China fishing trawler boss faces Indonesian prosecution over labor abuses

Published on
July 16, 2020

China’s need for foreign labor to man its distant water fleet has come into sharp focus after a Chinese skipper was arrested by Indonesian authorities investigating the death of an Indonesian crew member.

Chinese trawler captain Song Chuanyun was taken into custody by Riau Islands Provincial Police this week on charges of assault and human trafficking following the death of an Indonesian crew member, whose body was recently discovered.

Indonesian police impounded two vessels – the Lu Huang Yuan Yu 117 and Lu Huang Yuan Yu 118 – on 8 July after being informed the body of an Indonesian sailor, later identified as Hasan Afriandi, had been kept in cold storage on one of the boats for a week. Afriandi’s body was discovered on the Lu Huang Yuan Yu 117, a vessel registered to Qingdao Zhongtai Ocean Distant Water Fishing Co. Based in the seafood processing and trading hub of Qingdao, the firm supplies squid and tuna to domestic and international buyers.

As for the cause of death, Muhammad Haris, the chief physician for the Riau Islands police, said an examination of Afriandi’s body found bruises, scars, and a spinal injury.

Separately, police in Central Java – Indonesia's largest and most populous island – have arrested executives at a local labor recruitment agency that allegedly recruited Indonesian workers to crew the Chinese fishing boats, which faced charges of human trafficking. 

Song Chuanyun, the captain, has not been named as a suspect, but is being investigated by police. Arie Dharmanto, the chief criminal investigator for police in Riau Islands province, said his office had information that Indonesian crew members were assaulted by Song and another Chinese national onboard the vessels.

China, meanwhile, is disputing Indonesia’s right to try Chuanyun. Indonesia claims it has jurisdiction because the crimes happened in its waters, but China has disputed this with Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian on 10 July, saying the incidents happened in international waters.

Either way, the incident is bad news for Chinese fishing companies, which have turned to Southeast Asian and African labor as workers at home turn down invitations to join distant water fleets.

Officials reported at least eight deaths since November 2019, including some where the corpses were thrown overboard.

Destructive Fishing Watch (DFW) Indonesia, an NGO, said an Indonesian worker aboard the Lu Huang Yuan Yu 118 called its 24-hour hotline to report the death of a compatriot who allegedly had been physically abused.

In May, Indonesian foreign minister Retno Marsudi summoned China’s ambassador to Jakarta to explain labor abuses by Chinese fishing trawlers and why sailors’ corpses had apparently been thrown overboard.

Those deaths were related to crew on the Long Xing 629, and organizations have called for investigations after it was found that multiple crewmembers who died were tossed overboard the same day they died. Reports from crewmembers indicate they were forced to work with little pay, and given only salty water to drink despite Chinese crew receiving clean bottled water. 

With the country’s labor force officially in contraction since 2018 as its population ages, China appears to be facing labor shortages in arduous work like distant water fishing, which could contribute significantly to operators’ costs.

In light of this labor shortage, Chinese distant water fishing firms went recruiting last year in detention centers in the populous inland province of Sichuan, traditionally a source of migrant workers.

Detainees in prison-style blue-and-yellow outfits at a detention facility near the Southwestern city of Meishan – a source of China’s migrant workers until recent years – lined up for leaflets, which promised salaries of CNY 280,000 to CNY 300,000 (USD 39,760 to USD 42,600, EUR 35,065 to EUR 37,570) per year to workers on distant water fishing vessels. The rates were very high in comparison to average Chinese manufacturing wages. “Free accommodation and food” would also be provided, according to the leaflet, distributed by a recruitment agency on behalf of “China’s largest distant water fishing company.”

Photo courtesy of mayday6510/Shutterstock

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