The footage is slightly shaky, but what you see is as bright and clear as on the day it took place. On a large ship deck lies a coffin, wrapped in an orange bag being blessed with incense. After a short prayer, the coffin is pushed off deck and sinks into the deep ocean.

Inside the coffin was Ari, a 24-year-old migrant fisher from a small village in Indonesia. Another crew member, Sepri, 24, also died and was thrown overboard. Later, it was revealed that two other men died as well whilst working on the same series of vessels owned by the Chinese company Dalian Ocean Fishing. All four men allegedly died as a result of poor treatment and working conditions on the ship. Dalian Ocean Fishing Co has so far failed to respond according to media reports. 

South Korean broadcaster MBC (Munhwa Broadcasting Corporation) initially broke the story, after the remaining crewmembers who were on the vessel finally reached port in Busan in late April, and handed over the secretly filmed footage to South Korean authorities and MBC. But it became viral after a Bahasa-speaking Korean posted the story on his channel and explained the report to the Indonesian public. The story has since received over eight million views.

This was the video that would set off a chain of events about Indonesian migrant crew members working on industrial fishing vessels. Shortly after the MBC story broke in May, footage emerged of another fisher looking weak and unable to walk. He eventually died, and according to reports his body was buried in waters near Somalia. In July, a person was found dead in the freezer on-board a vessel. And just recently in August, a video from three Indonesian crew members begging to be rescued from a Chinese fishing vessel also picked up attention.

So why is this happening?

Indonesian Fishing Crew Arrives in Jakarta. © Hasnugara / Greenpeace
Indonesian crew members who worked on the vessels owned by the Dalian Ocean Fishing company arrive at Soekarno Hatta airport in Jakarta. They were repatriated home to Indonesia in May. © Hasnugara / Greenpeace

Like other social justice issues happening around the world, the reported string of incidents is not a case of abuse at sea worsening, but rather being supported by film and witness stories. With easy access to mobile technology, migrant fishers are able to document their mistreatment and often, evidence of illegal fishing and bycatch, such as shark finning. It’s led to an outpouring of attention and renewed focus on forced labour, human trafficking, and other forms of exploitation that have been commonplace on industrial fishing vessels for years, with a variety of cases previously uncovered by Greenpeace East Asia and Southeast Asia.  

However, this recent pattern of events, which have hit headlines both in the country and internationally, shows something else – the Indonesian government has for too long ignored cases of modern slavery against vulnerable citizens who work on long-distance fishing vessels.

Modern Slavery Of Indonesian Fishers Protest in Jakarta. © Adhi Wicaksono / Greenpeace
The Indonesian Migrant Workers Union (SBMI) together with Greenpeace Indonesia conducted a peaceful action in front of the Presidential Palace in Jakarta, to encourage the President to immediately ratify the Government Regulation draft on the Protection of Indonesian migrant fishers. © Adhi Wicaksono / Greenpeace

Since the incident on board the vessels owned by Dalian Ocean Fishing Co, the Indonesian government have taken steps to report to the United Nations Human Rights Council about the alleged human rights violations in the fishing industry; proposed a moratorium on hiring migrant fishers; and have held diplomatic talks to investigate. But steps like this are often reactionary and do little to solve the long-term issue of modern slavery at sea.

Protecting its citizens means ensuring all players in the industry are held accountable – the manning agencies that are exploiting vulnerable workers for a quick buck; seafood companies and retailers turning a blind eye to forced labor and human trafficking being committed in their supply chain; and the Indonesian government’s continued inaction on the need for proper global identification,and  monitoring and surveillance on global distant water fishing (DWF) fleets where migrant fishers are being employed. These are just a few things. The factors involved in modern slavery is as vast as the ocean itself, but effective steps count. By taking actions now, the Indonesian government may be able to redeem their past failures in dealing with these issues.

Afdillah is the Oceans Campaigner for Greenpeace Southeast Asia.