The former director of a ship management agency here is facing charges of trafficking and illegal recruitment in the Philippines.
Victor Lim, formerly of Step Up Marine Enterprise, had allegedly recruited 10 Filipino men from the country's Aklan province to work as fishermen on Taiwanese fishing vessels, where they were forced to work for up to 20 hours a day for no pay.
One of the men also died at sea. The case went to trial last Monday at the Aklan Regional Trial Court.
Lim's alleged recruiter, Filipina Celia Robelo, has also been charged. Robelo allegedly promised them US$550 ($700) a month to work as fishermen.
The men then had to pay 25,000 pesos ($710) in agent fees, and often borrowed heavily to do so, said one of the case's lead investigators, who declined to be named because he was not authorised to speak to the media.
When they got to Singapore, the men were allegedly forced to sign contracts paying them far less.
"Step Up Marine provides crew to Taiwanese fishing vessels. The Taiwanese are utilising this Singaporean company, Step Up, to provide them with cheap labour," an investigator involved in the case said.
Lim, who refused to comment if he would travel to the Philippines to stand trial where he faces up to 40 years in prison, denies the allegations, saying he was only a middleman and that he was a victim of a conspiracy.
The Manpower Ministry investigated the agency in 2011 but found that it handled only administrative work for overseas clients. Mr Kandhavel Periyasamy, director of MOM's Joint Ops Directorate, also added: "We cannot take action based on bad HR practices." There is no extradition treaty between Singapore and the Philippines.
The family of Mr Eril Andrade, the fisherman who died, said he had wanted to build his mother a better home than their nipah-thatched hut. His older brother, Mr Julius Andrade, 36, said that was why his brother left in 2010 for a job on the high seas. "We had to borrow money from relatives (to pay the fees)," he said. "But he was very excited to go. He said he was going to use his salary to renovate and rebuild our house."
He never heard from him again. Mr Eril, 31, died on the boat on the Indian Ocean, seven months after he set sail.
According to his passport, Mr Eril travelled to Singapore in September 2010, when he supposedly signed a contract at Step Up's People's Park Complex office and later boarded the Taiwanese vessel Hung Yu 212.
The boat next returned to port in April 2011, and the body was handed over to the Health Sciences Authority (HSA). The autopsy found the cause of death to be acute myocarditis - an inflammatory disease of the heart muscle.
A secondary Philippine autopsy found his eye and pancreas to be missing, said the Aklan investigator.
"(Eril) sustained head injuries, and other injuries on his body... prior to his death," he added. "He was subjected to some form of physical punishment or an accident."
The other fishermen sent abroad complained of long 20-hour work days, physical abuse, and working under the threat of death. Their plight highlighted the hazards of working on long-haul fishing vessels. These boats dock in Singapore at the Jurong Fishery Port to undergo repairs and to offload their catch for export to international markets.
The case has raised concern in Manila. "This is a transnational crime because the syndicate has connections in the Philippines, Singapore and even in Australia," said Mr Jonathan Lledo, head of the National Inter-Agency Task Force Against Trafficking in Manila. He estimated that of the about 1.3 million Filipinos working abroad, about a third are victimised by illegal recruiters.
Lim has challenged the allegations concerning him. In a phone interview, he denied actively recruiting fishermen.
"I'm the manning agent - the (ship owner) calls the Manila agent, and tells him he needs 10 men. Then the (ship owner) appoints me to pick them up. This is my job," said Lim, who is in his 50s.
20-hour days hauling tuna in Indian Ocean
A carpenter by trade, Mr Condrad Banihit is no stranger to physical hardship. The 34-year-old grew up in a rural farming community in the Philippines' Aklan province.
But work on board the tuna fishing boat Jilhorn 101 was different.
Mr Banihit and his 27 other crewmates would work 20-hour shifts, hauling up tuna from the Indian Ocean.
"It was very hard work," said Mr Banihit, who worked on the boat for a year. "You have four hours every day to do your personal things. You choose - sleep, shower or wash your clothes."
He was one of 10 Aklan province men allegedly recruited by Step Up Marine Enterprise and deployed as fishermen on long-haul fishing boats.
The men, he said, were forced to work. Disobedience would be met with a hard whack with a slipper or baseball bat from the captain, Mr Banihit alleged.
Each day, he would prepare and bait hundreds of hooks, and attach them to a main line cast out to sea. Once, his left index finger broke when it got caught on a hook as it was being reeled out.
"It was so painful, but they only gave me a little medical oil and told me to keep working," he said, adding that he kept working because those who fell sick or were injured sometimes "disappeared overnight".
Some of Mr Banihit's crewmates were so desperate to go home that they sabotaged the freezer so the ship was forced to return to port and the safety of dry land, he said, where they later escaped. "At sea, there is nowhere to go. If you jump, you are fish food."
These fishermen work under such dire conditions that the United Nations has called it "forced slave labour", and classified the industry as one of the most physically exploitative.
The boats would stay out for months at a time to fill up at remote fishing grounds. During that time, fishermen would have no contact with families back home, said Pastor Wilson Wong, port chaplain of the International Lutheran Seafarers' Mission (ILSM).
The ILSM has a welfare centre for such fishermen at the Jurong Fishery Port.
These boats dock in Singapore to offload their frozen catch and undergo repairs, said Pastor Wong.
When they arrive, the fishermen visit the centre where Pastor Wong ministers to them and gives them phone cards to call home.
"I see poor people getting bullied. It is the 21st century, yet this is still happening. They are treated like slaves," he said.
This article was first published on September 21, 2014.
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