Their stories have become all too familiar – Cambodian fishermen enslaved on fishing boats after being promised lucrative jobs overseas. They’re also becoming increasingly common.
Anti-trafficking NGOs told the Post this week that they have noticed an exponential increase in the number of trafficking complaints from fishermen trapped abroad.
In the past two years, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) aided in the repatriation of just over 100 Cambodians. But in just the first five months of 2013, the IOM has assisted in the return of 63 Cambodians – mostly from Malaysia, Indonesia and Mauritius.
Those that get duped are almost exclusively rural folk desperate for survival and lured abroad by better-paying jobs, said Phiev Khay, national project officer for the IOM.
But the situation has taken a more sinister turn – labour observers have noticed that Cambodians are being found further and further afield and becoming a target for regional recruitment agencies.
Two weeks ago, Taiwanese national Lin Yu Shin, 53, was arrested in Siem Reap on charges of trafficking Cambodians onto Taiwanese fishing trawlers off the coast of Africa.
According to the Association of Cambodian Recruitment Agencies, Lin’s company – Giant Ocean International Fishery – had already been operating for several years before it obtained its Ministry of Labour licence in 2009, and was part of a bigger network that dealt with partners in Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan.
The Community Legal Education Centre (CLEC), estimates the company trafficked some 1,000 Cambodians.
But because most of these fishermen are working at sea and dock at countries that Cambodia has few diplomatic ties with, neither the government nor NGOs here know exactly how many Cambodians trafficked by Giant Ocean remain out there.
“This is a big case, a very high-profile case,” said Mom Sokchar, program manager of the Anti-Trafficking project at Legal Support for Children and Women (LSCW).
Sokchar, who has been working with trafficked fishermen since 2008, said rescued Giant Ocean victims often told him they were processed by a Singaporean agency called “Step Up Marine Enterprise”.
“They are a middle-man recruitment agency.”
Established in 1988, the company – then known as Step Up Employment Agency – initially dealt in domestic labour, providing maids from abroad for the Singapore market.
But in 1995, the company changed its name to Step Up Marine Enterprise, according to records from Singapore’s Accounting and Corporate Regulatory Authority.
Sometime between then and now, the company started dealing in trafficked fishermen, said Shelley Thio from Singapore NGO Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2).
Thio has investigated Step Up’s activities since 2011 and told the Post the company works with brokers in the region and sends workers from Cambodia, Thailand, the Philippines, Indonesia and Vietnam to fishing boats abroad.
The company is run by a man known as Victor Lim, said Thio.
“He will make them sign a contract and then he puts them on a boat,” she added. “If the boat is in Singapore, they will board in Singapore, if not, they get sent to the country where the vessel is and then they board.”
Before the men are indentured to a life of abuse on deep-sea fishing vessels, they sign three-year contracts that state they would only be paid at the end of their stint, said Thio.
But because the conditions are so harsh – men have to work up to 20 hours a day and endure beatings from senior crew – they often leave after six months or a year, said Thio.
In the rare occasion that these ships dock, the men escape and call their family members back home, who turn to NGOs like CLEC, IOM and LSCW for help.
When the Post contacted Step Up, Lim admitted his agency provided manpower for fishing ships but denied working with Giant Ocean.
And according to SehaYatim, a spokesperson for the Singapore Ministry of Manpower, the agency is not being investigated.
For these trafficked men, foreign governments like Singapore are not much help. Thio explained that the ministry is not investigating Step Up, as workers are “not work permit holders and leave the country before their tourist visas expire”.
Unlike fellow seafarers on shipping vessels, who are protected by the International Labour Organization’s Maritime Labour Convention (MLC) – which stipulate work hours and monthly payments – fishermen are not considered seafarers and therefore not protected under the MLC.
The Work in Fishing Convention is aimed at protecting this vulnerable group, but it has only been ratified by two countries – Bosnia-Herzegovina and Argentina – since 2007.
In contrast, the MLC has been ratified by 39 states, including Singapore.
As a result, even though the fish these men catch end up on tables across the developed world, there are often few avenues for abused workers to seek redress for their grievances.
“Forced labour, child labour are rife on fishing fleets, which are beyond scrutiny and checks that a factory… would be subject to,” said Juliette Williams, director of the Environmental Justice Foundation, which monitors fishing fleets off the African coast.
“The industry,” added Williams, “is one of the most dangerous, physically arduous and exploitative employment sectors.”