Indonesians dying in southern seas
They’re called National Heroes as though working overseas is dangerous. It is. Not all the millions of Indonesians who venture abroad to clean, care and labor survive unscathed.
They remit Rp 60 trillion a year but the cash is often bloodstained.
Some return with the scars of judicial whippings and employer torture from nations like Malaysia. A few come back in coffins, killed in workplace accidents or executed in places like Saudi Arabia.
But few would expect mistreatment in an advanced and well-regulated democracy like New Zealand. This is the world’s least corrupt nation, famous for its universal welfare system, concern for minorities and serious about its international obligations.
This image took a battering while NZ Prime Minister John Key was in Jakarta last week (week ending 21 April). His visit was about trade but Mr Key also discussed human rights issues in Papua with President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.
While the two men were talking about the Republic’s problems in its backyard province, a coronial inquest in the NZ capital Wellington was hearing disturbing stories of cruelty and exploitation of Indonesian citizens in Mr Key’s own backwater.
The inquest was into the deaths of five Indonesian seamen and their Korean captain on 18 August 2010. The men drowned when their Korean-registered trawler Oyang 70 capsized in the Southern Ocean 750 kilometers east of NZ’s South Island while trying to drag aboard a massive haul of fish.
Robert Leyden, a ship’s surveyor advising coroner Richard McElrea, told the inquest the Indonesians could have lived if proper management systems, safety procedures, equipment maintenance and emergency drills had been in place.
In brief it was alleged the men didn’t know what to do when they were tipped into the icy ocean and no one took charge.
Coronial inquests are like a court and held following accidental deaths. The findings often result in changes to laws and practices.
The week-long inquest, involving seven lawyers and 15 witnesses, heard evidence given to NZ Police by the 31 Indonesian survivors.
The men were recruited from Tegal on the north coast of Central Java to work on the stern trawler alongside eight Koreans, six Filipinos and one Chinese. Not surprisingly there were language barriers.
Tragically that wasn’t the only problem. Through the police statements (no Indonesians attended the inquest) the survivors alleged physical and verbal abuse, unsafe working conditions, excessively long shifts of up to 20 hours and a culture dominated by catch, not care.
Faced with a huge haul, possibly 100 or more tonnes, the captain left it too late to slash the bulging net when it began to tip the boat.
Four months later another Korean fishing boat, No 1 Insung, sank in the Southern Ocean, perhaps after hitting an iceberg. Two of the 22 men who died were Indonesian.
Spurred by these disasters and 32 Indonesians walking off the Oyang 75 last July, a team from the University of Auckland’s Business School researched conditions aboard foreign charter vessels operating in NZ waters.
The team interviewed 144 people, including surviving crew in Indonesia and the widows of the men who perished. Their report found that “disturbing levels of inhumane conditions and practices have become institutionalized.”
Last year there were 27 overseas registered ships fishing in NZ’s exclusive economic zone employing about 2,000 foreigners recruited in their homelands through manning agents. The men are supposed to be paid NZ rates of around NZ$15 (Rp 112,000) an hour but the reality is allegedly closer to NZ$1 (Rp 7,500).
Not in NZ’s waters, surely? That’s been public reaction and the title of the University report, which found the Indonesian recruits signed two contracts, one to be shown to NZ authorities and the other for a fraction of the proper wage.
The researchers heard stories of manning agents locking the men and their families into huge penalties if they complained or jumped ship.
At the coronial inquest have been officials from NZ Government departments responsible for checking foreign charter vessels. Their statements have shown a lack of cooperation between agencies and conflicting evidence about the way regulations were enforced. Tellingly, officials say procedures have been tightened since the Oyang 70 sank.
The inquest is producing shocking headlines but the NZ government has long known that evil things were happening in the foreign boats fishing its economic zone.
Since 2005 there have been eight separate incidents involving 90 Indonesian ship- jumpers alleging inhumane physical, mental and sexual abuse and non-payment or under-payment of wages. They weren’t alone: Chinese, Burmese and Vietnamese fishermen have also quit.
In most cases the men were rapidly repatriated before detailing their claims. That situation changed after the Oyang 70 sank and police interviewed the survivors.
Separate from the University research has been a ministerial inquiry. Submissions from ship owners and agents denied allegations of cruelty and bad management. The inquiry has made 15 recommendations. So far only six have been accepted.
The government is stalling on the rest, including the key points that foreign vessels be re-flagged to NZ so all local laws apply, and NZ observers sail with the ships to ensure compliance. These await the coroner’s findings later this year.
A letter from the widows read to the inquest by lawyer Craig Tuck who helped found the NGO Slave Free Seas, spoke of “the heart-wrenching loss of our loved ones, yet we still do not know what happened to cause their demise.”
Maybe next time Mr Yudhoyono meets Mr Key the President can ask about progress in rectifying human rights abuses in NZ’s seas.
(First opublished in The Jakarta Post 1 May 2012)