understanding of their role and job description, the working language of the vessel and how to use occupational health and safety equipment, including risk and hazard prevention.

Employment agencies claim that the current competency standards for migrant fishers have been set too high, as most of the prospective workers in the sector have low education levels. While competency standards will provide job protection, albeit indirectly, there are signs of misuse of competency standard certification. It is crucial to adjust the competency standards according to industry needs.

Although labor inspections are mandatory, to date they do not exist in the migrant fisher sector. Compared with land-based jobs, labor inspections in the fishing sector require innovation, integrated policies and specific standard operating procedures. These include establishing coordination and collaboration among relevant stakeholders, particularly the Manpower Ministry and the Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Ministry.

It is crucial for the government to promote interministerial collaboration on the protection of Indonesian migrant fishers working abroad, as each ministry has its own role and authority.

In addition, making partnerships with relevant stakeholders in regional and international communities, such as Regional Fisheries Management Organizations (RFMOs), which govern fisheries management on the high seas, must be done to combat forced labor in the sector. This includes promoting bilateral agreements with the nations on whose vessels Indonesian migrant fishers work.

This should be done based on what the government has done to date, such as the memorandum of understanding (MoU) between Indonesia and South Korea on the protection of Indonesian migrant fishers working on South Korean fishing vessels. In addition, the agreement between the Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Ministry and the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC) aims to promote international labor standards, particularly the International Labor Organization’s Work in Fishing Convention (C188/ 2007).

Advocating for decent working conditions for migrant fishers is in line with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), especially target indicator 8.7, on taking immediate and effective measures to eradicate forced labor, modern slavery and human trafficking in all its forms.

The views expressed are those of the authors alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the ILO or any of its members or constituents, or constitute any kind of endorsement.