Making Indonesian Seafarers Safe Again

Seafarer lives matter.

The Indonesian government is intent on improving the lives of seafarers working on foreign vessels, especially Chinese ones.  

While an official stated that Indonesia has started discussion with its Chinese counterpart on the improvement of fishing vessel regulations, an expert said it will be more impactful to focus on the domestic policy first if the government is keen to protect its seafarers working on foreign vessels.

In February, Deputy Minister for Maritime Sovereignty and Energy Coordination at the Coordinating Ministry for Maritime Affairs and Investment Basilio Dias Araujo said that negotiation had started between Indonesia and China that sought to find a solution to poor and unfair treatments that Indonesian seafarers continue to receive on Chinese vessels.

Araujo added that the negotiation also involved the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and regulation improvements were the talking point.

“We have been coordinating with China to encourage several improvements, and in doing so, we are also coordinating with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. We heard that China is determined to be proactive and that future improvements are very likely to be made.” 

Focus on issues at home first

While bilateral discussions are always welcome, maritime expert Siswanto Rusdi said efforts to solve issues at home are just equally, if not more important. As expressed repeatedly by different experts, the government still has a big homework in developing an integrated regulatory system as it continues to deal with overlapping authority and poor implementation, to name a few.

“What the Indonesian government can do now is to enact a regulation and ensuring its implementation in the field. We’ve seen cases where poorly-executed regulation didn’t end up being processed legally,” Rusdi, Director of the National Maritime Institute, told Maritime Fairtrade.

And in regards to overlapping authority, if the government opts to continue with the current system without attempting to develop (and implement) a new integrated system, optimized protection for seafarers will remain hard to achieve, and they will continue to face exploitation.

Rusdi said that at the moment, both Ministries of Manpower and Transportation have the authority to issue permits to placement and recruiting agency, a practice deemed not ideal. Another example he gave was how harbormasters are not able to make intervention towards unfair clauses in seafarers’ working contract, despite their oversight responsibility.

“If a harbormaster finds out that certain seafarers are paid less than the provincial minimum wage in their contracts, he or she can do nothing about it. Even though the harbormaster has the most authority at the port, there’s no legal basis to take action against such unlawful case. It’s under the authority of Ministry of Manpower,” Rusdi explained.

He added that while the Ministry is able to process the case, the procedures can be quite long and complicated.

Upgrading the skills and training of potential seafarers

Along with unclear regulation, the lack of awareness and training on the part of seafarers is also often cited as one of the causes of poor treatment on foreign vessels. Rusdi agreed that relevant ministries should put education (or lack thereof) as one of their main focuses, too.

He said many Indonesians who work in fishing vessels don’t possess the right skills and knowledge related to the job. Furthermore, maritime academies mostly offer education related to merchant marine instead of fishery.

“Those who fell victim to unfair treatments on foreign fishing vessels mostly didn’t have proper experience or are uneducated. Some of them worked in factories, or even were unemployed prior to working on a boat,” Rusdi said. 

“On the other hand, maritime academies teach students about technologically advanced vessels like tanker or container ship. Even those academies that offer fishery courses focus on modern fishing boats while in reality, there are not that many of those out there (compared to the traditional ones).”

He added that based on that fact alone, it is not surprising that many of the graduates end up not working in the fishery industry, instead working as traders, for example.

The China factor

Lastly, another reason why Indonesia should try to focus on internal issues first is because the Chinese government is unlikely to implement a strict regulation on their sailing boats in the near future.

Rusdi explained this is due to the big number of China’s distant water fishing fleet numbering in the thousands, and as well as the country’s heavy dependence on the fishery industry.

“Such fleet can sail for up to a year, and I don’t really see how the Chinese government can ensure the enforcement of certain regulations on those boats,” Rusdi added.

However, despite the obvious obstacles, he said any bilateral initiatives are greatly welcome, especially as exploitation against Indonesian seafarers continue to happen.

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