Where fish come from, labour laws don’t go

Manuel, Roland and Isidoro had waited 13 months and 15 days for the opportunity. At last, after bobbing about the Pacific and Indian Oceans, never seeing land, the fishing trawler they were on sailed into Singapore. It was their chance to quit and collect their salaries. They had not been paid.

They went to the office of the ship’s agent, the same company that had hired them as fishermen. There they were presented with a salary computation that showed that they owed the company money. “They said I must pay them US$337,” Manuel told me, incredulous.

Isidoro, 30, had dreamt of being a policeman. After finishing his ten years of schooling, he went to college for four more years and got a degree in criminology. But without the wherewithal to buy a policeman’s job, he eventually went back to the family farm in a province north of Manila, Philippines, growing rice and vegetables. He has a wife and a four-year-old son.

“Farm is OK for feeding the family,” he said, but it wasn’t enough for cash needs.

Through a relative, he got to know of a job recruiter in the capital city. The job described by her was that on a trawler, for a three-year contract, with a salary of US$200 a month and a small monthly deduction for “insurance”.  The employer would cover the cost of the airfare to Singapore, which was where they would join the ship, and on completion of the contract, he would get a free air ticket back to Manila. If, however, he broke the contract midway through the three years, he would have to pay for his own airfare home.

Isidoro thought that was a fair offer and he signed a document. Since the recruiter did not give him a copy of that document, he cannot now detail what exactly it said and naturally, he could not show it to me.

Isidoro then paid the recruiter 20,000 Philippine Pesos (S$570, US$462 at current exchange rates) as placement fee. Manuel and Roland, meeting her separately, ended up with slightly different placement fee arrangements. Roland had to pay 25,000 pesos, while Manuel had only to pay a 10,000-peso downpayment with another 10,000 pesos payable at a later date. The job conditions described to these two others, however, were nearly the same as described to Isidoro, except that Manuel was told that the work was one of “delivering fish”.

They were flown into Singapore mid-March 2010 and taken to the ship agent’s office, meeting a Singaporean guy, whom we shall call Bill for the purposes of this article. Bill then presented the men a new document each which they had to sign and affix a thumbprint to. They hardly knew what it was, especially since the men could barely read English, and reportedly no effort was made to explain to them. Having already left the Philippines with a new job at stake, the men had no realistic possibility of not signing. It was a Hobson’s choice. So they signed. Once again, the men were not given copies of the document.

They boarded the Taiwanese-owned trawler on 17 March 2010, sailed in April and did not see land again for more than a year.

Captained by a Taiwanese, there were slightly over 20 men on board. There were a total of 14 Filipinos, but also a handful of Vietnamese and Indonesians. Almost immediately, Roland, 31, got seasick — he would be retching on and off for a year. The only previous work he’d ever done was as a farmer on the island of Mindanao; he had never been out on a fishing boat before.

Nor had Manuel, 24, who had trained as an electrician at a vocational school and work-wise, had been a tricycle driver. While on the boat, his biggest problem was the lack of contact with his family and home. He was utterly homesick.

“No communication, no sleep,” he said, “and I didn’t even know I was supposed to be a fisherman. I thought I was going to deliver fish.”

“Do you have a wife and children?” I asked him.

“No, not married,” he said.

“Girlfriend?”

“Yes, have, but I don’t know whether she is still my girlfriend anymore. So long I did not talk to her.”

Speaking not only for himself, but for the others as well, Isidoro reported, “It was very hard work. Too hard for me. I’m not strong.” (To be very frank, they looked perfectly fit to me, with good chest muscles and biceps, but then I don’t know what the captain’s expectations were.) “Seven days work, no holiday. And every day, we work 14 to 16 hours.”

“Even sick, we have to work,” he added.

“Sometimes, no sleep because so cold and I so sick,” Roland chipped in.

At various points, they kept emphasising the duration of their ordeal: “Thirteen months and 15 days.”

* * * * *

I had to ask: “You mean the fish you caught stayed on the boat for all thirteen months until you arrived in Singapore?” I wondered if I should stop eating frozen fish. It turned out that it wasn’t as bad as that. Every three months or so, the trawler would meet up on open sea with a bigger ship — the men called it a carrier — and transferred their catch to it. The trawler also received new supplies.

* * * * *

Docking back in Singapore on 4 May 2011, they received from the captain what they called their “allowance” of US$40 a month for the 13-and-a-half months, less deductions for “dry goods”. This allowance would be deducted from the total salary. In Isidoro’s case, for example, the gross allowance was US$540, but after deductions for toothpaste, biscuits, shampoo, cigarette lighters, instant noodles, etc, he received US$404. If you can read Chinese, you can see the calculation by clicking on the thumbnail.

Manuel and Roland similarly received nett amounts of slightly over US$400 from the captain as they disembarked.

Expecting to be paid the balance of their agreed wages (US$2,700 for thirteen-and-a half months’ work, minus the allowance received), they were shocked to hear that they owed the agent (Bill’s company) money.  How could that be?

Here was when the mysterious document that they had signed on first arrival in Singapore reappeared, from Bill’s filing cabinet. It turned out to be Promissory Note, under which they had each signed away S$1,500 “to master for financing my expenses to go abroad” — whatever that means — “even I finish or no finish contract.” The amount was more than half the balance salary they were expecting. Here is the Note that Manuel had signed:

Then there were further deductions. In Manuel’s case, these included the airticket Singapore-Manila return (S$330), “Sign on + sign off fees from Shipping agent” (S$170) and a further Dry Goods deduction of S$300. Except for the cost of the airticket which they knew they had to pay for breaking the contract, the other items were news to them. In sum, not only did the agent say they had no salary left to expect, the men were in debt to the agent!

They ended up appealing to migrant worker help organisations for assistance. The Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME) housed them in their shelter for homeless migrant workers while a volunteer from Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) looked into their case. Representatives from both organisations went to see Bill, at the same time reporting the facts of the case to the Ministry of Manpower. After some persuasion by the representatives, Bill agreed to give each Filipino US$500 as an ex-gratia payment and an airticket home, but there the matter more or less ended. It was nowhere near what they felt they were entitled to.

I do not know what steps the ministry will be taking, but it does not look promising that the men have been sent back to the Philippines already with no word of further action by officials.

* * * * *

This kind of problem occurs regularly, as HOME and TWC2 tell me. Sailors and fishermen keep falling through the regulatory gaps. In this (typical) case, the men were hired by an illegal recruiter in their home country, without giving them full information or even a copy of the contract, and flown to Singapore to board a ship. The ship is Taiwanese, but it is at sea for months or years. Whose law applies?

Where Singapore comes into the picture would be the actions of the man Bill. The illegal recruiter in Manila was acting for him and his company. He himself exploited the men’s lack of English literacy and vulnerable position when newly arrived in Singapore in March 2010, to make them sign a promissory note giving away a big chunk of their future earnings. I’m pretty sure that such a contract would come under Singapore law, and to the extent that it was not freely entered into, should be a matter of deep concern. Then when the men wanted to quit, a number of new deductions surfaced. All this took place within Singapore’s jurisdiction.

Even so, to truly solve this kind of problem, there is a need for international cooperation and better enforcement of laws by each and every country. But we can begin by making sure that our own house is in order, that our own citizens act in ways beyond reproach.

* * * * *

Roland, Isidoro and Manuel, although they had a right to feel cheated, might at least be thankful that they were not in the shoes of another eight Filipinos on a different trawler. They too had been hired by the same agent Bill (according to Bill himself), boarding their vessel (in Singapore too) in April 2008.  The boat was seized by the Tanzanian Navy in March 2009 when it was found inside the country’s territorial seas, the fish they had taken on board used as evidence that they had been fishing illegally within Tanzanian waters. The captain and all the crew are now in an African jail.

Bill denies responsibility for the plight of the men. He may be right in that he is not the owner of the vessel and it was the captain who sailed his trawler into Tanzanian waters.

Nonetheless, I can well imagine a public outcry in the Philippines against unscrupulous recruiting agents from Singapore luring poorly-informed Filipinos into risky jobs or in the case of Manuel, Roland and Isidoro, exploiting them. Public opinion seldom has time for legal niceties. There is a clear moral responsibility that a ruthless Singaporean has chosen to disregard and we by our inaction stand indicted. If a public outcry doesn’t develop this time, it will develop some other time, since the business of recruiting fishermen under such terms is likely to continue. Frankly, we don’t need this kind of diplomatic crisis in our relations with the Philippines. Even as ordinary Singaporeans, we suffer the ill-repute when we travel and our fellow Asean neighbours think poorly of us.

But more than just pragmatic reasons, it is simply wrong for one to exploit another human being’s vulnerability. And that is reason enough to put a stop to this awful business model.

18 Responses to “Where fish come from, labour laws don’t go”


  1. 1 DetachedObserver 1 June 2011 at 07:18

    Actually, this kind of stuff happens on a regular basis in Singapore and with various unskilled professions.

    Doesn’t help that there’s probably no one in our mainstream media who’s interested in real investigative journalism and they only report when the authorities actually make an arrest or someone gets charged in court.

    Also recall the report made by the United States State Department putting Singapore on the high alert list with regards to human trafficking. [The response by the government was equally ludicrous, but I don’t want to go into another anti-establishment spiel]

    And it is also a well known secret many young foreign [mostly Chinese] women come here on student visas but work in the sex trade.

    This is capitalism at its worst, as imagined by Karl Marx, et al.

  2. 2 Syle 1 June 2011 at 11:47

    Old Lee must be real proud, now that we are seeping to the level of an average Chinese street crook.

  3. 3 Poker Player 1 June 2011 at 11:56

    Double whammy today. First this article, then:

    read the 3rd page of today’s Straits Times.

    Problem was caused by Singaporeans who want English-speaking maids but are to cheap to get Filipinas.

    Blood on our hands. Not solely MOM’s.

  4. 4 John 1 June 2011 at 21:52

    There will be no public outcry of any sort, as long as the majority of Singaporeans are satisfied. Many gave the same reason for voting for PAP. Do not rock the boat.

    As long as their own boat is not rocked, most Singaporeans are willing to give PAP and any law the freedom to do as they please.

    Ah heck! I want to pay only $1 for my sushi. If we paid the Filipinoes better, or ensured that they received justice, would this mean I have to pay $1.50 or even $2? It’s quite obvious most of us would choose the cheaper, better and faster option. Justice be damned!

  5. 5 YH@2 1 June 2011 at 23:38

    @john I doubt such cheating will result in cheaper fish, those cheating bosses are out to make as much money as possible – from the consumer and from their employees. If they can get away selling fish for the same price to unsuspecting consumers who think they incur workers wages, they will.

    Thank you Alex for highlighting this…
    I know construction workers and domestic helpers often pay middlemen/agents hundreds or thousands of dollars to come work here. Although many are not cheated like these men, new maids give up a few months salary to cover agency costs. I don’t think its right but i don’t know of any solution as long as they are more desperate to find a better paying job overseas than we are to find low wage workers. The most we can do is to pay (or pay half) the agency fees, or bypass the agency altogether. But I never knew about the the loopholes that allow such injustice (to the fishermen) go unpunished.

  6. 6 yawningbread 1 June 2011 at 23:59

    Let me tell readers something very interesting: This fisherman article is getting as many hits as the posts on politics, yet within the first 24 hours, it has received far fewer comments.

    There must surely be a lot of reasons for that, but among them must be this, as John (1 June, 21:52) pointed out tongue-in-cheek: People may be conflicted, fearing that they have secretly benefitted from such abuses in the lower price of food. This fear of guilt by association has a muzzling effect.

    Now let me tell you something else. I had a choice of 3 pictures to lead the story with: fishing trawler, fish stall in a wet market and sushi. As you can see, I chose the sushi, because I think it helps make the point that this story is not about the Other, but just as much it is about Us. We cannot escape responsibility.

    That said, do a quick calculation. Given the low wages in the contract, would it really increase the price of food in any significant way if they honourably paid those wages? Why the need to exploit people to this extent?

    Consider this too: When the other fishing boat was caught off Tanzania, it had 296 tons of fish on it. Given the value of the amount of fish they catch, what does it take to pay the workers decent wages?

    • 7 Kenneth Lau 5 June 2011 at 18:57

      It’s natural to be concerned about subjects we empathise with, and your articles on Singapore politics have attracted many comments for this reason. I once discussed vegetarianism with a cat-loving friend of mine and was told that animals had to be treated differently. He considered certain animals as food and not within his circle of concern, whereas cats were considered to be pets and therefore a concern of his. Why not write about the horrors of factory farming (see http://www.meat.org/) and count the responses?

  7. 8 Whos afraid of the astroturfers? 2 June 2011 at 08:41

    Hi Alex

    My take for the low reply response is that many Singaporeans DO NOT CARE about the plight of non-Singaporeans in our country. We have not yet attained the level of acceptable civility and care for others. Because we are basically a selfish bunch who are raised and reinforced as such by society and country at large.

    It is also more so when many of these non-Singaporeans are a much disliked bunch though is it not their fault for flooding into our country, but the fault of the government for indiscriminately opening the immigration floodgates.

    The coming presidential elections will be another interesting eye-opener. I hope Mr George Yeo will be honest to himself and save him some pride not to vie for the coming presidential elections.

  8. 9 Fredrick 2 June 2011 at 12:14

    So sad there r such kind of abuse. MOM not doing anything n no law to cover such abuse…sigh

  9. 10 Poker Player 2 June 2011 at 12:43

    “It is also more so when many of these non-Singaporeans are a much disliked bunch though is it not their fault for flooding into our country, but the fault of the government for indiscriminately opening the immigration floodgates.”

    Except for maids – this you can’t blame the govt. The laws protect them from physical abuse, but nothing protects them from verbal ones and from being treated as a separate caste of humans.

    BTW, people here must know that our maid traffic saves pimps from human trafficking costs in the Batam sex industry.

  10. 11 Madison Chua 2 June 2011 at 16:54

    Is there anything we can do to help these guys get back on their feet? Is a donation drive allowed?

  11. 12 Gard 2 June 2011 at 17:19

    I believe your article struck a raw nerve; but the location and circumstance of the said offense seemed so far out that most people needed time to process and connect the dots (or they might give up halfway). Your article alone already included references to six countries. And it takes a bit of reading on the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

    From different perspective, your article could equally be about the sustainable production of sushi (and food). Any human being who does not filter out the unpleasant thoughts behind the food industry would have questionably retained his appetite. Extend those thinking to toys, clothing, shoes, cosmetics, jewelry, furniture, housing, etc. and it begs against simplistic solutions.

    Even if Singapore can kick out these unscrupulous employers, they could still move elsewhere to operate. Just because you transferred the problem elsewhere, does it make it a satisfactory solution? Do the other governments have better capability to handle this problem?

    Each government can step in and slap taxes to better reflect economic costs to curtain over-consumption; would this be a workable solution? After all, Singaporeans still want their sharkfin, Nike shoes and low-cost housing.

    Finally, just how much do people really want the government to start influencing and controlling what and how one produce and consume? Recall in American history that free, democratic people have gone to war over the right to own slaves.

    Education is a commonly held prescription against market failures; but in your case study, even someone with college education was unable to find a good job in his country, was somehow incapable of protecting himself from exploitation. Could it not be argued that there a role in the Philippines government for this? Wouldn’t it suggest that better enforcement of law alone is insufficient for welfare-enhancing outcome? What else are needed to ensure that people like Manuel, Roland and Isidoro would not be exploited in future? Philosophers like Adam Smith and Karl Marx had pondered upon these problems. Solutions have tried and failed.

    Like I said, a lot of reading needed. Again, if your article start people reading and thinking, it is a respectable silent applause.

  12. 13 prettyplace 2 June 2011 at 20:00

    I think there ought to be clear laws about where a seafarer boards the ship. These unclear rules are truely troubling.
    The article is pissing me off and people like Bill must be taught a good lesson.

    The least our multi-million dollar ministries should do is to take quick action and never allow such incidents to take place.

    It is sad, in some cases that our ministries want to be gauged by our immediate neighbours then world standards.

  13. 14 Ben 3 June 2011 at 09:44

    Why are HOME and TWC2 constantly cleaning up after MOM’s regulatory lapses?

    Just encourage shortchanged workers to protest outside parliament house. Raise hell and embarass the government to implement better regulations.

  14. 15 yawningbread 3 June 2011 at 18:20

    Just heard: Officials from the Ministry of Manpower have gone to “Bill’s” office, interviewed him and taken his documents. I understand there will be further interviews and the ministry will also be interviewing his staff.

    Glad to see the wheels turning.

    • 16 Poker Player 6 June 2011 at 10:24

      Singapore has all it takes to be as civilized as some of the more socially advanced countries of the West. The governing infrastructure is there. What’s lagging is the citizenry (except for the NGOs like the one in this article).

      Singaporeans have to understand that the government is like God. God helps those who help themselves. This applies even to governments of socially advanced countries.

  15. 17 Ben 3 June 2011 at 19:49

    ‘Bill’ will be given a slap in the wrist. ‘Bill’ increases the GDP figures, not the workers he exploits. You won’t see the end of this.

  16. 18 reservist_cpl 6 June 2011 at 01:03

    Wonder what flag the ship was flying.

    I would be appalled if such a ridiculous “promissory note” could be enforced in our courts. And how the **** could he just add extra “deductions” at the end? Seems like he just wanted to minus so much money that the net figure would end up negative.

    Glad these guys were smart enough to leave. They would’ve gotten ripped off even worse if they had stayed the entire 3 years.


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