JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA — Seventy-five Indonesian sailors face deportation from South Africa after being stranded offshore following years of forced labor at sea.
The men were forced to work in grueling, inhumane conditions at sea for months or years without pay. Most of them are due one year’s back wages, others are owed more. One man described working 20-hour shifts.
Their employers abandoned their vessels leaving the sailors to scrape out a living from the waters off Cape Town.
But about three months ago, South African officials impounded their trawlers for illegal fishing, leaving them in a legal no man's land. Unable to go ashore, they were confined to stinking, cramped quarters on a boat for months, dependent on charity.
Now, they are on South African soil, but in a deportation center near Johannesburg.
Cassiem Augustus, an inspector for the International Transport Workers Federation, says the sailors' situation is not entirely unique. He has previously worked with abandoned sailors aboard Taiwanese- and Iraqi-owned vessels and sued for back pay and repatriation on their behalf, with mixed results.
But, he says, because these particular sailors were so utterly abandoned, in this case by both the ship owners and the shipping agency, there is no one to pursue.
That is how he says they ended up in the unusual situation of facing deportation, which he says will only further hurt their livelihoods back home.
“Deportation is something that leads to stigma," Augustus said. "You cannot be able to come back to our country, that is what deportation means, although they have worked honestly, they were trying to earn an honest wage. And what should have happened, there should have been negotiations.”
Fatima Allie of the Cape Town-based Islamic charity Nakhlistan says its workers were horrified by the sailors’ living conditions when they were in Cape Town. Th charity was called in to help in mid-November.
“They had no toiletries, they had no food, the electricity was going to be cut on the vessel, and they were not going to have flushing toilets," Allie said. "Nakhlistan has been feeding them on a daily basis. We have been taking meat and chicken and rice and water and toiletries and fish oil, potatoes, vegetables, noodles to the seamen because that is all that we could do.”
Allie says the charity can not get to the men in a deportation center and called for governments to take over and help the men.
“What we would like to happen is for the Indonesian government to step in, because they are Indonesian citizens," she said. "Some of of these crew members have not seen their families for five years. So it is really [a] sad situation.”
Augustus also recommended that nations work together to ratify and enforce international agreements that prevent slave-like working conditions at sea.
But until things improve at home, more young Indonesian men are likely to take their chances on the high seas.
Although Indonesia has unemployment levels of 6.6 percent, the World Bank says youth unemployment stands near 22 percent.
Many Indonesians enter the fishing industry due to the promise of high wages, but they often lack the education and training to avoid being taken advantage of by unscrupulous ship owners.