What We're Talking About:

The Fishing Industry's Cruelest Catch

by E. Benjamin Skinner for BloombergBusinessweek

Former indentured worker Yusril, 28, fishing on a small boat on the Java Sea

Verité has for years explored the link between labor migration, debt-bondage and modern-day slavery. Noted journalist Ben Skinner – author of the monumental book A Crime So Monstrous – has connected these conditions to the seafood that enters the United States, and may end up on your dinner table. His story of slavery in the fishing industry reminds us of two essential facts: forced labor can be present in any industry, any business sector and any country – even New Zealand territorial waters; and tracing a product to a workplace where people are enslaved requires effort. 

And yet our mandate is simple: we must look for slavery and resolve it wherever we find it. We have the knowledge and tools to do so. 

On March 25, 2011, Yusril became a slave. That afternoon he went to the East Jakarta offices of Indah Megah Sari (IMS), an agency that hires crews to work on foreign fishing vessels. He was offered a job on the Melilla 203, a South Korea-flagged ship that trawls in the waters off New Zealand. “Hurry up,” said the agent, holding a pen over a thick stack of contracts in a windowless conference room with water-stained walls. Waving at a pile of green Indonesian passports of other prospective fishermen, he added: “You really can’t waste time reading this. There are a lot of others waiting, and the plane leaves tomorrow.”

Yusril is 28, with brooding looks and a swagger that belies his slight frame. (Yusril asked that his real name not be used out of concern for his safety.) He was desperate for the promised monthly salary of $260, plus bonuses, for unloading fish. His wife was eight months pregnant, and he had put his name on a waiting list for the job nine months earlier. After taking a daylong bus ride to Jakarta, he had given the agent a $225 fee he borrowed from his brother-in-law. The agent rushed him through signing the contracts, at least one of which was in English, which Yusril does not read.

The terms of the first contract, the “real” one, would later haunt him. In it, IMS spelled out terms with no rights. In addition to the agent’s commission, Yusril would surrender 30 percent of his salary, which IMS would hold unless the work was completed. He would be paid nothing for the first three months, and if the job were not finished to the fishing company’s satisfaction, Yusril would be sent home and charged more than $1,000 for the airfare. The meaning of “satisfactory” was left vague. The contract said only that Yusril would have to work whatever hours the boat operators demanded.