The Precarity at Sea: Lessons from Indonesian Migrant Fishers


Indonesia is one of the biggest sources of labor in the world, including fishers who are employed in Distant Water Fishing (DWF) under foreign-flagged vessels. Despite their significant contribution to the economy, it was only in 2017 that they were recognized as migrant workers. Indonesian migrant fishers are subjected to exploitation and mistreatment, such as unpredictable work hours, uncertain destinations, unfair labor practices, and, most importantly, lack of communication and isolation. These issues can result in mental health problems and even death. Despite the calls for the ratification of the ILO Convention (C188) and the implementation of national laws to protect the rights of migrant fishers, the Indonesian bureaucrats have conflicting opinions, which has led to inaction.

Thus, it is high-time for fishers’ unions, migrant communities, non-government organizations and civil societies to exert pressure on the Indonesian government and the international community to enforce the conventions and laws that ensure the protection of migrant fishermen's rights. Additionally, foreign-flagged DWF vessels and staffing agencies that violate fishermen's rights must be held accountable.

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Teaser Image Caption
Chinese-flagged fishing vessel, Hua Li 8, was detained by Indonesian Navy.

The authors dedicate this article to Kafandi and Wanto, whose lives have inspired many about the importance of protecting the rights of migrant fishers.

On 4 March 2023, Kafandi, an Indonesian migrant fisher’s activist, was saddened by the passing of Wanto, a fellow worker from Pemalang Municipality in Central Java. Wanto accidentally fell off the ship he worked on for just two weeks in an offshore near Spain’s territory. Three weeks earlier, Wanto spoke to us in Pemalang, sharing his precarious experience as a fisher of a 200-gross-tonnage ship, sailing off to the Indian Ocean in Maurice, on a Chinese-flagged fishing vessel. For two years, Wanto had not stepped on land, and he did not even communicated with families or friends at home due to limited means of communication. After two years, Wanto finally came home, wishing to enjoy the salary he had earned for two years.

However, even in death, Wanto was not able to get the salary he deserved, nor could the family he left behind.  It turned out that the manning agency where he was recruited was permanently closed due to the pandemic in 2020. He lost the entire salary he was supposed to receive for two years and had no idea how to get it back which caused family problems.  As a result of his two years of "isolation" and free labor, he became mentally unstable and vulnerable.

In Distant Water Fishing (DWF) vessels, the principals/employers often remit their employees’ salaries to the manning agency (recruiting companies for sea-based laborers) in the home countries before the latter transfers the money to the workers. DWF is fishing activities carried out by vessels outside of territorial water, usually extending faraway places, and will sustain for months or even years.

Although the ILO Global Estimates concluded in 2021 that there were 128,000 people entrapped in forced labour in fishing vessels, the actual number of migrant fishers is too difficult, and nearly impossible, to calculate. Even Indonesia, one of the largest sending countries of migrant fishers, is unable to determine the exact number of its fishers working overseas.

There are three factors that cause the global migration of fishers to go undetected, hence the absence of accurate estimations. First, many manning agents and intermediaries that are involved in placing migrant fishers are unregistered. Hence, authorities find it difficult to monitor their operations and keep track of the number of people they recruited. Second, principals transferred the fishers between vessels unpredictably, many of which take place at seas without proper control from authorities. Third, flag states, or the state where the ship is registered, lack the capacity or willingness to monitor, let alone enforce labor-related standards over DWF vessels flying their flags (Indonesia Ocean Justice Initiative, 2022).

In this article, we aim at highlighting the precarity of migrant fishers from Indonesia, and what can possibly be done to mitigate the risk of seafaring among migrant workers.

Indonesian fishery being unloaded.

How precarious are the lives of sea precariat?

Compared to other migrant workers in 3D (dirty, dangerous, demeaning) sectors, migrant fishers are not less vulnerable to exploitation at work. Observers have long characterized domestic work and plantation labour as the two most vulnerable sectors (Pye et al. 2012; Human Rights Watch 2008). Domestic workers are often seen to undergo isolation as they live with their employers, making terms such as ‘working hours’ irrelevant as power relations within households situate domestic workers at the bottom of the hierarchy.

Fishers are likewise in a similar state of isolation as they live in the employer’s vessels for months, or even years, such as in the case of Wanto in DFW vessels. When facing unbearable abuse, domestic workers could abscond from their employer’s houses (Naufal and Malit 2018), but things are much more complicated on the high seas: there is nowhere to run.

Earlier this year, one migrant fisher told us during an interview in North Coast Central Java, Indonesia, that he had to jump off to sea after a disagreement with the ship captain. The captain threatened him with an electrofishing stick, which is used to electrocute larger fish to death. The fisher was fortunate to be in territorial waters, where he could seek refuge on another ship. In the high seas, it was impossible to survive in such a situation.

Other than being exposed to indefinite working hours, fishers who get sick are dependent on the available medication that the ship carries. For more serious illnesses, workers find it impossible to find treatment at the nearby harbors due to the lack of visa to enter the local harbor. Often, manning agents only applied for tourist visas for the placement of migrant fishers in DFW vessels (Parhusip 2018).

Moreover, DFW vessels stay ashore for years to ensure the profitability of their fishing operation, regardless of the health condition of fishers on board. For instance, in 2020, fisherman Muhammad Al Fatah suffered from serious illness after experiencing forced labor in a Chinese-flagged vessel, Long Xing 629 ( 2020). Unfortunately, all the medicines onboard  have expired. Instead of sailing toward harbor for medical emergency services, the captain transferred Alfata to another Chinese-flagged vessel, Long Xing 802. Eight hours later, Alfata passed away due to the lack of medical treatment.

In emergency situations, migrant fishers are also in complete isolation as they cannot reach out to anybody, let alone authorities, in the absence of mobile networks on the high seas. Responding to that, civil society groups based in Taiwan urge the government to impose mandatory installments of Wi-Fi connection on fishing vessels.

Indonesian Migrant
ndonesian migrant fishers worked on board Russian-owned fishing vessel, STS-50

Areas of Opportunities: Indonesian Context

Until 2017, the Indonesian government has not considered migrant fishers as migrant workers. This has invited fierce public criticism, which resulted in the government promulgating the “Law No. 18 of 2017 on the Protection of Indonesia Migrant Workers”. While the Law 18/2017 gives recognition to migrant fishers, it has sparked another bureaucratic problem: the overlapping of authorities between the Ministry of Manpower and Ministry of Transportation over licensing and supervision of migrant fishers placement.

The Ministry of Manpower particularly gives permits (SIP3MI) to manning agents that send Indonesian fishers to South Korean and Taiwanese territorial waters

Specifically, the Ministry of Manpower issues licenses (SIP3MI) to manning agents who place Indonesian fishers to South Korean and Taiwanese territorial waters while the Ministry of Transport issues licenses (SIUPPAK) to manning agents who place Indonesian fishers to Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and high seas of many countries. This overlap of authorities is worsened with the lack of coordination between the two ministries, resulting in disorganized placement data. Hence, the labor inspectors at the national and provincial levels, operating under the Ministry of Manpower, cannot monitor placement in the Ministry of Transport corridor.

Responding to criticism over the authority overlap, the government has promulgated the long-awaited Government Regulation Number 22 of 2022 (GR 22/2022). With this regulation, the law mandates all manning agencies licensed by the Ministry of Transport to obtain a license from the Ministry of Manpower within a two-year grace period. Both ministries must also implement the placement data of migrant fishers and must impose protection measures for migrant seafarers and fishers. Unfortunately,  this regulation is not yet in effect due to egocentric debates.

There are two fundamental complications in enforcing labor and human rights protection measures for the migrant fishers. First, unlike those in land-based sectors, migrant fishers may end up working in vessels flagged to countries other than what is conventionally considered as ‘destination’ country. In other words, ‘destination’ is a vague concept for most migrant fishers because many of them have never set foot in that country. For example, Taiwanese manning agents place migrant fishers to fishing vessels registered in China or even open registries. Under this circumstance, it becomes more challenging to oversee and uphold the rights of the migrant fishers.

Second, without securing bilateral agreements, the Indonesian government may face more challenges in implementing its labor and human rights protection measures. Therefore, diplomacy may serve as a powerful tool in ensuring flag states to respect the protection measures as stipulated in GR 22/2022.  By securing more concrete agreements with flag states, the migrant-sending government may directly advocate protection elements that are essential for migrant fishers. These include free access to wifi onboard, a more equitable pay rate, easy method for salary payment, better contract standards, an accessible monitoring scheme, joint inspections, solid grievance mechanisms, etc.

However, the Indonesian government ministries have shown conflicting opinions regarding the need to ratify the International Labor Organization (ILO) Convention 188 (C188), one of the relevant international instruments setting the decent working standards in fishing vessels. Although, Indonesia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ambassador Retno Marsudi, has shown her commitment to ratify this convention, the Ministry of Manpower and Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fishers have taken a more cautious approach, considering the obligation that follows.

Indonesian Migrant Fishers
Activists from the Indonesian Migrant Workers Union and Greenpeace Indonesia hold a protest in front of the presidential palace in Jakarta in August 2020 to demand the president immediately ratify the regulation to protect migrant fishers.

Efforts also have been made by non-government organizations (NGOs) and labor unions to advance its ratification but it has not been successful yet. Instead, the government has domesticated labor standards within C188 onto national legislation. There is doubt over the effectiveness of such domestication because such action will not increase the bargaining position of the Indonesian Government vis a vis flag state in negotiation. In all, the employability of ILO C188 standards on Indonesian migrant fishers significantly relies on the flag state and port state commitment. It is important, then, to hasten the ratification process. Currently, Team 9, consisting of unions, employers, and CSOs, is developing a roadmap for the ILO C-188 ratification. This may help the Indonesian government in preparing all necessary improvements as mandated by the convention.

Lastly, the risk of migrant fishers’ isolation can be mitigated by a more democratic unionism. Although there are fishers’ unions representing migrant fishers in negotiation with manning agents and principals, our interview revealed that often migrant fishers did not mention unions as the first referent when facing problems. Instead, fishers often refer to migrant communities, such as hometown associations. Therefore, it is time for all stakeholders to include informal communities in ensuring the rights of migrant fishers.


Pamungkas A Dewanto is a lecturer at the Department of International Relations, University of Mataram. He is also a PhD candidate in social anthropology at Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam. His research focus is on the nexus between migration and transnationalism in Southeast and East Asia.

Jeremia Humolong Prasetya serves as the Program Manager for Access to Justice at Indonesia Ocean Justice Initiative. He earned his Bachelor of Law from Universitas Indonesia and Master in International Law from Utrecht Universiteit. His research focus is on human rights at sea and maritime security.

Fadilla Octaviani serves as the Chief Operating Officer and co-founder of Indonesia Ocean Justice Initiative. She earned her Bachelor of Law from Universitas Indonesia. She has an extensive experience in handling transnational organized fisheries crime cases, especially those related to IUU fishing.

The views expressed by the author are not necessarily those of Heinrich Böll Stiftung.


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