Horror in the Sea

Indonesian crew members often face unfair treatment aboard Chinese vessels. Credit: JP/Fadli


Recent news about the sinking of Chinese fishing vessel Lu Peng Yuan Yu 028 brought to the fore the hardship faced by Indonesian ship crews.

The vessel, which sank in the Indian Ocean last May, allegedly carried 39 crew members – 17 of which are Indonesians – who went missing.

The Chinese government ordered a search and rescue for the missing mariners, while its Foreign Ministry launched an “emergency mechanism for consular protection” involving embassies and consulates in Australia, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Indonesia and the Philippines.

Seven bodies of the crews have since been found, though the whereabouts of the Indonesian crews remains uncertain. Some Indonesian politicians have asked the government to coordinate with various parties, including the Chinese government, to investigate whether or not there was a violation of law or elements of negligence and to ensure that the victims’ families get their rights as workers.

This incident, which is the latest of a series of incidents involving Indonesian ship crews in Chinese vessels, should be a wakeup call for Indonesia and China to take this issue more seriously in their relations.

Repetition upon Repetition

Indonesia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has successfully conducted two repatriations of crew members during the pandemic.

In November 2020, 157 crew members who were stuck on Chinese ships were repatriated through a handover process in the middle of the North Sulawesi Sea. Two among those were already dead. In December of the same year, the Ministry received six crew members from a Chinese ship in Batam waters, one of which was dead.

The number of dead crew members is certainly a concern, even as the Indonesian Institute for Destructive Fishing Watch (DFW) reported that there is an increasing number of Indonesians being forced to work on Chinese vessels.

Some of these workers were duped into fake agreements or arrangements, initially promised a work opportunity elsewhere but ended up being forced to work on Chinese vessels. These workers also experience poor and degrading treatments, such being forced to work for more than 18 hours a day, subjected to violence and served fish bait and distilled water from the sea as daily consumption. Sick crews often suffer for 30-45 days before succumbing to death, during which period they were also forced to work.

Corpses are thrown into the sea on the pretext of preventing disease transmission, an activity labeled as “sea burial”. In one case, some Indonesian crews attempted to persuade the ship’s captain to have the corpse “stored” in the fridge before a proper burial on land could be conducted. This idea was rejected by the ship’s captain.

Recruiters often try to cover up the fact of the death. For example, in 2019, PT. Karunia Bahari Samudera contacted the family of a dead crew and gave them a letter in Chinese from the captain of the ship and Rp50 million for insurance coverage. Nonetheless, the company asked the family to claim the insurance on the condition that they give approval for the body to be thrown into the sea. PT. Karunia Bahari Samudera also asked family to sign a statement letter not to sue the company, the ship owner and the ship’s captain.

The same thing happened to Ari, who passed away on 31 March 2020. PT. Karunia Bahari Samudera only informed his family of his death on 9 April 2020 and the family gave their approval for a sea burial four days later. However, to make it appear as though the family had given approval, the letter was backdated to March 31.

Although there are many companies supplying crew members to China, only a few carry official permits from the government as placement companies for Indonesian migrant workers. The Indonesian police has investigated and arrested officials from some of these companies.  

In some cases, there is actually a chance to save these crew members if only the Ministry of Foreign Affairs could respond quickly. As a matter of fact, the Ministry often only informs the family after the bodies were thrown into the sea. One example is Riswan who died on board Han Rong 368 on 29 July 2020 with a swollen body covered with freckles and grayish-white discharge from his mouth. The Ministry visited Riswan’s family in Sulawesi only after his body was thrown into the sea and presented four approval letters for sea burials, cremation, autopsy and repatriation of Riswan’s corpse. None was signed by his family.

Moreover, these workers are often paid very little. Some of the crew members did not receive a salary and some had their wages deducted – which means the contractual agreement was violated. There are also crew members who received a meagre salary of US$120 or the equivalent of Rp1.7 million for 13 months of work.

Some workers went missing. For instance, a woman from Tegal wrote an open letter to President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo after her husband, who was suspected to have been forced into labor, disappeared. By that time, her husband had worked for one year as a crew member on the Fu Yuan Yu ship. The last time they communicated, she was told that her husband had experienced inhumane treatment at work and was not allowed to go home.

Later, she received news from a crew member that her husband was transferred to another ship. After that, the trail went cold.

In other cases, crews got stranded in other countries. For example, 13 Indonesians were stuck on Somali waters for about eight months, where one died and another disappeared.

Another case involved to a crew member who worked on Luqing Yuan Yu 623. He died on board and his body was found in Somali waters. This death was allegedly due to the torture he received while working on the ship. This incident occurred in the last week of January 2020, but the news only arrived at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in May, about four months later.

The Indonesian government had tried to evacuate them but had not been successful because their location was difficult to reach.

Problems compound as their passports are confiscated by the ship captain and the Chinese fishing boat company that refused to return them to Indonesia, prompting some crews to jump off the ship. For instance, two Indonesian crew members on board the Lu Qian Yuan Yu 901 chose to throw themselves into the sea and escape the working condition.

Ways Forward

Over the years, the Indonesian government has asked the Chinese government to investigate these cases and hold shipping companies responsible. Minister of Foreign Affairs Retno Marsudi once said the cases experienced by Indonesian crew members “will be followed up strictly through a parallel legal process by both the PRC authorities and the Indonesian authorities.”

Indonesia has also summoned China to ask for clarification regarding vessels allegedly mistreating Indonesian crews, with some resulting in death.

However, in response, the Chinese government claimed to be paying special attention and was carrying out an investigation into Chinese fishing companies that employed Indonesian crew members. Time will tell if serious actions will be carried out following such investigations.

Therefore, the issue needs to be addressed in the interactions between Indonesia and China. Laws relating to the protection of crew members working on foreign ships already exist, but these need to be enforced properly by the government. In addition, the government should also look into illegal agency companies that actively recruit young people with the promise of money, only to end up enslaving them.

Indonesian authorities need to coordinate with China’s law enforcement to investigate both Indonesian and Chinese companies that employ crew members from Indonesia.

It is also crucial to coordinate over data collection on crews’ placement on Chinese vessels as a safeguard against potential problems down the lane, such as the cases presented above.

Indonesia also needs to ensure that the rights of the deceased crew members are properly channeled to their heirs and family members. They also need assistance and protection so as to not be manipulated by irresponsible agents.

Moreover, Indonesian law enforcement officials need to investigate a number of recruitment agencies who delivered the bodies of dead crew members because they are partly responsible for these human tolls. Lastly, attention is also needed on the existence of several pending issues, including returning stranded Indonesian crews, upholding their labor rights, improving workplace conditions and fostering law enforcement through mutual legal assistance.

The views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of STRAT.O.SPHERE CONSULTING PTE LTD.

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