October 06, 2011

Rampant seafarer torture and abuse: the reality of global fishing

If you thought that life on cargo ships is tough, here is a look at the horrifying conditions that thousands of seamen Shanghaied into the global deep sea fishing fleets- both legal and illegal- face routinely today. Slum like living conditions, 18-hour workdays and beatings are commonplace- and rape and even murder is not that unusual. The abuse and denial of human rights is staggering as it is global, and severe ill-treatment of fishing seamen extends across both developed and developing countries. And, although the torture of fishing fleet workers seems to be particularly nasty around South East Asia and Africa, the owners of fishing boats often come from countries that are relatively wealthy.

An average of 24,000 fatalities occurs annually in the fishing industry- seventy nine times higher than the overall occupational fatality rate. Fifteen million people are employed worldwide in fishing; 98 percent of these work on boats less than 24 metres long. The illegal fishing industry alone makes anywhere between $10 billion and $23 billion a year. Yes, billion. 

Stories of abuse surface periodically, briefly, and are soon forgotten. The ongoing scandal in New Zealand is one: the mainly Indonesian crew that worked on the Korean fishing boat 'Oyang 70' that was plying in New Zealand waters when it capsized (and killed three of the crew) are now talking. They say they faced months of abuse aboard. The fishing boat- that a company in Christchurch looks after- was a hellhole. Racial epithets were commonplace, safety and working conditions abysmal. The men say they suffered beatings, overwork, sexual harassment and inadequate pay, clothing and food on the Oyang 75. New Zealand is conducting an enquiry, and all signs indicate that it is taking the matter seriously. 

Most countries do not. The Thai's, for one. Thousands of men from Myanmar and Cambodia sail on Thai fishing boats every day, but many are slaves, working in inhuman conditions under threat of death. Beatings on many boats happen "every day, every hour," says one crewmember that ran away. People who try to escape are savagely beaten and tortured in front of the rest of the crew; some are shot. A crewmember was warned, "One bullet costs only 25 Baht ($0.83)."  Another was beaten regularly with a gun butt. Men worked for up to 20 hours a day, seven days a week, spending months (even, amazingly, years) trapped, sometimes off the African coast, as fishing  "mother ships" were used to refuel or to add crew. Human Rights Watch says that the Thai marine police in one area say ten bodies a month wash up ashore.

The United Nations Inter-Agency Project on Human Trafficking (UNIAP)  said two years ago that more than half of Cambodian migrants trafficked onto Thai boats said they had seen their Captains killing one of their colleagues. The Thai fishing industry is worth half a billion dollars a year (yes, billion) and supplies the Japan, EU and US. Official figures say 35,000 'migrants'- mainly from Myanmar and Cambodia- work here. Thousands are trafficked; it is part of the business model. "The immunity of traffickers, especially the collusion with the official law enforcement agencies, is really diluting the government's effort and efficacy of its policies and programmes to combat human trafficking," a UN official has commented. 

Let us go west now, where Filipino fishermen working in Europe were found to be 'physically and racially abused' by Northern Island's fishing industry in 2008. Foreign fishermen were sometimes paid as little as a fifth of the UK minimum wage. The BBC said then, that although the abuse was not widespread, "evidence was found of horrendous working hours and pay and intimidation." Crew worked up to thirty four hours without sleep, being paid a paltry £20 for five days work- most of which was spent in calling home. In addition, if the boat could not sail because of bad weather or whatever, they simply were not paid. Crew had been kicked and had their heads bounced off against walls; one was near strangled. They were threatened with deportation- and having to shell out a thousand pounds for a ticket back home- if they complained. If you are earning four pounds a day, that is money you simply don't have.  

"Abuse or semi-slavery" is what the treatment of Vietnamese and Indonesian crews in South Africa is being referred to- in reference to Irish or Scottish, Taiwanese and Korean fishing boats- according to the ITF. "Recurring reports on endangered fish workers and on fishing boats which could well be slave galleys, fishermen forced to work long hours with very short rest periods, absence of adequate protective clothes and safety equipment to cope with often extreme weather conditions, bunks for sleeping that are too short for grown men, beatings, abuse, and humiliation, not to speak that apart from being underpaid, some fishermen have been simply not paid at all, paid partly or only after delays and external intervention," a report says.
 I am not yet talking about countries like India and Pakistan (or the two Koreas) where aggressive national posturing results in thousands of innocent fishermen being shot at, harassed, imprisoned or tortured in jails- Prisoners of War in a conflict nobody will even acknowledge. In defiance of UNCLOS provisions that call for fishing boats straying into foreign waters to be released along with their crews once a reasonable bond is posted, detained fishermen spend years in jail without trial or after they have served their sentences. 

I will talk of illegal fishing boats, however- part of a lawless global armada of tens of thousands of decrepit, barely seaworthy rust buckets.  The horrifying conditions of the crew of these boats- whose owners stay hidden, who ply illegally and who are staffed by trafficked crew at the absolute mercy of their Captains- are almost unbelievable. The ITF has condemned the gross violations of human and labour rights aboard a vast majority of these thousands- maybe even tens of thousands- of vessels. Systematic cheating by owners and agents of wages and extreme physical violence against crewmembers is rampant, it says. The London based Environmental Justice Foundation said a couple of years ago that it had found "horrific" human rights abuses aboard what are IUU fishing vessels (Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated) in a four-year investigation off Eastern Africa. 

"Crew members have reported being punched, beaten with metal rods, deprived of sleep, imprisoned without food or water, and forced to continue working after injury; the worst cases of violence include murder."  By the way, many of the boats had official European Union numbers, indicating they were "licensed to import their catches to the EU and had passed strict EU hygiene standards".

A sampling of some of what fishermen say they face routinely- some from New Zealand's  'Oyang 70':

"One 19-year-old victim witnessed two separate incidents whereby a Thai captain decapitated a member of his crew."

 "Officers are vicious bastards ... factory manager just rapped this 12 kg stainless steel pan over his head, splits the top of his head, blood pissing out everywhere..." 

 "I told the Master can't leave him 'cause he's bleeding all over the squid. He said 'oh, no no he's Indonesian no touchy no touchy'... I ended up giving over 26 stitches ... bit of a mess." 

"... absolutely appalling conditions just like a slum ... they are slave ships." 

"Live like rats." 

On sex abuse- "The captain asked one by one to give him a massage ... from head to toe ... we don't want to do it, but I am pressured to do it... every day." 

"Galley boy, good looking boy on a Korean boat was raped by four Chinese crew who got him...." 

"Working in the fish hold with no air or ventilation in temperatures of 40-45 degrees. It was rusty, greasy, hot and sweaty. There were cockroaches everywhere in the galleys. All they had for washing was a pump bringing up salt water. They stank. It was heartbreaking."

"The payments (remittances to families back home) are required to go through brokers affiliated with the captain. In many cases, the money is stolen."

"Workers are subject to constant beatings and forced to work in inhumane conditions, often for days, without sleep or meals. Wages and travel documents can be withheld for years." 

There is also the story of a woman who lost her husband when the Oyang 70 sank. Back in her home country, says a friend of hers, "they said husband's insurance money has not come from the Korean agent and if you want to get insurance money, you must sleep with the Director of the agency for a few days." 

It is criminal that the continued trafficking, slavery, abuse, torture and killings of workers in the fishing industry are disregarded by the international community. No doubt, we have glossy publications of conventions covering fishing vessels lined up on some official shelves somewhere. No doubt, concern about fishing seamen abuse is expressed periodically at the moribund UN- and at its equally stagnant offspring, the IMO.  But expressing concern means and costs nothing. It solves nothing, as seafarers of all hues will tell you.

Somebody will also tell me, no doubt, that the 1977 Torremolinos Convention- and the later Protocol- is the SOLAS of the fishing industry. No doubt, somebody will also try to draw my attention to the STCW-F convention, and tell me the 'F' stands for Fishing Vessel Personnel- but let me warn you that I will object strongly to this.To me- considering that nothing is done to protect tens of thousands of fishermen from horrendous abuse- that 'F' should stand for something else. Pardon my French. 

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