Abuse Cases Spotlight Exploitation, Brutal Conditions in Myanmar Fishing Industry

By The Irrawaddy 14 December 2019

Ye Ni: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy! This week, we’ll discuss human rights abuses on fishing rafts in the Ayeyarwady Region. I am joined by The Irrawaddy senior reporters Ko Htet Khaung Lin and Ko Salai Thant Zin, who recently traveled to fishing villages and rafts in Pyapon District, Ayeyarwady Region. I’m The Irrawaddy Burmese edition editor Ye Ni.

The business of fishing from rafts in Ayeyarwady Region has come under spotlight since the recent case of university student Ko Myat Thura Tun, who was trafficked to work on a fishing raft, made the headlines. People have even called it “living hell,” after the reports of hundreds of deaths, abuses and forced labor emerged and photos went viral of Ko Myat Thura Tun covered in bruises. As you two have recently visited on an investigative reporting trip, what did you see on the ground?

Htet Khaung Lin: We met fishery businessmen and workers and we even went onto fishing rafts and met workers and foremen. The life is not very bad on some fishing rafts, but fishery businessmen confessed that there are abuses. According to the accounts of interviewees and what we saw on the ground, there are abuses, at least to some extent.

Salai Thant Zin: We visited rafts, including one where there was a foreman and three workers on the raft. According to what they said, their job is quite tough. They have to work long hours and the job involves a lot of physical work. The job involves casting and hauling fishing nets, sorting and drying fish and prawns constantly. If all of them work hard, then they can have a few hours to sleep intermittently. So if a worker can’t work well for various reasons, the others have to struggle against the clock and the foremen lose patience.

The foreman of the raft I visited said he does not beat his workers, but it is likely that foremen will beat the workers, especially when they are unskilled. According to locals in the area, most of those who have come to work there are alcoholics. They have to quit drinking [to work] and they are not used to the sea, so they suffer from seasickness when they get on the rafts. As for me, I vomited around six times in the sea and I felt very weak. I am sure people who have never worked on the sea will suffer the same. So because [workers] may not be able to work well and foremen may lose patience, this can mean there is beating [of the workers]. I have not seen beating with my own eyes, but from the working conditions on the rafts, it’s highly likely that there is beating.

YN: Anti-human trafficking police and the Myanmar Human Rights Commission have started investigations [into abuses on fishing rafts in Ayeyarwady Region]. What are the views and wishes of raft owners and workers as far as establishing fishing raft businesses that comply with law?

HKL: We should start with brokers. The business dates back to the 1970s. As the industry has developed and profits have increased, more businessmen have engaged in this business and there are shortages of labor. Local workers are not enough, so workers from across Myanmar are employed. It is difficult for a raft owner in Pyapon to find workers even in Hinthada [in Ayeyarwady], and it is even more difficult to find workers outside Ayeyarwady, so they rely on brokers who work as employment agents.

But they are not licensed. The standard fee given by employers is around 30,000 kyats [US$19.90] to find a worker and brokers also charge employees for their services, so brokers are paid by both sides. People who come from different parts of the country are not as familiar with the fishery industry as local residents. Most of them are from poverty-stricken families, otherwise they won’t want to do such a tough job. As brokers bring in poor, uneducated people in various ways, problems arise.

Regarding the payment of advances, some raft owners said they want to give advance payment to the families of their workers. But they don’t know about the deals between brokers and workers, and when brokers ask them to, they pay the advance payment to [the brokers]. Brokers then misappropriate the advance payment, instead of paying it to families of the workers. This is the crime of human trafficking.

In a recent case, a man from Hmawbi Township [in Yangon] was brought by a broker to work on a fishing raft. The raft owner didn’t pay the advance payment to the broker, because the worker asked him [not to pay it to the broker]. The family members of the worker then filed a missing person report with the police. Eventually, he was found by the police. Luckily, the raft owner didn’t give the advance payment [at all], because if he did, he could have been charged under the anti-human trafficking law.

In another case, the worker said he would not take an advance payment and went to work on the fishing raft. But the accountant of the employer gave the advance payment to the broker. But when [the worker] said he didn’t want to work on the raft any longer, he couldn’t ask for the advance payment because it had been taken out.

Raft owners should operate with awareness. Workers from other parts of the country arrive in the area and as soon as they have signed the employment contract, they go straight to the worksite. But only later, they realize they can’t stand the seasickness, and at that point, they can’t quit because they have already received advanced payments. There are many such cases. As the workers are not skilled, if the foremen do not push them, the [foremen] themselves will be punished by the manager, so they have to push the workers. If the workers still can’t do as the foremen want after a few days, the foremen might get angry, being tough guys that have already been hardened by the nature of the job. They may use some foul language and beat the workers.

STZ: There is a local employment contract designed as a product of workshops in the region. Workers tend to sign the contract without reading it carefully and I think some are illiterate and can’t read it. Both employers and employees do not follow the contract. Employers have called for enacting a law that is fair to both employers and employees. There is no law in place regarding fishing rafts at present. Fishing rafts are regulated under the Myanmar Marine Fisheries Law. Though the law has provisions for employees engaged in the fisheries industry, hardly any of those provisions are applied in Ayeyarwady Region. It is fair to say that there is no law or operational mechanism and this is one of the reasons.

Brokers are also partly responsible for deaths and beating of workers. Around 70 to 80 percent of employers have to rely on brokers. There may be two types of people that brokers bring in: the first is those who are familiar with the fishery business. There is no problem for them. The second is alcoholics and drug addicts whom the brokers bring with the intention of exploiting them for their salaries. Problems arise from this second type of employee.

Usually, after a worker is sent to the fishing raft, the raft owner waits and watches for a week to see if he can work. During that period, the employer doesn’t give any advance payment for the employees. Only the employees who can work on the raft—the employer gives advance payment for them.

If there is a proper law and mechanism in place, this problem can be solved to a certain extent. As people from all parts of the country come and work there, there may be criminals who have fled after committing crimes in other places. No citizenship ID card or household registration card is required to work on a fishing raft, so anyone can work there freely. If there is scrutiny of employees, such as requiring them to submit a police clearance certificate, this will help solve the problem. There are two concerned government bodies—the Labor Ministry and the Fisheries Department. They should require workers to be registered with them. Again, according to the Marine Fisheries Law, anyone engaged in the fishery industry, whether he works on the land or in the sea, is required to register and apply for a fishery worker card.

If there was a mechanism through which the Labor Department and Fisheries Department could open offices in busy fishing villages to issue cards for workers, require that employers only employ cardholders, and take action against employers who employ those without cards, then deaths and abuses would be reduced. The employers we interviewed said they would like such a system, so all we need is for the government to implement such a system.

YN: Besides the government, the Parliament is also responsible for designing a law if there is no existing law. What are the views of lawmakers and regional authorities in the Ayeyarwady government?

HNZ: The authorities from legislative and administrative branches and the human rights commission paid attention to the issue only after the case was suddenly under the spotlight. There have been abuses for a decade. But no one cared. Only after the media published investigative reports about Ko Myat Thura Tun’s case did the authorities start to intervene. I am not satisfied with this. It has been four years since the National League for Democracy [NLD] government came to power and the lawmakers who were elected [in the region] are native to Ayeyarwady. They should have known about those abuses. But they failed to take action and they only started to take action after the case made headlines.

Local authorities such as the Fisheries Department, the General Administration Department and police have a responsibility to handle it. People think they have ignored the issue. It is time they take decisive action. It appears that lawmakers don’t think it is a serious issue. I don’t blame them as they have to perform many tasks including legislation and regional development. They think fishing rafts are just part of the fishing industry. They only have an overview of it. Only after right abuses are reported do they pay attention.

There may be rights abuses in other, offshore fishing businesses, but they are not as serious as those on fishing rafts. [Workers] have to live on the sea for seven to eight consecutive months. Those who work on offshore fishing trawlers can get back to land at least once a month. The natures of the jobs are different. They have to live for months in the sea, and there are only three or four people on a raft, so when they don’t get on well with the others, this leads to human rights abuses, and killings out of anger. According to the police, nearly 20 cases of murder were reported in 2018. Most of the cases are workers killing the foremen, rather than [workers] being killed by foremen. As workers are pushed by the foremen, they get angry and kill them.

There are also cases of employees running away from fishing rafts. Those who are familiar with the sea can run away easily if they know how to stay afloat. They will be brought to the shore by the tide if they manage to catch the wind, and there are offshore fishing trawlers, so there is also the possibility of being rescued by those fishing trawlers. The escapees will not tell the truth, and they will be brought to the shore by the trawlers. In that case, raft owners suffer. They lose money and labor. One of the raft owners I interviewed said that 20 employees have fled so far in the current fishing season.

There are also challenges facing the employers. When an employee gets sick and needs to receive medical treatment, the employer has to keep an eye on him at the hospital for fear that he might run away. From the point of view of human rights, it can be seen as an abuse as the sick employee is kept under guard.

As far as I know, local authorities have held seven workshops [to address these issues], but there was no result. These [abuses] still happen. Now, the alarm bell has rung for the fishing raft business. There is a dire need for parliamentarians and local authorities to address the issue with a sense of urgency.

YN: Ko Salai, what is your view?

STZ: Since the time of the previous government, there has never been a thorough discussion in the parliament on the fishing rafts issue. Both the previous regional government and the current NLD government failed to pay serious attention to the issue, and the number of deaths has increased. Only after the issue came under the spotlight did they give it a little attention. I guess they hadn’t given it attention because many people who go to work there are criminals, ex-convicts, uneducated people, alcoholics and drug addicts.

But humans are humans and their lives are as important as those of others. According to international norms on human rights, a human should at least have the right to life. The compensation given for deaths in the fishing raft business is just 600,000 kyats [US$398]. Employers will also suffer in these cases, but there are employers who only care for money.  When an employee gets sick, the employer waits and sees if he is really sick, for fear that he might run away from the hospital. As the employer waits, the illness gets worse, and when the employee is finally brought to the hospital, it is already too late and the employee loses his life. The employer only gives 600,000 kyats in compensation and that amount is more than what is stipulated under the 1923 Workmen’s Compensation Act.

As far as complaints under the law, the laws are not good. But when [these issues] are settled under local customary practices, employees have to suffer. If this issue had been addressed earlier, it would not have become this serious.

I wrote an investigative story about the issue in December 2018 with the headline “600,000 kyats for a life.” But nothing happened. And authorities took no action. Only after serious cases happened did the Myanmar Human Rights Commission and some ministers from the regional government go visit on the ground.

I think there may be around 10,000 people working on fishing rafts in Ayeyarwady. It appears that the regional parliament doesn’t think they should hold a special meeting to discuss an issue that concerns the lives of thousands of people. In the regional government, the regional chief minister, agriculture and livestock minister and Fisheries Department are mainly responsible for the case. It takes time to design a law. The operating season for fishing rafts started some three months ago and there are nearly five months until the season ends. So what will they do about the lives and security of the workers during this period? Will they just do nothing because there is no law in place? How will the government handle it if there are more deaths?

I think the authorities should issue instructions as a remedial measure for the short-term. They should develop temporary solutions that take the voices of employers and employees into consideration. If they can work out a temporary mechanism through four-party discussions between the government, legislature, employers and employees, these problems can be reduced. But in the long-run, it is important that there is a firm law in place to regulate the fishing raft business. Only then will deaths and abuses will be reduced. Otherwise, the situation may only continue to get worse.

YN: Thank you for your contributions!