Oceans Inc #3: Worked to Death

Abuse of Southeast Asian migrant workers are rife across the fleet of one of China’s largest tuna fishing companies, according to a cross-border investigation.

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Oceans Inc

This week we’re releasing the third article of Oceans IncWorked to Death, led by partner newsrooms Mongabay and Tansa, which investigates the abuse of Southeast Asian migrant workers on boats operated by Dalian Ocean Fishing, one of China’s largest tuna fishing companies.

Note: All Oceans Inc content is available to be translated, adapted, and republished for free under a Creative Commons license (CC-BY-NC 4.0). If you’re interested, respond to this email.

Worked to Death involved six journalists from four countries, connecting stories from Indonesia, where many fishers originated, to the company in China, and supply chains reaching into Japan and South Korea.

Here’s the introduction from this article.

Looking for resources and opportunities? Scroll down – they’re at the bottom.

Worked to Death

One day, Sepri came across a Facebook post advertising for deckhands to work on foreign fishing boats. The job paid $350 a month, double the minimum wage in South Sumatra province, no experience needed. The job sounded so flush with promise that six of his friends wanted to join. Before long, the seven were on their way to the neighboring island of Java to sign up with a recruitment company.

It should have been a grand adventure. But a year later, Sepri and his friend Ari were dead.

According to interviews with four witnesses, Sepri, Ari and the other Indonesians on their boat were beaten, worked around the clock, fed rotten food and given dirty drinking water. Over time, some of them developed unknown illnesses characterized by distended body parts. The swelling started in their legs and, for some, crept all the way up to their necks and faces. In December 2019, Sepri, struggling to breathe, collapsed on the deck of the boat and died. He was buried at sea. Ari and two other deckhands died in a similar fashion shortly thereafter.

The boat, the Long Xing 629, is owned and operated by Dalian Ocean Fishing (DOF), a Chinese company operating in the Pacific and Atlantic oceans that has claimed to be China’s biggest supplier of sashimi-grade tuna to Japan.

But the deaths on the Long Xing 629 were not isolated incidents.

Over the past year, our reporting team — consisting of Mongabay, the Japanese investigative outlet Tansa, and the Environmental Reporting Collective, a network of journalists in more than a dozen countries — tracked down and spoke with 13 Indonesians who worked on eight of DOF’s boats. The Environmental Justice Foundation, a London-based nonprofit that investigates the fishing industry, provided us with transcripts of its own interviews with 11 more Indonesians, covering a further six of the company’s boats.

Together, these interviews account for deckhands on 40% of DOF’s known fleet of some 35 longliners, industrial-scale vessels that practice a commercial fishing technique in which thousands of baited hooks are dragged through the sea in search of fish. The interviewees all worked for DOF between 2018 and 2020. We also spoke with dozens of experts to help put their testimonies into context.

Our findings indicate that the conditions said to be present on the Long Xing 629 — including substandard food, possibly dangerous drinking water, and excessive working hours — were the rule rather than the exception on DOF’s boats, crewed by hundreds of deckhands from Indonesia and, to a lesser extent, the Philippines.

Almost every deckhand we interviewed said they had been made to perform hard physical labor for at least 18 hours per day, seven days a week. If there were a lot of fish, they could be worked for up to two days straight without rest.

Besides rice and noodles, the deckhands’ main staple was the bait fish with which they threaded their tuna hooks. They also got bits of chicken, often slimy and discolored, and meager quantities of old, wilted vegetables.

Each longliner had around 20 deckhands as well as seven or eight senior crew members, who were always Chinese. The senior crew members had access to more and better food. They also drank bottled water, while the deckhands only had desalinated seawater, often described in interviews as yellowish, rusty-smelling and salty — characteristics that may indicate a defective desalination unit or holding tank, according to Dr. James Allen, a clinician who spent 21 years coordinating community health programs in Southeast Asia for oil companies and who reviewed the deckhands’ testimonies for our reporting team.

The Long Xing 629 was not the only vessel aboard which fishers fell ill. At least 30 deckhands from five of the eight boats whose workers we interviewed experienced symptoms similar to those that affected Sepri and Ari, deckhands told us. The symptoms described — most commonly severe swelling, a condition known as edema, but also weakness and pain in the legs, difficulty standing or walking, dizziness or confusion, and chest discomfort — were likely caused by the limited diets and/or the drinking water, according to five clinicians we asked to review their testimonies.

While the clinicians could not say for certain what afflicted the deckhands without examining them directly, some identified beriberi, a malnutrition disease caused by vitamin B1 deficiency that can lead to heart failure, and nephrotic syndrome, a kidney disorder that can stem from salt overload caused by long-term consumption of insufficiently desalinated seawater, as possible pathologies.

“I think you are looking at a mixed picture of vitamin and mineral deficiencies, caused by a really, really inadequate diet, exacerbated by the distilled water consumption,” Dr. Frank Wieringa, a malnutrition expert and senior researcher at the French National Research Institute for Sustainable Development, wrote in an email.

Despite the awful conditions, some deckhands said they were unable or afraid to leave their ships.

The boats rarely, if ever, returned to shore, sometimes staying at sea for more than two years. Instead, they offloaded their catch onto collecting vessels in the middle of the ocean. The practice, known as transshipment, has become integral to long-distance fishing, since it allows boats to save on fuel by remaining at sea for years at a time, but it is widely seen as a risk factor for forced labor — defined by the U.N. as work performed involuntarily and under the menace of penalty — because workers are inherently isolated and restricted in their movement.

One deckhand told us that a fisher on his boat once tried to escape by jumping onto a collecting vessel but was turned back. Another said that only the Chinese crew members on his boat had been allowed to go to port for a rest.

The threat of debt, meanwhile, provided a powerful incentive to stay. As is typical in migrant fisher recruitment in Indonesia, the deckhands’ contracts said that if they failed to complete their two-year work terms, they would forfeit much of their salary while still owing their recruiters fees they had agreed to pay out of future earnings, potentially putting them in the crosshairs of debt collectors back home. Some deckhands said they would have tried to leave if not for this provision.

Interviewees said senior crew members often threatened to withhold pay if they did not follow orders. Physical assault occurred on at least half of the 14 boats from which we obtained testimony; migrant fishers were hit, kicked, slapped across the face, and beaten with objects like ropes and metal rods. Deckhands had no phone or internet signal while at sea, no way to report what was going on.

Read the entire investigation, which includes interviews from other fishers from 14 DOF longliners, and uncovered evidence of six more deaths at sea.


Upcoming Oceans Inc Stories

We’re releasing five different investigative pieces over the next month. Here’s what’s coming up.

  • Sep 20 – Observational Hazards – A fishery observer's job is to monitor fishing vessels for illegal activity. But they keep disappearing at sea.

  • Sep 27 – Transshipment – It might seem like a sensible logistics exercise, but in reality, transshipment enables destructive IUU fishing across the world.

Trainings and Opportunities

Internews' Earth Journalism Network is offering grants to boost reporting on renewable energy in India (deadline 19 Sept.)

There are just a few days left to get early bird tickets to the fully virtual 2021 Global Investigative Journalism Conference. Register here by Sept 20 (Conference takes place Nov 1-6).

The International Fact-Checking Network is holding their eighth Global Fact summit from October 20-23 and welcome Fact-checkers and journalists to attend. It’s free for general attendance. Register here.

Reminder: The Pulitzer Center’s Rainforest Journalism Fund is accepting applications for grants to fund costs associated with reporting projects on tropical rainforests, with an emphasis on issues that have gone unreported or under-reported in the local and regional media (Rolling deadline.)

Stay safe and healthy,

Nithin Coca

The Environmental Reporting Collective is a growing network of journalists and newsrooms from over a dozen countries, all dedicated to investigating environmental crimes collaboratively.

To learn more about our work, check out our website, Investigative.Earth, and follow us on Twitter and Facebook.