Jakarta. The Foreign Affairs Ministry has demanded that the Chinese government investigate the burials at sea of Indonesian crew working on a Chinese fishing vessel.
On Tuesday, South Korean TV station MBC reported a video showing a sea burial on a Chinese fishing vessel later identified as the Long Xin 629.
An unnamed Indonesian sailor on the vessel revealed the body being thrown into the sea was that of a 24-year-old Indonesian sailor known by his initials AR.
AR was one of three Indonesian seamen who died at sea on the vessel and whose bodies were cast overboard into the Pacific Ocean.
Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi confirmed three Indonesian crew workers on Long Xin 629 had been buried at sea.
"On April 14, the Indonesian Embassy in Seoul investigated reports that Indonesian crew workers had died on the [Chinese vessels] Long Xin 605 and Tian Yu 8 that were docked at Busan," Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi said in a press briefing on Thursday.
AR had worked on the Chinese fishing vessel for just over a year. He died on March 20 and was buried at sea on March 31.
"According to the embassy's investigation, the vessel's agent claimed AR's family had approved of the burial, and that they will be given compensation money," Retno said.
The other two Indonesian crew workers were thrown into the sea in December last year on their ship captain's command, and with the other ship crew's approval, because they had died from an infectious disease, Retno said.
She said Indonesia had asked the Chinese government to clarify the deaths of the Indonesian crew and their burials at sea.
"China's Foreign Affairs Ministry has responded to our inquiry [about the two earlier sea burials] and said they were conducted in line with the maritime code and International Labour Organization's rules. We've have reached out to the crew's families, who said they had received a compensation fee from the agent," Retno said.
Authorities in Busan had stopped the Long Xin 605 and Tian Yu 8 to investigate them because there were 35 undocumented Indonesian crew workers on the boats – 15 originally from the Long Xin 629 and 20 from the Long Xin 606.
Originally, the Busan authorities had not counted them as ship crew but as passengers instead.
The Indonesian Embassy's investigation revealed there were a total of 46 Indonesian crew workers on Chinese fishing vessels around the area – 15 on the Long Xin 629, eight on the Long Xin 605, three on the Tian Yu 8 and 20 on the Long Xin 606.
Since AR's death, another Indonesian worker identified by his initials EP had also died on board the Long Xin 629.
EP had suffered from breathing difficulties and had been coughing up blood before he was taken to the Busan Medical Center. He died on April 27 reportedly from pneumonia.
"On behalf of the Indonesian government, we offer our deepest condolences to our four brothers who had passed away," Retno said.
Currently, 14 Indonesian crew workers from the Long Xin 629 are being quarantined in a hotel in Busan.
The Foreign Affairs Ministry is working with the vessel's agent to repatriate them along with EP's body on May 8.
Eighteen out of the 20-strong Indonesian crew from the Long Xin 606 had already been flown back to Indonesia on May 3. The other two are still having their immigration papers sorted out before being flown home.
All the Indonesian crew from the Long Cin 605 and Tian Yu 8 were flown back to Indonesia on April 24.
Retno said Indonesia will engage the Chinese government to look into the case, which might violate international regulations.
"We will ask the Korean coast guard to investigate the Long Xin and Tian Yu 8 vessels. We've also asked the Chinese government to ensure Indonesian crew on Chinese fishing vessels are being paid adequately and being given all their rights. The vessels must also improve the work environment on board," Retno said.
"We will check whether the burials at sea were done according to International Labor Organization regulations. The Chinese authorities should step in to impose the law if there was a violation," she said.
Retno said existing regulations on crew workers on fishing vessels are minimal, different to those on commercial ship crew, which are highly detailed according to the Maritime Labor Convention.
"Crew on longline fishing vessels face higher risks due to the nature of the job. To protect Indonesian workers, we have to solve the problems from the source," she said.
Malnourished, Underpaid, Exploited
Go Eun Sang, a reporter from South Korean TV station MBC, on Tuesday reported a video showing sea burial on a Chinese vessel later identified as the Long Xin 629.
The video showed a couple of ship crew lighting an incense over AR's body, wrapped in orange plastic covering, before throwing it into the ocean's depth.
AR had been sick for over a month before he died. He received no medical care.
"At first he had cramps, then his feet got swollen and then his body also. He had breathing difficulties just before he died," another Indonesian sailor recalled.
Before AR, 19-year-old AL and 24-year-old S had also passed away after a period of illness. Their bodies were all also thrown out into the ocean.
After the burials, 15 Indonesian crew moved from the Long Xin 629 to its sister vessel Long Xin 605.
By late March, a total of 46 Indonesian fishermen had been transferred to two vessels, the Long Xin 605 and Tian Yu 8, both bound for Busan.
The Indonesian crew's health quickly deteriorated because they were not allowed to drink bottled mineral water on the ship and were told to drink only filtered seawater.
The bottled water was reserved only for the Chinese fishermen.
"I started feeling dizzy and in the end was unable to drink the water at all. I was coughing up phlegm constantly," the Indonesian sailor said.
The Indonesians were often forced to work 18 hours a day on the ship in conditions the South Korean TV station said resembled "slavery."
"We were forced to work standing up for 30 hours. Every six hours we had a break to eat and nap, which often meant sitting down," the sailor said.
He added the Indonesian crew were also often physically abused by the senior crew on the ship.
When they arrived in Busan, some of the Indonesian crew were suffering from chest pains and were brought to a hospital. One of them, EP, died on April 27.
"According to our work contract, our body should be cremated at the nearest docking location," an Indonesian crew worker said.
The contract said the crew had accepted all the risks on the job. In the event of a death, the body would be cremated at the location where the ship is docked and the vessel's agent should return the ashes to the crew member's family in Indonesia.
"My life is insured for $10,000 [Rp 150 million] in cash. The company will hand the money to my financial advisor. By signing this statement, my parents have agreed [with the conditions] and will not take the matter to the Indonesian authorities," the contract said.
The crew claimed they were constantly underpaid while they were on board the ship. They were supposed to receive $300 per month according to the contract, but in reality they were only paid $42 per month minus a series of deductions that left them with less than $300 for a full year's work.
The Chinese employer allegedly paid some of the fishermen $120 for 13 months of long-hour work on the ships.
The crew did not try to escape because the employer had held on to their passports. They had also paid a massive deposit to be allowed to work on the ships.
The fishing vessels only had a permit to catch tuna, but allegedly they were also involved in shark finning, an illegal activity in 27 countries. This is why they avoid docking in ports.
The Environmental Justice Foundation and the Advocates for Public Interest Law (APIL) are pushing for an investigation into the case.
"These cases of exploitation are just the tip of the iceberg. [What's really happening is] human trafficking and forced labor," Jong Chul Kim, the APIL attorney who had been accompanying the Indonesian fishermen, said in a press release on May 1.