Slavery at sea: Fishermen arrested after months of abuse


Maritime charity, the Apostleship of the Sea has called for a major change in the way seafarers and fishermen are treated by government authorities when they are the victims of unscrupulous owners.

The recent case of 75 Indonesian fishermen illustrates what the Apostleship of the Sea says is a heavy-handed and ill thought out process.

Local media have reported on the slave like conditions endured by the 75 Indonesian fishermen stranded in Cape Town harbour for the last month. Many of the crew had not been paid for two years by the Taiwanese owners and were forced to continue to work, according to Apostleship of the Sea, South Africa.

Some crew say they were recruited with the promise of a fairly paid job, but once they were onboard received no pay and little food, often working from 2am in the morning until 10pm at night. One media outlet reported that ‘a 44-year-old man said he had worked on various vessels for 37 months without pay, often transferred to other boats when his contract expired.’

Seafarers’ trade union the ITF reported on the appalling living conditions onboard, ‘inside the vessel there was one toilet for 12 men and that they had been drinking out of a tap used to pump oil one day and water the next.’, “The conditions were inhumane. None of these men have been paid a cent, despite working 20 hour days. It’s slavery at sea.”

The fishing vessels were impounded in South Africa for illegal fishing, with the captain being arrested, while the crew were dependent on the support of the Apostleship of the Sea and the local community to survive and seek help.

The Apostleship of the Sea in Cape Town has a long experience of supporting the many Indonesian and Filipino seafarers who visit this port, and an Indonesian speaking member of the AoS team was able to act as a go-between liaising with the trade union and Indonesian consulate. By the fourth week in port the crew had no food or water; this was supplied not by the vessel owner but by the Apostleship of the Sea, local churches and the ITF.

In a worrying turn of events, at 3am on Sunday morning the fishermen were woken up, arrested and taken to a detention centre. However the Apostleship of the Sea is questioning whether this action and the efforts of the South African government’s home affairs department to deport the crew are legal. If the fishermen are repatriated with undue haste it is extremely unlikely that their wages will be paid and they will be labelled as illegal immigrants rather than victims of modern day slavery.

Terry Whitfield, Apostleship of the Sea National Director said: ‘The application of immigration rules to these men has taken no consideration of their circumstances, in the twenty-first century it is appalling that overseas fishing crews who are stranded through no fault of their own are treated as illegal immigrants and subject to treatment that has demeaned and humiliated them.’