Unveiling the Harsh Realities of Indonesia’s Seafood Workers

Jakarta, Indonesia – Destructive Fishing Watch (DFW) Indonesia, a leading non-governmental organization focusing on sustainable fisheries and labor practices, has recently investigated the working conditions and challenges seafood workers face in several key Indonesian seafood hot spots. Titled “Voices from the Sea: Revealing the Hidden Realities of Indonesia’s Seafood Workers,” the discussion theme based on the study shines a light on the human rights violations endured by these workers and suggests urgent reforms.

During a public discussion, Felicia Nugroho, a dedicated researcher at DFW Indonesia, presented the findings of the five-month-long research. The investigation focused on four seafood hotspots in Indonesia: Muara Baru, Jakarta; Benoa, Bali; Dobo, Mollucca; and Bitung, North Sulawesi. The research revealed a series of concerning facts seafood workers face daily, and the presentation served as a call to action for improving the governance of fisheries labor.

The conditions of the workers examined in the study encompassed various aspects, including recruitment processes, working conditions on fishing vessels and fish processing unit, as well as their welfare. Notably, the majority of respondents were found to have completed only junior high school or senior high school education, indicating a lack of awareness about their labor rights.

DFW’s findings highlighted a significant reliance on brokers for job placements, with 28% of workers relying on agents, 35% on friends or relatives, and 18% applying directly to the company. These agents, who are often unlicensed, play a prominent role in the recruitment process, taking advantage of uninformed workers or those lacking alternative job opportunities.

Further issues arose during pre-employment and on-board work processes. Fewer than 35.25% of respondents were aware of the Sea Work Agreement, and more than half were unaware of its contents. While some workers received inadequate training, others were forced to work long hours exceeding 12 hours per day on fishing vessels.

Inconsistent payment and lack of transparency were also highlighted as prevalent problems, with many workers expressing dissatisfaction over unfulfilled promises and non-transparent cash advances. Health and employment security benefits were often not provided, leaving workers vulnerable.

Indonesian governmental efforts to establish labor standards were acknowledged, such as the Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries Regulation 33 of 2021. However, the study unveiled several gaps in enforcement, understanding of rights, and agency regulation, leading to the perpetuation of exploitative practices.

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DFW researcher Felicia Nugroho proposed a series of recommendations to address these challenges, including the standardization of recruitment systems, transparent wage systems, standardized certification processes, and the establishment of multi-stakeholder forums to enhance governance. She also urged the allowance of workers to form unions to advocate for their rights.

The discussion also featured Ha Phung, who highlighted the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) framework. “Here, I remind to Business and authority responsibility to respect human rights,” says Ha. Ha highlighted the importance of corporate responsibility in respecting human rights through UNGPs’ three-pillar framework—protect, respect, and remedy. Ha, the discussion also referred to the Indonesian government’s ratification of the ILO C188 convention, highlighting its commitment to addressing labor issues.

Urmila Bhoola, from the UN Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Slavery, spotlighted the vulnerabilities of human rights, echoing Ha Phung’s points. She stressed the importance of tackling issues such as policy overlaps in wages, opaque recruitment systems, and fragmented governance. The role of UN unions was also discussed, particularly in the context of global oversight and the challenges of Indonesia in implementing ILO standards.

Mongabay journalist Basten Gokkon shared stories of migrant workers facing dire conditions on fishing vessels, specifically recounting investigations into abuses on board. He called for a human-centered narrative and sea-focused reporting that links offshore and onshore stakeholders. Basten emphasized the importance of safety checks, multiple sources, and following workers’ stories deeply rather than relying solely on scripted questions. Transboundary reporting was also deemed essential in tackling the complexities of the seafood industry.

Miftahul, the moderator of the discussion, concluded the urgent need to address fundamental human rights violations on board fishing vessels. Ratifying the ILO C188 convention and advocating for increased corporate social responsibility were also highlighted as crucial steps toward improving the plight of seafood workers in Indonesia.

The discussion served as a wake-up call for the industry and Indonesian authorities alike, shedding light on the urgent need to improve the working conditions and rights of Indonesia’s seafood workers. The study’s findings underscore the urgent need for comprehensive reforms in the industry, including enhanced labor regulations, improved working conditions, and better protections for workers’ rights. It is clear that collaborative efforts between government, businesses, and civil society are essential to bring about meaningful change and ensure the welfare of Indonesia’s seafood workers.

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