By Basten Gokkon

JAKARTA — Authorities in Indonesia have arrested and charged five executives from local recruitment agencies linked to the forced labor endured by 22 Indonesians on board two Chinese fishing boats.

Those charged are accused of the human trafficking of the migrant workers, one of whom died on board one of the boats and was stored in a freezer. The workers were recruited in Indonesia and left the country for Singapore in late December 2019 to work on the Chinese-owned boats Lu Huang Yuan Yu 117 and Lu Huang Yuan Yu 118. The boats were scheduled to sail to Argentina to fish for squid.

When the boats arrived back in Indonesian waters in early July, they were stopped by authorities who had been tipped off about alleged crew abuse and human trafficking. Police discovered the body of one of the workers, Hasan Afriandi, 20, inside the freezer on the Lu Huang Yuan Yu 118.

Arie Dharmanto, the police officer overseeing the investigation from the province of Riau Islands, said at a July 26 press conference that the recruitment of the workers by the local agencies did not comply with labor laws.

He added his office was working with Interpol on the investigation, as they suspect that a recruitment company based in Singapore was also involved. Police in the Riau Islands have impounded both boats as part of the investigation.

The arrests mark the latest crackdown in recent months by Indonesian authorities against placement agencies that recruit workers for foreign fishing vessels. Investigations into three separate cases have been opened up since May, including into the deaths of four Indonesian workers on board vessels owned by China’s Dalian Ocean Fishing Ltd. The bodies of three of the workers were dumped at sea.

Fisheries and human rights experts say forced labor at sea, particularly on distant-water fishing vessels, is frequently linked to illegal, unregulated, and undocumented (IUU) fishing. The conditions that the crews experience range from withholding of wages and debt bondage, to physical and sexual violence.

With coastal fisheries being depleted due to overfishing, fishing fleets are heading farther out into open waters and high seas, in turn racking up higher operating costs. Companies look for cheap labor to reduce costs and stay profitable — and much of that cheap labor comes from Southeast Asian countries, such as Indonesia, Thailand, and the Philippines.

In the case of the Lu Huang Yuan Yu vessels, police have brought charges against executives from recruitment agencies PT Mandiri Tunggal Bahari (which recruited 12 of the workers, including Hasan), PT Gigar Marine Internasional (five workers), PT Novarica Agatha Mandiri (four workers), and PT MJM Abdi Baruna (one worker).

None of the four companies has a license to recruit Indonesian citizens for work placement on board a fishing boat vessel, whether domestically or abroad, according to data from the country’s labor ministry and the migrant worker protection agency. None of the agencies could be reached for comment.

PT Mandiri Tunggal Bahari has been implicated in previous human trafficking cases on Chinese vessels, namely Ocean Star 96, Fu Yuan Yu 054, Fu Yuan Yu 059 and Ocean Star 88. Both of the agency’s listed owners, Mohamad Hoji and Sustriyono, were arrested this May by police in connection with crew abuse on board another boat, the Lu Qing Yuan Yu 623, where an Indonesian worker died and was dumped into the sea off Somalia in January.

The Indonesian government has asked China to turn over a witness to help in the investigation and also called for a probe into the owners of the two Lu Huang Yuan Yu boats. The Chinese captain of the Lu Huang Yuan Yu 118, Song Chuanyuan, has already been charged.

Both the Lu Huang Yuan Yu 117 and the Lu Huang Yuan Yu 118 are registered with the regional fisheries management agency, the North Pacific Fisheries Commission.

The vessels are owned by Qingdao Zhongtai Oceanic Fishery Co. Ltd., based in the city of Qingdao. The company is 90 percent owned by a Shuke Liang and the rest by a Jingming Liang. The firm is authorized to export seafood products to the European Union.

Shuke Liang is also listed as the vice chairman of Qingdao Gaolilai Food Co. Ltd., a subsidiary of Taiwanese corporation Go Rising, which operates a number of fishing companies in Taiwan and abroad as well as bunkering and carrier vessels. Some of the markets supplied by Qingdao Gaolilai include Brazil, the U.S., the EU, and Australia.

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The News Lens has been authorized to publish this article from Mongabay, an environmental science and conservation news and information site.

TNL Editor: Daphne K. Lee (@thenewslensintl)

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