Bid for freedom: rescuing trafficked fishermen as they dock in Cape Town
In the South African port, charity worker Dane Duplessis is part of a team helping migrant fishermen escape from slave-like working conditions
Less than a mile from Cape Town’s picturesque waterfront shops and cafes, dozens of fishermen work on docked vessels on the other side of the port, unseen by tourists strolling down the boardwalk. This is one of Africa’s largest ports, on a major sea route between east and west. Here, many boats come and go – to pick up crew members, call in for repairs or fuel up.
Many of the fishermen on these boats, who are mainly from south-east Asia, are victims of abuse and forced labour. They are desperate to escape the cycle of exploitation before they’re taken back out to the high seas.
Alex* is one of them. After more than a year at sea, he has earned only a few hundred dollars to send to his family. He says the captain promises to pay him when he returns home – something his crewmates have been told too.
The 32-year-old Filipino and his colleagues are rolling up fishing line on deck, when a man approaches their vessel. Dane Duplessis shouts to them as he climbs up the ladder to board. Duplessis, a young chaplain with the charity Biblia, a South African Christian NGO, is inspecting boats in an effort to find victims of slave labour.
After some coaxing, the half-dozen Filipino fishermen manage through broken English to convey that they haven’t been paid in months.
“We hear that a lot,” says Duplessis, who discovers cases of unpaid work and forced labour every month. “Once you go on to one of these vessels, it’s like stepping into a squatter camp. I can tell you this vessel was made in the 80s – it’s rusted, and it smells bad. That’s why I took a concern in these guys and in their lives.”
Alex and his crewmates’ passports are locked up with the captain, so the fishermen can’t go far. “They haven’t seen their contracts,” says Duplessis, adding that it sounds like a case of trafficking.
Benjamin*, 24, a farmer back in the Philippines, says he’s owed months of wages for his time on a Taiwanese-flagged vessel, aboard which he and his crewmates endured beatings for not working hard enough. “Our captain is no good, sir,” he says. “Every day he’s punching and kicking one of us.”
The vessel fished mainly for tuna and squid in the Pacific Ocean before sailing to Cape Town in January, and docking after more than five months at sea.
Several crew members had heard about the Mission to Seafarers in Cape Town, where seamen can buy food and phone credit, and unwind – and went there to seek help. Duplessis works at the Mission alongside Cassiem Augustus, an inspector with the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF). Together, Duplessis and Augustus planned the escape of more than 25 crew.
The men returned to get their belongings, and Duplessis picked them up in a large van. Over the angry objections of senior officers, he brought them to a safe house. Augustus negotiated with the shipowner’s agency and arranged for the men to be flown home at the company’s expense.
Now Benjamin is back home in the Philippines with his family, but he doesn’t expect to ever get the money he’s owed. Duplessis and Augustus have managed to resolve hundreds of cases over the years, freeing victims of forced labour or obtaining unpaid wages. But while they can put pressure on companies with offices in South Africa, they have little influence over the recruitment agencies in charge of paying fishermen in their home countries.
For many fishermen in south-east Asia, the promises of big wages hide an ugly reality: months at sea with little food and drinking water, working 16- to 24-hour days, for salaries that are frequently unpaid.
Benjamin says the Filipino consulate has done little to help. Few are as active as the Indonesian consulate general in Cape Town, which has sounded the alarm, informing the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that it continues to receive reports of human rights complaints by Indonesian fishermen every month.
“It’s common to get complaints on Chinese and Taiwanese vessels,” says Muhammad Sadri, at the Indonesian consulate. “Many of the fishermen ask to go home because of the conditions on board, but the contracts put them in a weak position, because they must fulfil their obligations for 24 months, and for the first six or eight months almost all of their salary will be deducted.”
Cases uncovered by the ITF in Cape Town echo the findings of a recent Greenpeace report on Taiwan’s overseas fishing industry, which, it says, appears “beset by issues of human trafficking”. The report is based on interviews with more than 100 fishers in Taiwan and abroad, and the authors report non-payment or under-payment of wages, physical abuse and a lack of food and drink.
The year-long investigation describes a system in which Taiwanese fishing companies, desperate for cheap labour, hire foreign fishers from neighbouring countries and subject them to slave-like conditions.
ITF researchers believe most labour abuses occur in south-east Asia, where the majority of the world’s fishing activities take place but ports there provide little intelligence, they say, and few cases come to light. Cape Town, however, provides a rare window into the lives of migrant workers at sea, even if the team is tiny and support minimal.
“I don’t have the help that I need,” says Augustus. “We get a lot of reports of these abuses – trafficking, inhumane conditions [on Chinese and Taiwanese ships], where people don’t eat properly; there’s no proper health or medicine.”
A spokesman for South Africa’s Department of Home Affairs would not respond to repeated requests for information, saying only that it inspects “every single ship that comes to port” – an account disputed by maritime attorney Alan Goldberg. “I’ve been working at the port for close to 20 years and to my knowledge the Department of Home Affairs has never conducted daily checks – it’s only when there’s a problem,” he says. Like Augustus, Goldberg says South African officials need better training.
Dane Duplessis (right) and Cassiem Augustus (far right) advise a fisherman in Cape Town’s port. Photograph: Kyle G Brown
There have been complaints by rights campaigners that South African authorities treat victims of trafficking like criminals. In late 2013, more than 70 Indonesian fishermen were living in squalid conditions on several vessels at the port, relying on food provided by local people. They were picked up by officials and detained for more than two months before being sent back to Indonesia – a case cited by the US State Department’s Trafficking in Persons report.
Recruitment agencies in Indonesia have since warned some of the men that they owe money for breaking their contracts. Others have been threatened, and told not to go ahead with human trafficking allegations now being investigated by Indonesian police. “We can say from here, ‘You’re covered, you’re safe’,” Augustus says. “But the agencies know where they live. They know because they recruit them from their homes, often in small villages – and once the men get home, the clock starts ticking, there’s not much we can do.”
Back at Cape Town’s labyrinthine harbour, Duplessis has resumed his patrols. “It just seems as though they’re being treated as less than human,” he says. “That’s why 90% of my work is focused on fishermen, trying to gain their trust so we can help them out of this.”
*Names have been changed
- This article was developed with the support of journalismfund.eu