Officials in Jakarta summoned the Chinese ambassador Thursday over the deaths of four Indonesians and the treatment of others who allegedly worked in harsh conditions aboard Chinese fishing boats since December 2019.
The summons followed a South Korean media report, which alleged that Indonesian crew members were sometimes forced to work 30 straight hours while standing and were given only six hours to eat and sleep before resuming their duties.
An Indonesian crew member interviewed by a South Korean television station said the bodies of three who died between December and March were thrown into the sea despite details in their contract calling for cremation.
“The Indonesian government expressed concerns about the conditions on the ships, which are suspected to have led to the death of four Indonesian crew members, three at sea and another in a hospital in Busan,” Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi told reporters in an online news conference.
Retno said the Chinese ambassador to Indonesia, Xiao Xian, assured her that the government in Beijing would ensure that the employers fulfilled their responsibilities.
“We sought an explanation about the reason for the disposal of the remains at sea and the treatment endured by other Indonesian crew members,” Retno said.
Retno said she asked if the burials at sea complied with International Labor Organization standards and was assured that the Chinese had followed proper protocol to protect the health of other crew members.
“The decision to [drop the bodies into the sea] was taken by the captain of the ship because the deaths were due to infectious diseases and this was approved by other crew members,” Retno said.
Chinese embassy officials in Jakarta did not immediately respond to requests for comment from BenarNews.
Retno said all four of the crew members who died had been registered to the Chinese fishing boat Long Xin 629. Two of the crewmen died on the boat in December, while one died in a South Korean hospital on April 27 and the fourth was transferred to another boat and died in March before it could reach port.
The Indonesian government repatriated 11 surviving crew members and would bring home 14 others this week, according to Retno. Many of them had ended up in the South Korean port city of Busan after their contracts expired.
Ari Purboyo, chairman of the Indonesian Fisheries Workers Union in South Korea, said each Indonesian crew member was paid about U.S. $120 (1.8 million rupiah) for 11 months’ work.
A video broadcast by South Korean station MBC showed the body of one of the Indonesians being thrown into the sea after a prayer ritual.
“First he had a leg cramp, then his feet were swollen. Later the illness spread to his chest and he had difficulty breathing,” said the Indonesian crew member whose name was withheld, describing the conditions of a compatriot identified as Ari, 24, before he died.
The Indonesian workers were forced to drink treated sea water while Chinese crew members drank bottled water, he said.
Mohammad Abdi Suhufan, who heads the NGO Destructive Fishing Watch Indonesia, said the case exposed issues in the fishing industry.
“The government needs to launch an education campaign to prevent citizens from being the victims of forced labor and human trafficking,” he said. “Information about the conditions of working on fishing ships must be made public so prospective workers are aware of the risks.”
Meanwhile, Wahyu Susilo, executive director of Indonesian labor advocacy group Migrant Care, said workers in the marine and fisheries sector lacked protection and were prone to exploitation.
“The conditions facing Indonesian migrant workers, especially those working in the fisheries sector, are grim,” Wahyu told BenarNews.
“What these Indonesian crewmen experienced was a violation of their human rights. They were robbed of their freedom by working in an inappropriate environment. They were deprived of their right to information and, ultimately, they were robbed of their right to live,” he said in a statement, according to the Jakarta Post.
A study released in December 2019 by Greenpeace Southeast Asia and the Indonesian Migrant Workers’ Union revealed that 34 Indonesian migrant fishermen working on 13 suspected foreign fishing boats had reported unsatisfactory conditions.
The main complaints included deception, withholding of wages, excessive overtime and physical and sexual abuse, the report said.
Indonesian migrant fishermen had their salaries deducted to pay guarantee deposits and processing costs for the first six to eight months of their employment, forcing them to work ridiculous hours for little or no pay, it said.
“Reports documenting the experiences of Indonesian and Filipino migrant fishers reveal a common pattern throughout the recruitment process, the terrible working conditions onboard vessels, as well as the uncertainty of repatriation when vessel operators are caught violating fishing laws in foreign countries,” it said.
Tia Asmara in Jakarta contributed to this report.