Abuses of Migrant Fishers in the Ports of South Africa Persist

Some things never change. Abuses of migrant fishers in the ports of South Africa persist. A typical example is what the migrant fishers from the Philippines and Indonesia continued to suffer at the hands of a Chinese captain and chief engineer. They were subjected to scrupulous management on board a Taiwanese-flagged fishing vessel in May 2023. In August 2022, Hung IU 313 docked in the port of Durban with injured and miserable fishers due to problematic employment contracts, salaries,
working and living conditions, and the treatment of the officials.

Upon hearing the fisher’s grievances, who personally phoned Fr. Rico Talisic, he compiled a report and sent it to the South Africa Maritime Safety Authority (SAMSA), who responded swiftly and conducted an inspection on the vessel Lo and behold, a host of ILO C 188. Non-conformities were found upon inspection, particularly on safety and labor issues.

These were the findings of the SAMSA’s inspection:
1) Safe manning documents not found on board;
2) Fire hydrant line was found to be modified and defective;
3) Non-navigational charts were found on board;
4) Navigational lights found to be defective;
5) A medical chest was found with expired medicine;
6) Vessel-registered certificates were not found on board;
7) Crew contracts were found to be in excess of 12 months.

On May 8, 2023, the vessel docked in the port of Cape Town. Similar grievances were mentioned by Filipino fishers such as:

a) The captain and chief engineer were physically abusive to the cook, kicking him whenever he made mistakes. This crew member was newly
hired, and he had only been on board the vessel for four months;
b) The captain, in general, escalated a situation on the boat that created a harsh and difficult working environment;
c) The crew have not been paid their salary in a consistent manner, nor completely in many cases, and at least one crew member was owed two months’ worth of salary;
d) The food was inadequate, consisting of noodles, rice and pork bones with the occasional fish. If chicken was served, the 24-person crew split two chickens. The food that the crew ate was vastly different than what the Captain and Chief Engineer ate;
e) Drinking water was not clean;
f) PPEs were only provided once. When gloves, raincoats, or boots were broken, the crew was not given new PPE. Hence, they are using torn PPEs;
g) Several crew members had severe toothaches. Although Chinese medicine was offered, the crew was suspicious in part because when the boat was inspected in Durban, medicine was found to be expired;
h) Another crew member faced severe stomach pain to the point that he had to stop working. Nobody called the Doctor, and he remained on the boat without medical care.

With the assistance of Dr. Melissa Marschke, a professor from Ottawa, Canada, Fr. Talisic submitted follow-up complaints to SAMSA and the ILO. Carbon copies were sent to the Philippine Embassy, Indonesian Consulate in Cape Town, and Taiwan Liaison Office in Cape Town. That report served as a follow-up to what happened last year at the port of Durban. Once again, SAMSA responded immediately and sent two inspectors to the vessel. On Friday, May 12, SAMSA inspectors inspected the vessel and interviewed the fishers.

Long story short, unfortunately, the finding of SAMSA’s inspection was unfavorable to the fisher’s rights. According to the inspectors, “the accusations were unfounded and untrue.” Nevertheless, the vessel owner agreed to send home 3 fishers at her cost and treat the sick. Stella Maris was not happy with the outcome, but Fr. Rico didn’t want to contest the wisdom and expertise of SAMSA. However, he was happy that 2 of the goals of the fishers were met: going home and getting treatment for the sick fishers. He was sorry that he couldn’t resolve their salary issues with their manning agency in Manila. Nevertheless, he did receive a phone call from the Philippine Embassy in Pretoria to inform him that the report was forwarded to the Department of Migrants Welfare (DMW) for further investigation. On top of that, he prevented the worst scenario of fishers wanting to jump overboard if the vessel owner and captain would keep them on board.

Fr. Rico and Dr. Melissa arranged a meeting with the complainants to learn how their inspection and interview of the crew went. However, only one fisher came up with them. Accordingly, one by one, the fishers were interviewed on the bridge. Whenever there was difficulty with translation, the agent came to assist. As for the fishers they met, he said everything he had to say to the inspectors.

The outcome may not be favorable to the interest of fishers, but Fr. Rico and Dr. Melissa have succeeded in their objectives. Achieving the fisher’s 2 goals was a success. More importantly, spreading awareness and bringing the issue to the attention of SAMSA and ILO and the
Consulates of the involved parties were a win. Besides, the Bureau of Immigration came aboard the vessel to check the passports and seaman’s books of fishers. It means that more government agencies were involved. Lastly, they brought a clear message to vessel owners, captains or chief engineers, and any violators of ILO C 188: people and the Catholic Church that look after the welfare of fishers in the port of Cape Town are concerned.

With the given situation, what else can Stella Maris do? Stella Maris offered dental and medical assistance to the fishers who were not well. 7 fishers were brought to the dentist and provided with the medicine they needed, but only two had dental services done. They were offered transportation to the shops to buy their supplies. Dr. Melissa and Fr. Rico provided them with coffee, chips, cakes, and biscuits. Dr. Melissa bought pizza for one fisher who celebrated his birthday, which he delighted most. Both; Fr. Rico and Dr. Melissa were planning to donate working boots and gloves for the fishers, but the circumstances did not allow them to do so.

In the end, that is as far as Stella Maris Cape Town can offer its assistance to distressed migrant fishers in the port of Cape Town. Fr Rico could have contested SAMSA’s finding. He could have pushed further the case to the Department of Labour for a possible forced labor case. He could have referred it to A21 for an assessment of the trafficking in persons (TIP) case, but he did not. His moral obligation ends with bringing the matter to the relevant authorities. It is now in the hands of SAMSA and various consulates to decide what to do next in accordance with the law. In his capacity as a port chaplain of Stella Maris, he fulfilled his duty by providing the necessary assistance needed by the distressed fishers. Currently, he is in contact with other Stella Maris branches in Manila and London to extend and continue assistance to the fishers and their families at home. Stella Maris and Dr. Melissa pray and wish them a wonderful time with their families. They salute their bravery in standing up to violators of their rights.

Source: Written and published in the Stella Maris Cape Town’s newsletter of May 2023.