We all love fish, but most of us have no idea what fishermen go through to get it onto our plates. A dark story of human slavery is playing itself out on the high seas.
Mario Santoso (Foreign fisherman) : ’We are like prisoners except we get paid. We only do this to help our families.’
Nehgah Ariasta and Mario Santoso have been fishermen for the past 20 years. They’re paid R1200 a month and they don’t get much more than a daily bowl of noodles. They have to buy any extra food, tea and coffee out of their monthly pittance.
Nehgah Ariasta (Indonesian fisherman) : ’We don’t know what the captain eats, but whatever we use for bait we eat as well. We eat only sardine and squid - only the master eats fruit and vegetables.’
These almost mediaeval conditions were dramatically exposed by the crew on board another vessel, the Vietnamese owned ’Balena’. They had been so badly beaten and mistreated that they mutinied, took their captain hostage and forced the ship to dock in Cape Town.
The International Transport Worker’s Federation is one of the few organisations fighting for the rights of these fishermen.
Cassiem Augustus is the ITF inspector in Cape Town and has spent 15 years helping seafarers in distress. He is one of 180 inspectors around the world representing 4.5 million seafarers.
Cassiem Augustus (ITF Inspector) : ’The reality is that people are not aware of what is happening in our ports, but when you know, it’s shocking. That fish that is coming on your table, the hardship that people are going through to get it onto your table. We are not talking about our local fishermen, they have got ups and downs, but I think the international fishermen, they have got a disaster.’
This morning he starts his rounds by checking on the abandoned crew of the Hector, a ship which has been stranded in Cape Town for the past four months.
Annika Larsen (Carte Blanche presenter) : ’The South African Maritime Safety Authority were forced to tow this rust bucket - the MV Hector - to port to avoid a potential environmental disaster. A journey that should have taken one month had taken four due to engine failure, and the crew and the vessel was in a pitiful state.’
They were desperate to get off the ship, had very little food onboard and were catching fish to survive. One man’s hand was broken.
Capt Mike Viljoen (SAMSA Inspector) : ’They feared for their lives and we were their only hope of getting home alive.’
Capt Mike Viljoen was the SAMSA inspector who boarded the floundering Hector, tossing in stormy seas in False Bay. She had lost her anchor and her engines had failed.
Mike : ’The person that slipped me the note had actually had an injured hand, which he showed me, and I thought... and he said he has asked for medical attention but had not received any attention.’
SAMSA immediately contacted Cassiem Augustus.
Cassiem : ’The crew were very sad at first, feeling down, despondent, looking for help. They wanted to get home, but not without salary. So they were screaming for help.’
The crew of 12 had not been paid for eight months. Cassiem hired attorney Alan Goldberg. After an acrimonious battle, the Syrian owner finally arrived in Cape Town and agreed to fly the two Ghanaian crew home. He promised the remaining Syrian crew that he would pay them, and fix the boat so they could continue to India to sell the ship for scrap. But he disappeared again and was uncontactable for months.
Alan Goldberg (Attorney) : ’They have this belief that even after the last few months of waiting that the ship owner is going to return, is going to pay them their wages.’
Abdul Rahman is one of the seven remaining Syrian crew abandoned on board for the past four months. He is holding out for his money.
Abdu Rahman : ’If I go to my home - to my family - and my pocket is empty, what I can do ? It’s not a small family, its big - five !’
Annika : ’What does your wife say about you being here ?’
Abdul : ’My wife say exactly, leave your money and come back to your home. Its eight months, you go and no come back - there is too much problem [to stay].’
Annika : ’Do you have a contract to work on this boat ?’
Abdul : ’No.’
Crew often don’t have valid contracts or travel documents. They are effectively prisoners onboard, unable to leave the harbour and are completely dependent on the ship’s owners for their survival.
It’s not uncommon for crews to be totally abandoned when business deals go bad, as happened to the men on board the Hector. In this case, SAMSA has generously supplied them with provisions and paid their medical bills.
Annika : ’Sadly, the plight of this crew is not an isolated incident, crew are often very vulnerable out at sea and the conditions that they are forced to endure is sometimes described as ’modern day slavery’.’
When distressed seafarers finally come into dock to restock, their first port of call is usually The Mission to Seafarers where they seek assistance and moral support. Reverend Gerald Sobotker is the resident Chaplin in Cape Town harbour.
There are no laws protecting fishermen and they do not fall under the jurisdiction of the International Transport Workers’ Federation. An International Fishing Convention is in the process of being ratified, but it will take time to be implemented. Meanwhile, the abuse continues.
Seafarers only hope is that if South Africa is the first port of call, Cassiem can fight for them, whether they are ITF members or not.
The South African Police Services won’t touch the cases because the crimes are committed in international waters. Fortunately the South Africa Maritime authorities and our courts have a reputation of being humane and responsive to the plight of seamen as was seen in the case of the Belena crew : all charges of abduction and assault were dropped once their inhumane working conditions were exposed. The Hector crew also won their battle.
Alan : ’After eight months on the vessel, they are finally going home. The ship has been sold for scrap. The owners lost the court case ; the money received from the scrap sale will be paid over to SAMSA in an attempt to defray the costs. The crew are going to be paid ; they will go home with some money.’