Independence Day Takes On New Meaning For Indonesian Fishermen

Independence Day Takes On New Meaning For Indonesian Fishermen
Photo Credit: Willy Liang

What you need to know

“Some can’t join us today. They have to work,” Muzahir said. “We just have to find a way to enjoy it.”

PINGTUNG, Taiwan — Around 200 Indonesian fishermen celebrated the 75th Anniversary of the Republic of Indonesia at the Donggang fishing port earlier this month. As the abuse and violations of fishermen who work on Taiwanese vessels that depart from Donggang are more likely to make the news, the festivities and fishermen’s joyous cheers were a rarely seen positive vibe at the port. 

One activity was a race to capture a coin lodged in a paint-smeared papaya. Other traditional games were sack racing, tug of war, orange-dance competition, and Balap Kelereng, which required participants to carry a marble on a spoon in their month and race to the finish line. Around 20 to 30 Indonesian caregivers also participated in the event. Some caregivers were accompanied by their employers watching on the sidelines from their wheelchairs. 

Photo Credit: Willy Liang

While massive parades and celebrations usually take place in all corners of Indonesia on Independence Day, fishermen living in a foreign country find a sense of belonging by celebrating with one another. 

“I feel so happy and relieved. This kind of event is very important for me. Every game is so interesting. I feel I have many friends here,” Suroyo, a fisherman who has worked on a Taiwanese fishing boat for seven years, said after he completed the orange-dance contest. His supervisor permitted him to leave the vessel on the holiday. 

Casting a dark pall on the celebrations was the recent death of an Indonesian fisherman. His body was found in the Dongang port this July after disappearing for three days. The death is still under investigation.

Donggang port, located in southern Taiwan and famous for its tuna exports, is in fact one of the world’s top ten ports which is visited by fishing vessels using forced labor, according to a C4ADS dataset. 

Taiwanese-owned ships comprise the world's second largest distant water fishing fleet, with some among the top tuna traders globally. The labor practices on these ships are often criticized by international organizations for lacking protections of the fishers’ rights. Recently, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection's Office of Trade placed a Withhold Release Order (WRO) on all seafood harvested by the Taiwan-owned, Vanuatu-flagged fishing vessel due to reasonable suspicion of forced labor. 

About 4,000 foreign fishermen in Donggang, including those employed domestically and overseas, are mainly from Indonesia and the Philippines. The number of fishermen who stay at the port at the same time is usually about 200 to 400.

The event organizer, Ahmad Muzakir and a member of Indonesian Seafarers Gathering Forum (FOSPI), said the Indonesian fishermen volunteered to participate in the Independence Day celebrations. “It’s about solidarity. We’re indonesian migrants. We want to create the relationship of brotherhood among the migrant community,” he said. 

Photo Credit: Willy Liang

Established in 2008, FOSPI is a self-organized group of Indonesian fishers in Donggang. The group has more than 2,000 members and is active in organizing social and cultural activities for fishermen. Members also raise funds to expand the organization and provide a temporary shelter near the port for fishermen in need. With years of experience on the ground, FOSPI also became a bridge between fishermen and local authorities, NGOs, and recruitment agencies.

Agents, the NGO Stella Maris, and Indonesian stores in Donggang have sponsored the group financially or provided prizes for the games, such as bicycles, backpacks, fans, and jackets. A dozen NGO workers and agents, some of whom were Indonesian immigrants, also joined the celebration to show their support. 

But portside social activities are almost a luxury for the fishermen, especially for those who work on distant-water fishing vessels. They often have to sail at sea for at least three to four months, sometimes longer, under horrific conditions . 

Photo Credit: Willy Liang

Even during their stay in the port, most fishermen are not allowed to be idle. They live on the boat and are in charge of its upkeep. Domestically employed fishermen are allowed to go around the town whenever their ships are docked, but they return to the boat to sleep. For fishermen who are employed overseas, they have to stay on their vessel as they often do not hold a visa for entry.

“Some can’t join us today. They have to work,” Muzahir said. “We just have to find a way to enjoy it.” 

Muzakir is also a fisherman who has been working on a Taiwanese longline vessel for 10 years. He also has to work during his stay at port. 

Fishermen employed in Taiwan are supposed to be paid at least the minimum wage (NT$23,100) according to the Labor Standards Act. But overseas crew members, that is, who do not hold any Taiwanese residency, are excluded from the Act. Employers are required by the government to pay them not less than US$450 per month but a report found some fishermen receive US$100-US$200 less than that amount. In the face of an intense workload and severe financial pressure, fishermen sometimes have arguments or even fights with each other. The mental health issues they bear are an often overlooked aspect of the fishermen’s exploitation.

Muzakir and the team still find time to hold a series of events for the fishers. “We keep enthusiasm to celebrate happiness. They (fishermen) told me they feel recharged,” said Muzakir. With limited time and resources, the fishermen in Donggang have succeeded in running abundant social activities in the last decade, including Eid’s celebrations and other Indonesian-traditional festivals.

Photo Credit: Willy Liang

“Holding migrant’s social and cultural events is a way of negotiation with various actors in the field and to create an opportunity to be seen,” said Ting Kuan Wu, a Taiwanese volunteer who has organized fishermen events with FOSPI.

He added, “Compared to the other migrant’s activities in Taiwan, their events are grassroots and less commercial, and it’s independently organized by fishermen themselves.” 

After celebrating off the boats for a day, most fishermen gradually went back to their ships, either to work or to rest. Some stayed for the day’s final activity — a lucky draw. But other fishermen, having arrived to port that morning in an exhausted state, left early to return to work on their boats.

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TNL Editor: Daphne K. Lee, Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)

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