Indonesia confronts with modern slavery in fishing industry

Released in June, the U.S. Department of State’s annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report stated that Indonesia’s status improved from tier 2 watch list to tier 2, on the back of “overall increasing efforts” by the government. 

However, Destructive Fishing Watch (DFW) warned that despite the status upgrade, TIP in the fishing industry continues to be considerably rampant, where fishermen are forced to work for little or no pay in terrible conditions.

DFW said that from January until mid-August, its National Fishers Center (NFC) received three TIP-related reports involving nine Indonesian fishermen (five of which were working as migrant fishers). DFW noted they were also subjected to physical abuse and debt bondage. 

“These reports are currently being handled by DFW’s partner institutions for settlement mediation,” DFW national coordinator Moh. Abdi Suhufan told Maritime Fairtrade.

Looking at the persistent presence of TIP cases in the fishing industry, DFW highlighted some of the aspects in which the government’s efforts fell short. One area is prevention. 

Scores of Indonesian seafarers who fell victim to trafficking told DFW that they were not informed of their labor rights, like working hours and salary, prior to their placement. 

“Such case of deception usually occurred during recruitment process, and seafarers only found out about it while they were being transported. As a result, they experience exploitation like forced labor, oppression, and even slavery,” DFW said in statement.

Indonesia’s Government Regulation No. 22/2022 (as mandated by the country’s migrant law) oversees the protection of Indonesian migrant workers in fishing industry. However, this law is not effectively implemented. 

The 2023 TIP report highlighted this failure, stating although the regulation “required the provision of pre-departure orientation to Indonesian migrant workers in fishing, including information on labor rights and safety at sea, but it did not specify whether the government or employers should fund and provide the orientation.”

DFW also noted local governments are inefficient in ensuring the safety of Indonesian seafarers through clear mechanism. Despite their familiarity of local conditions and having the resources and infrastructure, local governments still largely depend on national-level anti-TIP task forces.

Only a handful of local governments have formulated clear procedure and regulation on the protection of migrant seafarers. North Sulawesi, for example, has established a forum dedicated to this issue and has formulated a series of initiatives, including training for law enforcers on identifying TIP cases and carrying out inspections at seaport.

While lauding the work, DFW noted that other provinces have yet to follow similar footsteps and as such, it is unsurprising that a significant number of local officials have yet to fully understand the elements of TIP—let alone formulating a proper response.

The U.S. 2023 TIP report also noted that “low awareness among local law enforcement and judicial officials of trafficking and relevant legislation impeded case detection and prosecutions”.

In addition to poor prevention and implementation of the law, Indonesia is still not doing enough to ensure fair restitution for victims of TIP. The report mentioned that although Indonesia has been successful in securing increased restitution for trafficking victims, but the courts sometimes fail to award adequate amount.

“For example, during the reporting period, one forced labor victim in fishing secured a compensation award for less than the amount of his unpaid wages, on top of the eight months that he had pursued the case without government assistance,” the report stated.

DFW’s NFC data shows the majority of TIP victims only received money which rightfully belonged to them (e.g., unpaid wages) but not restitution to cover consequences of the crime. 

Photo credit: iStock/ ADragan

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