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Hoping for improvements after 27 years working at sea

After 27 years working at sea, Sukarno’s working life remains the same— constant, hard work with few, short breaks. His hope is to work on land, close to his family.

18 October 2022

Coming from a family of fisherman, being a fisher was Sukarno’s dream job since his childhood in the fishing village of Banyuwangi, East Java, Indonesia. Now at the age of 52, he has been working at sea for 27 years.

My first experience working at sea was extremely miserable. Daytime felt like night-time, and night-time felt like daytime."

Sukarno, a fisherman.
“I have lived by the sea since my childhood as my father was a fisher. I just want to be a fisher like him,” he said, sharing his life journey during the pilot joint-labour inspection conducted by the Ministry of Manpower and the Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries at Benoa Port of Bali. That was part of a training of the ILO’s 8.7 Accelerator Lab programme on the detection of forced labour in the fishing sector which aims to ensure a coordinated enforcement approach in one of the sectors with the highest prevalence of forced labour and other decent work deficits.

As an elementary school drop-out, he did not have many options for work. He first worked at the fish processing company for a year in Pengambengan, Bali before going to work at sea.

“My first experience working at sea was extremely miserable. Daytime felt like night-time, and night-time felt like daytime. In 24 hours, we could only sleep for three hours. No overtime paid and with a small salary,” he said.

A constant, hard working life

Twenty-seven years later, he admitted that the working conditions remain the same. As a deck hand on a tuna long liner vessel, his tasks are the same—spreading the bait and trolling—with an additional task of assisting with the engine.

The hardest task is catching the fish as the weight can be up to 80 kgs. The average weight is between 60 to 70 kgs."

Under a working contract of seven months, his working day starts from 5pm for six to seven hours to midnight or 1am to catch the fish, continued with spreading the baits for another eight to nine hours until 8 to 9am.

“The hardest task is catching the fish as the weight can be up to 80 kgs. The average weight is between 60 to 70 kgs,” he said.

Afterwards, Sukarno takes a rest and sleeps for three to four hours until noon in a humble bedroom that he shares with his 12 other fellow workers divided into two levels with each level accommodating six workers. Then his day continues with another task of setting up the fishing rods until 5pm to start again his work routine.

“It is just constant work,” Sukarno said.

Yet, he feels grateful for his life on the vessel as he has sufficient food supplies and a strong camaraderie with his fellow workers. “We get along well at work although the crew come from various regions like Kupang, Flores and Lombok. We also help each other when we have sick co-workers,” he said.

Using the available medicines at the ship, they work together to take care of the sick workers. When the conditions worsen, the captain would send the sick worker to the nearby port using another boat for further treatment.

No contacts for seven months

As he travels as far as to Australia and to the eastern part of Indonesia, he could only count the days when he can finally meet and talk with his family. Sailing far away from the mainland and with no signal, Sukarno could only hold his feelings for himself.

Every time I take the fishing job, I lose contact with my family... When missing my family, I ask ‘Oh God when will I stop working at sea?’ It is hard to live far away from my family ."

“Every time I take the fishing job, I lose contact with my family. It is no use having a phone as there is no signal at sea. When missing my family, I ask ‘Oh God when will I stop working at sea?’ It is hard to live far away from my family,” he recalled the moments of wishing to be on land.

Yet, again, he feels grateful for not having to spend two years without any contact as is the case on some foreign fishing vessels. He had an experience working for a foreign fishing vessel where he could only come back to Indonesia after finishing his two-year contract.

“I prefer my job now with a seven-month contract from Bali, nearby my hometown Banyuwangi. If something happens, I have my family close by. Also, after my contract ends in seven months, I can decide to not sign up for the next contract if I want to spend longer time with my family,” he added.

His ship comes back to the Benoa port every seven months at the end of his employment contract. It means that he can have a shore leave for a week before continuing his contract. It also means that he can finally meet with his wife and his only daughter after seven months without any communication. To date, he is trying to save his income to open his own business and to work close to his family.

Hoping to come home safe.

“It is the heaviest burden for me to leave my family. We can possibly drown to death at sea and our family does not know where we are. Most of the bodies are not found in the open ocean. So, I want to stop working and start a business. I am already half a century old!” he stated.

Fishery jobs are very hard and dangerous but still very little attention is paid to the promotion of labour rights and improvements of working conditions... The ILO’s 8.7 Accelerator Lab programme, together with other ILO projects, will continue to provide technical support for the realization of effective joint labour inspections in Indonesia’s fishing ports until this becomes standard practice and is enshrined in the legal framework."

Muhammad Nour, National Project Coordinator of ILO’s 8.7 Accelerator Lab programme in Indonesia
Muhammad Nour, National Project Coordinator of ILO’s 8.7 Accelerator Lab programme in Indonesia, explained that the ILO promotes coordination and collaboration among relevant ministries in the fishing industry to improve inspection of working and living conditions on board fishing vessels. Also coming from a fisherman family in Tarakan, North Kalimantan, he knows only too well the lives and plights of Indonesian fishers.

“Fishery jobs are very hard and dangerous but still very little attention is paid to the promotion of labour rights and improvements of working conditions. With the Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries primarily focused on protecting fish stocks and the Ministry of Manpower primarily focused on labour inspections on land, there is a gap in monitoring we are working hard to close. The ILO’s 8.7 Accelerator Lab programme, together with other ILO projects, will continue to provide technical support for the realization of effective joint labour inspections in Indonesia’s fishing ports until this becomes standard practice and is enshrined in the legal framework.” he concluded.

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