Annabelle Liang, Theodora D’cruz and Danson Cheong fish out the reality of unfairly paid and poorly treated fishermen, and the port chaplains, including Fr Romeo Yu-Chang, who help to improve their lives.
Fr Romeo Yu-Chang’s vocation often takes him onboard a Star Cruise.
The port chaplain at the Apostleship of the Sea (AOS) goes on monthly trips with SuperStar Virgo to Malaysia and Thailand, celebrating Mass and leading sharing sessions with the crew.
Out at sea, men working on merchant ships have told him about the long hours, hard work and lack of communication with their families. Over the past 12 years with the mission, 52-year-old Fr Romeo has heard countless stories.
But the most harrowing of them all are the accounts of men working on long haul fishing vessels. It is the cry of fishermen that he finds the hardest to minister to, because the lack of legal protection leaves these men open to abuse.
“Mechanisms are there to protect [merchant crew], especially with the implementation of the Maritime Labour Convention. They stipulate all the rest days and vacation, all these things. But it doesn’t apply to fishers,” Fr Romeo said.
The Maritime Labour Convention, ratified by 56 states including Singapore, provides minimum safety and recruitment guidelines for seafarers. In contrast, the Work in Fishing Convention, a legal instrument by the International Labour Organisation that protects the labour rights of fishermen, has only been ratified by four countries and is not yet in force.
As a result, fishermen are often unfairly paid and cheaply treated. Some are also left stranded in Singapore, after they choose to leave vessels when they dock at the Jurong Fishery Port (JFP), Fr Romeo said.
In other instances, they find themselves out of a job because the vessel’s owner went bankrupt, he added.
The Vatican-appointed AOS regional coordinator of East and Southeast Asia has helped about a hundred of such fishermen to date. The mission started in Singapore in 1958 and largely caters to workers on merchant vessels and cruise ships.
In this capacity, Fr Romeo oversees AOS missions in nine countries, including Taiwan, Indonesia and the Philippines, and liaises with port chaplains when cross-country work is needed.
“It is only during desperate cases that we come in for the fishers. We have networks – so if there are some problems in places where the fishers are, we try to contact the chaplain of the place,” he said.
Many of the fishermen from impoverished villages in countries such as Cambodia, Indonesia and the Philippines take the “bait” of high salaries, offered by informal brokers or relatives for work on a fishing boat, said Fr Romeo.
Mr Condrad Banihit was one of these men.
Four years ago, he was offered work overseas as a fisherman by a broker in a neighbouring village in Aklan province in the Philippines.
She promised him an attractive monthly salary of US$550 (S$698) and so he travelled to Singapore, only to find out later from the staffing agency here that he would be paid US$200 – less than half the promised amount.
But it was too late to back out, as broker fees had left him saddled with debt.
For over a year, Mr Banihit worked 20-hour shifts, hauling tuna from the depths of the Indian Ocean onboard a Taiwanese long-liner.
It was back-breaking work, with barely any rest in between. “There is no break time that comes after work,” Mr Banihit said. “You have four hours every day to do your personal things, you choose whether you want to sleep, shower or wash your clothes.”
Any discontent would be swiftly silenced with the hard slap of a slipper or the whack of a baseball bat. Mr Banihit added: “They would hit us on the back of the neck.”
It was only when his boat finally docked at Cape Town, South Africa, that Mr Banihit called his family for the first time since setting sail. They insisted he return home, and contacted Msgr Isagani Fabito from the Iglesia Filipina Independiente Church in Aklan for help.
“We were desperate, I contacted the recruitment agency in Singapore, the ILSM and AOS in Singapore,” Msgr Fabito said.
The recruitment agency paid for the flights, and Fr Romeo met Mr Banihit when he transited in Singapore.
“I was afraid someone from the agency would come and get [Mr Banihit] at the airport and put him on a ship again,” Msgr Fabito added. “I told him, never mind if you don’t bring home any money as long as you come home safe.”
Now back home in the village of Ochando in Aklan, Philippines, Mr Banihit does the odd carpentry job now and then, but is otherwise unemployed.
But he knows he is one of the lucky ones.
Onboard these tuna vessels – usually Taiwanese-owned – men are usually made to labour for 18 to 20 hours. Many find themselves unaccustomed to the work conditions.
Fr Romeo said, “They are not exactly [trained fishermen]. They are farmers, construction workers... They learn the trade onboard vessels.”
“The reality is not as good as what was offered,” he added. “The captain normally abuses the fishers. It’s very traumatic for them. There is no documentation of suicides, [but] I’ve heard accounts from fishers I encountered.”
At least one Singapore manning agency is involved in placing these men on jobs in the treacherous fishing industry.
But the Ministry of Manpower does not have the jurisdiction to prosecute these labour offences because contracts are signed overseas, explained Fr Romeo, seated in his office decorated with model cruise ships and nautical memorabilia at Church of St Teresa.
“It’s a very difficult situation. [Fishermen] usually get a portion of the salaries that are promised to them, but not all,” he added.
Pursuing wage claims back in their home countries has proven to be largely unsuccessful as the fishermen could have gotten their jobs illegally, and recruitment agencies may have changed their names or closed down by then.
Aware of this harsh reality, Fr Romeo does the best he can to help these distressed migrant workers return home.
He is one of the hotlines for stranded fishermen referred by the embassies here. Men in need have also gotten in contact with him through posters placed at the JFP.
“If [the embassy] cannot help them with lodging, I can give them lodging. If they cannot get the airfare, I provide the airfare,” the Filipino-Chinese priest said.
For three to four days before boarding flights home, these men from all faiths are given pocket money and beds in the retreat centre of St Teresa’s Church. The transient home was, on one occasion, a source of refuge for as many as 20 fishermen.
The AOS in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, where a large portion of fishing vessels come from, also has a shelter and assists seamen. Port chaplain Ranulfo Salise said in an interview through Facebook and over the phone that the shelter can house about 40 people and is usually fully occupied, mostly by fishermen.
He added that the AOS there has been observing an increasing number of complaints from fishermen since 2009, mostly from Indonesians.
“Working and living conditions as well as the treatment is getting worse,” Fr Salise said. “It is the poverty and lack of education in these [source] countries. They don’t know who to call and where to get help.”
Citing loopholes in the legal system, he added, “It is necessary to reduce the incident of abuse by enacting an even more just labour policy for foreign workers.”
AOS also works with groups like the International Lutheran Seafarers’ Mission (ILSM) in Singapore, which runs a Seafarers’ Welfare Centre (SWC) in the restricted area of JFP where these migrant workers have access.
Opened by the Migrant Workers’ Centre in January, the SWC is an avenue for migrant workers to lodge complaints on employment or well-being issues.
Calling and top-up value phone cards, and two computers are available for use at the centre. Fishermen can visit between 5 to 9pm daily to rest, enjoy hot beverages and play games.
Fr Romeo is aware of the limitations of what he can do for these fishers, but that does not stop him. Prayers and providing a listening ear are often his best remedies.
“You hear their litanies, but you are helpless because you cannot give them the wages due them,” he said. “You just have to try to make it easier for them before they go back home.”
“These people have nowhere to go. If they are exploited, if they are abused, they have nowhere to go,” Fr Romeo added. “They are invisible to society. I try to help out in whatever way I can.”
The writers are final-year students at Nanyang Technological University’s Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information.
What does the AOS do?
It is in these uncertain conditions that the Apostleship of the Sea (AOS) plays an important apostolic role.
It has port chaplains and seafarers’ centres in more than 60 countries, and caters to “the pastoral, social, and material welfare of all seafarers and fishers regardless of colour, race or creed”.
The mission carries out its work by visiting ships, providing communication facilities, and extending the support of Christian groups to those onboard vessels.
But there is much left to do in tackling the problem of abuses on fishing vessels, Fr Bruno Ciceri, the international coordinator of the Rome-based AOS, said in a Skype interview.
This is because the problems fishermen face differ across regions, making it hard to find a “common denominator”.
“Fishing is a very difficult set. The abuses are so many because when [fishers] are out at sea, the master of vessel is king,” said Fr Bruno, who previously ministered to these men for 12 years in Taiwan.
“So he can do whatever he wants. He can beat. We had a number of cases where people...never came back,” he added.
Fr Ciceri is currently working on a book on the abuses fishermen face, and also said an AOS international meeting on fishing was on the cards for 2016.