Indonesia and Spain sign agreement to protect migrant fishing workers

Indonesia and Spain sign agreement to protect migrant fishing workers
  • Indonesia and Spain have signed an agreement that will see Spanish regulators recognize competency certification issued by Indonesia for Indonesian fishing vessel workers.
  • The move is part of efforts to boost protection of Indonesian migrant fishing workers in a global industry notorious for the exploitation and abuse of migrant deckhands.
  • According to the fisheries ministry, some 1,000 Indonesians worked aboard Spanish fishing boats in 2021, earning on average about 1,000 euros ($1,075) per month.
  • At home, Indonesia is also working to enhance training, certification, and protection for its large population of fishers and boat crews.

JAKARTA — Indonesia and Spain have signed an agreement on accrediting Indonesian migrant deckhands, as part of efforts to beef up protection against modern slavery aboard fishing vessels.

Under the mutual recognition agreement, Spain will validate competency documents issued by Indonesian authorities for Indonesians seeking to work on board Spanish fishing vessels.

“With the MRA between Indonesia and Spain, more detailed information is needed regarding what administrative requirements are needed for migrant workers if they are going to work in Spain, so that they get guarantees and protection according to the law,” I Nyoman Radiarta, the Indonesian fisheries ministry’s head of research and development, said in a statement issued Feb. 1.

Officials from the Indonesian and Spanish governments have signed an agreement that will see Spanish regulators recognize competency certification issued by Indonesia for Indonesian fishing vessel workers. Image courtesy of the Indonesian Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries.

According to the fisheries ministry, some 1,000 Indonesians worked aboard Spanish fishing boats in 2021, earning on average about 1,000 euros ($1,075) per month. Indonesians heading overseas to work on foreign fishing vessels must obtain a certificate as required by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) under the 1995 Convention of Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Fishing Vessel Personnel (STCW-F), which Indonesia ratified in 2019.

STCW-F prescribes international guidelines for the protection of crews working aboard domestic and foreign boats, and the IMO is scheduled in 2024 to evaluate Indonesia’s efforts to implement the agreement.

Indonesia, one of the world’s largest fish producers, is home to some 2.3 million people who identify as fishers and boat crews working on domestic and foreign-flagged fleets. However, many of them lack proper training for safety and fishing operations, which experts say leaves them vulnerable to exploitative employment practices and endangers their lives.

A 2022 study by the NGO Destructive Fishing Watch (DFW) Indonesia found that only 6% of 45 deckhands working at the country’s largest fishing port, Nizam Zachman Port in Jakarta, had government-issued basic safety certification. The relatively high cost for the basic training and certification, combined with low awareness of the benefits and poor inspection at ports are some of the key reasons fishers aren’t enrolling in the certification program, DFW Indonesia found.

“In general, the MRA is good for the protection of Indonesian crew members in Spain, especially in improving the standardization of … skills and welfare,” Felicia Nugroho, a researcher at DFW Indonesia, told Mongabay.

“In addition, the government of Indonesia can also prevent migrant deckhands from irresponsible brokers with transparency of information on administrative requirements and salaries. Data collection on crew members working in Spain can also be recorded properly,” she said.

Indonesian domestic fishing vessel workers. Image courtesy of the Indonesian Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries.

The Indonesian government has in recent years promoted formal education at training centers for fishers and deckhands across the archipelago. It has initiated free-of-charge training for small-scale fishers all over the country, and undertaken reforms to overhaul training and certification facilities as well as update the fisher training curriculum to align with international standards. However, experts say additional measures are needed to encourage prospective maritime workers to participate in the program, including increased involvement of local governments in allocating funds for certification.

“Besides standardizing the certificates, Indonesia also needs to improve the competency standards of domestic graduates through fisheries colleges/polytechnics so that the human resources can compete in Spain and other countries,” Felicia said.

In the meantime, the Indonesian government is establishing “sea-based” bilateral agreements to safeguard the rights of its citizens engaged in fishing activities under the flags of other nations, in a bid to address issues related to labor abuses and modern slavery. A significant portion of the distant-water fleet in Taiwan, ranked among the world’s top five with a yearly industry value of $2 billion, consists of migrant boat crews from Indonesia and the Philippines, according to Greenpeace.

“I consider that the MRA between the governments of Indonesia and Spain is the right step to improve the recognition of the competence of Indonesian migrant fisheries crew seafarers globally,” Arifsyah Nasution, senior oceans campaign strategist at Greenpeace Southeast Asia, told Mongabay.

“The Indonesian government’s proactive efforts can certainly be more assured and effective as long as the integrity of the certification process and the quality of training of Indonesian fisheries crew members are also continuously improved,” he said.

At home, Indonesia has issued a much-anticipated decree to boost the protection of Indonesian deckhands working aboard foreign commercial and fishing vessels. The new regulation also includes working scheme and condition standards based on the global convention on work in fishing under the United Nations’ International Labour Organization, known as ILO C188; the introduction of collective-bargaining agreements for migrant workers; and establishing an integrated database on migrant workers between related government agencies.

Indonesian migrant deckhands on board the Chinese fishing vessel Ning Tai 95. Image courtesy of Zulfam Afandi.

Former migrant deckhands from Indonesia have previously described dire and even deadly working conditions on board foreign vessels, including overwork, withholding of wages, debt bondage, and physical and sexual violence. Under these conditions, many are forced to cut short their working contracts, which typically run about two years, and forfeit the deposits they were typically required to pay to get the jobs. Experts also note that forced labor on board fishing vessels often goes hand in hand with illegal fishing.

Both Felicia and Arifsyah called for other major destination countries of Indonesian migrant fishing workers and those who have ratified STCW-F to forge similar bilateral agreements with Indonesia, such as France, Portugal, New Zealand and Japan. Indonesia has signed one such agreement with South Korea and aims to seal similar deals with Taiwan and China. The latter is by far the world’s largest fishing power, accounting for nearly as much activity in distant waters as the next four top countries combined, and is often described as having the worst fleet for migrant fishers to work in.

“Improving the competency of Indonesian fishermen or seafarers in accordance with STCW-F, both those who work domestically, as well as those who become migrant workers and work on foreign-flagged fishing vessels, is one of the key efforts to protect occupational safety and also increase the knowledge and skills of fishery crew seafarers in preventing and handling marine pollution,” Arifsyah said.

“Various MRA efforts and cooperation in implementing STCW-F will also increase the competitiveness of Indonesian fisheries crew seafarers globally,” he added.

Indonesian fishing vessel workers unload fish at a local port. Image courtesy of the Indonesian Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries.

Basten Gokkon is a senior staff writer for Indonesia at Mongabay. Find him on 𝕏 @bgokkon.

See related from this reporter:

Indonesia urged to update fisher training program to international standards

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