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Activists call for improvement in migrant fishermen’s human rights

Migrant fishermen are exposed to human rights abuses, activists and human rights lawyers said Tuesday, calling on the government and ship owners to step up efforts to improve the situation.

Kim Jong-chul, a lawyer for the Seoul-based Advocates for Public Interest Law, claimed that migrant fishing crews are at risk of forcible labor and human trafficking, as they are unable to seek help or leave work while at sea. 


An outdoor billboard carries an advertisement by an agency recruiting foreign fishermen to work on Korean-owned vessels in Manila, Philippines. (IOM)
An outdoor billboard carries an advertisement by an agency recruiting foreign fishermen to work on Korean-owned vessels in Manila, Philippines. (IOM)

“Most migrant fishermen were poor, less educated and had job insecurity in their own countries, so they sign contracts even though they are aware of appalling labor conditions,” he said during a forum jointly hosted by APIL, International Organization for Migration’s Korea office and the Human Rights Network for Migrant Fishermen.

“South Korean government and ship operators are partially accountable for such abuses.”

APIL and IOM recently published a report titled “Tied at Sea: Human Rights Violations of Migrant Workers on Korean Fishing Vessels,” based on their two-year investigation and interviews with some 70 migrant fishermen based in Korea, Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines.

The report details vulnerabilities of migrant fishermen on Korean-owned vessels in every stage of migration -- how they were lured by recruiting agencies with a promise of high wages, paid large sums of commission fees and were forced into a vicious cycle of debt and exploitation.

The investigation found that migrant fishing crews in general suffer from poor living conditions, long hours of work, discriminatory pay, confiscation of their documents, verbal and physical assault, among other issues.

“The process of recruiting and managing migrant fishermen is too complicated. In accordance with the size of a ship, different laws apply and different ministries oversee the recruitment system and labor conditions,” Kim said, pointing to the legal limbo which leaves foreign workers unprotected.

In South Korea, migrant workers hired on ships which weigh 20 tons or over in coastal and high seas are subject to the Seafarers Act, under the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries. Foreign workers on boats weighing less than 20 tons are under the Employment Permit System run by the Labor Ministry.

Only those under the EPS are subject to the Labor Standards Act, which stipulates working hours and labor rights, and the Minimum Wage Act, which states the minimum wage set annually by the government. The Seafarers Act does not stipulate labor rights or minimum wage for foreign fishermen.

“There needs to be a single ministry and single law that manage foreign fishermen,” he said, adding that the two-way system of managing foreign fishermen results in relevant ministries shifting their responsibility to monitor the process of recruitment and working conditions.

Kim and activists called on the government to play a bigger role in making the recruitment and employment process more transparent. They suggested it classify the fishing vessels into three categories to better monitor labor conditions by the categories, as well as enact laws and institutions to protect migrant fishermen’ rights.

South Korea began to receive migrant fishermen in 1993 to fill the labor shortage in the fishing industry. The industry is heavily reliant on migrant fishermen amid young people’s reluctance to fill jobs in the agriculture, fishing and farming sectors.

As of the end of 2016, the number of migrant fishing crew stood at 11,305, accounting for 41 percent of the total fishing crew in South Korea. The number has seen a gradual increase from 9,162 in 2010 to 11,815 in 2015.

“We are managing to sustain our business by hiring foreigners because there are no Koreans willing to do the job. Human rights are of course important, but you should know that the situation has improved a lot,” said Kim Jung-su, president of a local fishing firm Sajo Industries.

“And we also have our own problems such as stiff competition with foreign seafood companies.”

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Korea produced seafood worth 5.5 trillion won, ranking 13th in the world in 2014.

The government officials talked about their own difficulties in improving the situation for foreign fishermen.

“We are educating Korean fishing crews on human rights, set up a call center to receive complains from migrant fishermen, increase the number of officers monitoring working conditions, for example,” Seo Jin-hee from the Fisheries Ministry said.

“It is not only a problem facing foreign fishermen. It is also a problem for Korean seamen as the fishing makes them leave their family and land for long,” she said. “We will put priority on protecting human rights and try to improve the situation.”

Human rights abuses facing migrant fishermen first came to light in 2012 when 32 Indonesian crews on the Korea-flagged long haul fishing vessel Oyang 75 escaped it in New Zealand. They claimed that they were verbally, sexually and physically assaulted, and not paid their wages, which was confirmed by both Korean and New Zealand authorities.

Since then, there have been growing calls for measures to improve the working conditions for migrant fishermen on Korean-owned vessels, but activists claimed that there had not been significant improvements.

“There has been criticism that migrant fishermen were left unprotected because fishing vessels are not subjected to the government’s regulations and monitoring,” said Rep. Park Ju-min of the Democratic Party of Korea, one of the lawmakers who hosted the event.

“We cannot neglect such a situation and we will make efforts to improve fishermen’s human rights in the country.”

By Ock Hyun-ju
(laeticia.ock@heraldcorp.com)

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