[Marxism] Tricked and Indebted on Land, Abused or Abandoned at Sea

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Nov 9 09:13:17 MST 2015

(The human costs of an industry that is leading to the extinction of 
marine life.)

NY Times, Nov. 9 2015

LINABUAN SUR, the Philippines — When Eril Andrade left this small 
village, he was healthy and hoping to earn enough on a fishing boat on 
the high seas to replace his mother’s leaky roof.

Seven months later, his body was sent home in a wooden coffin: jet black 
from having been kept in a fish freezer aboard a ship for more than a 
month, missing an eye and his pancreas, and covered in cuts and bruises, 
which an autopsy report concluded had been inflicted before death.

“Sick and resting,” said a note taped to his body. Handwritten in 
Chinese by the ship’s captain, it stated only that Mr. Andrade, 31, had 
fallen ill in his sleep.

Mr. Andrade, who died in February 2011, and nearly a dozen other men in 
his village had been recruited by an illegal “manning agency,” tricked 
with false promises of double the actual wages and then sent to an 
apartment in Singapore, where they were locked up for weeks, according 
to interviews and affidavits taken by local prosecutors. While they 
waited to be deployed to Taiwanese tuna ships, several said, a 
gatekeeper demanded sex from them for assignments at sea.

Once aboard, the men endured 20-hour workdays and brutal beatings, only 
to return home unpaid and deeply in debt from thousands of dollars in 
upfront costs, prosecutors say.

Thousands of maritime employment agencies around the world provide a 
vital service, supplying crew members for ships, from small trawlers to 
giant container carriers, and handling everything from paychecks to 
plane tickets. While many companies operate responsibly, over all the 
industry, which has drawn little attention, is poorly regulated. The few 
rules on the books do not even apply to fishing ships, where the worst 
abuses tend to happen, and enforcement is lax.

Illegal agencies operate with even greater impunity, sending men to 
ships notorious for poor safety and labor records; instructing them to 
travel on tourist or transit visas, which exempt them from the 
protections of many labor and anti-trafficking laws; and disavowing them 
if they are denied pay, injured, killed, abandoned or arrested at sea.

“It’s lies and cheating on land, then beatings and death at sea, then 
shame and debt when these men get home,” said Shelley Thio, a board 
member of Transient Workers Count Too, a migrant workers’ advocacy group 
in Singapore. “And the manning agencies are what make it all possible.”

Step Up Marine Enterprise, the Singapore-based company that recruited 
Mr. Andrade and the other villagers, has a well-documented record of 
trouble, according to an examination of court records, police reports 
and case files in Singapore and the Philippines. In episodes dating back 
two decades, the company has been tied to trafficking, severe physical 
abuse, neglect, deceptive recruitment and failure to pay hundreds of 
seafarers in India, Indonesia, Mauritius, the Philippines and Tanzania.

Still, its owners have largely escaped accountability. Last year, for 
example, prosecutors opened the biggest trafficking case in Cambodian 
history, involving more than 1,000 fishermen, but had no jurisdiction to 
charge Step Up for recruiting them. In 2001, the Supreme Court of the 
Philippines harshly reprimanded Step Up and a partner company in Manila 
for systematically duping men, knowingly sending them to abusive 
employers and cheating them, but Step Up’s owners faced no penalties.

The Philippine authorities have charged 11 people tied to Step Up with 
trafficking and illegal recruitment of Mr. Andrade and others from the 
Philippines. But only one person, allegedly a low-level culprit, has 
been arrested and is likely to be tried: Celia Robelo, 46, who faces a 
potential life sentence for what prosecutors say was a recruiting effort 
that earned her at most $20 in commissions.

Mr. Andrade’s story was pieced together from interviews with his family, 
other seamen recruited in or near his village, police officers, lawyers 
and aid workers in Jakarta, Manila and Singapore. It highlights the 
tools — debt, trickery, fear, violence, shame and family ties — used to 
recruit men, entrap them and leave them at sea, sometimes for years 
under harsh conditions.

No country exports more seafarers than the Philippines, which provides 
roughly a quarter of them globally. More than 400,000 Filipinos sought 
work last year as officers, deckhands, fishermen, cargo handlers and 
cruise workers. Mr. Andrade’s death shows that governments are sometimes 
unable or unwilling to protect the rights of citizens far from home.

The abuse of Filipino seamen has increased in recent years, labor 
officials in the Philippines say, because the country’s maritime trade 
schools produce, on average, 20,000 graduates a year for fewer than 
5,000 openings. As men grow desperate for work, they take greater risks. 
Roughly a third of them now use agencies that are illegal — unregistered 
and willing to break rules, the officials said.

Such agencies, favored by ship operators and workers looking to shave 
costs, compound the problem of lawlessness on the high seas. Scofflaw 
ships cast off stowaways and deplete fishing stocks. Violence is 
rampant, and few nations patrol the waters, much less enforce violations 
of maritime laws or international pacts.

In Manila, in late September, along a densely packed two-block stretch 
of sidewalk on Kalaw Avenue near the bay, hundreds of seafarers looked 
for work. Recruiters from manning agencies — some legal, many not — 
carried signs around their necks listing job openings or pointed to 
brochures arrayed on tables. Fixers sold fake accreditation papers while 
a popular Tagalog rap song, “Seaman Lolo Ko” (“My Grandpa Is a Seaman”), 
boomed in the background.

“These days,” the singer, known as Yongas, rapped, “it’s the seaman 
getting duped.” Mariners, who used to be the cheaters (on their 
spouses), he warned, are now the ones cheated (by everyone else).


In the summer of 2010, Mr. Andrade was growing restless. He had studied 
criminology in college in hopes of becoming a police officer, not 
realizing that there was a minimum height requirement of 5-foot-3. He 
was two inches shy. His night watchman job at a hospital paid less than 
50 cents an hour. When not working in his family’s rice paddy, he spent 
much of his time watching cartoons on television, according to his 
brother Julius, 38.

When a cousin told him about possible work at sea, Mr. Andrade saw it as 
a chance to tour the world while earning enough money to help his 
family. He was introduced to Ms. Robelo, who prosecutors say was the 
local Step Up recruiter. She said the pay was $500 per month, in 
addition to a $50 allowance, his brother and mother recounted to the police.

Mr. Andrade agreed to sign up, handed over about $200 in “processing 
fees” and left for Manila, 220 miles north of here. He paid $318 more 
before flying to Singapore in September 2010. He received his plane 
ticket on his 31st birthday. A company representative met him at the 
airport and took him to Step Up’s office in Singapore’s crowded 
Chinatown district.

If Mr. Andrade’s experience was like those of the other Filipino men 
interviewed by The New York Times, he would have been told then that 
there had been a mistake: His pay would be less than half of what he had 
been expecting. And after multiple deductions, the $200 monthly wage 
would shrink even more.

A half-dozen other men from Mr. Andrade’s village, who prosecutors said 
were also recruited by Step Up, recalled in interviews that the 
paperwork flew by in a whirlwind of fast-moving calculations and 
unfamiliar terms (“passport forfeiture,” “mandatory fees,” “sideline 

First, they were required to sign a contract, they said, that typically 
stipulated a three-year binding commitment, no overtime pay, no sick 
leave, 18- to 20-hour workdays, six-day workweeks and $50 monthly food 
deductions, and that granted captains full discretion to reassign crew 
members to other ships. Wages were to be disbursed not monthly to the 
workers’ families but only after completion of the contract, a practice 
that is illegal at registered agencies.

Next, some of them signed a bill to pay for food supplies in advance; 
like most of the deductions, the $250 fee was kept by the agency. Then 
came the “promissory note,” confirming that the mariner would pay a 
“desertion penalty,” usually more than $1,800, if he left. The document 
noted that to collect their wages, crew members would have to fly back 
to Singapore at their own expense.

Mr. Andrade, like the other deckhands recruited by Step Up, came from a 
village (Linabuan Sur’s population is roughly 3,000). The men said they 
had never before traveled abroad, worked on the high seas, heard the 
term “trafficking” or dealt with a manning agency. None could explain 
why they might need a copy of any contract they signed as proof of a 
two-way agreement. They still did not know why it was troubling that a 
boss in a foreign country should confiscate their passports, which 
rendered them powerless to leave.

By that point, most of the men were deeply in debt, some more than 
$2,000, from recruiters’ fees, lodging expenses, health checkups, 
tourist visas and seamen’s books (mandatory maritime paperwork). They 
had borrowed from relatives, mortgaged their homes and pawned family 
possessions: “our one fishing boat,” “my brother’s home” and a carabao 
(a water buffalo), they said.

Standing on a 35-foot wooden boat late one recent night, about 40 miles 
from the Philippine shore, Condrad Bonihit, a friend of Mr. Andrade’s, 
explained why poor villagers gravitated to illegal manning agencies.

“It takes money to make money,” Mr. Bonihit said as he helped hoist a 
50-foot net gyrating with anchovies. To get jobs legally requires 
coursework at an accredited trade school that can cost $4,000 or so, he 
said, far more than most villagers can afford. And the wages quoted by 
Step Up are often nearly double what the men might make through an 
accredited company.

At sea, though, the reality is different from the promises on land, Mr. 
Bonihit said, adding that he had lasted 10 months in the job he got 
through Step Up. When the once-a-week beatings of crew members became 
too much to bear, he left his ship in port. With help from missionaries, 
he flew home, he said.

“You go with pride,” he said of his experience, “come back with shame.”

Even though Mr. Andrade, Mr. Bonihit and the other Filipino men traveled 
to Singapore at different times over the past five years, nearly all of 
them described in virtually identical terms a two-bedroom apartment on 
the 16th floor, above Step Up’s office, where they waited before and 
after voyages.

As he headed toward his first job at sea, Mr. Andrade stayed in the 
apartment for about a week, according to family members who spoke with 
him briefly by phone. Pots and pans were stacked in the corners, and the 
walls were greasy from frying fish. The floor was so dirty that moss 
grew in patches, and with the windows sealed, the rooms reeked of urine 
and sweat, according to interviews and court records.

A short Filipino man in his 40s, known as Bong, managed the apartment 
for Step Up with a Chinese woman, Lina, affidavits say. New recruits 
were told to keep their voices down and to avoid moving around much. 
Some of the men were required to leave before 7 a.m. and return after 
dark. Others were confined to the apartment, which Bong kept locked all 
the time.

At night, 20 or more men lay on flattened cardboard on the floor, inches 
apart. If Bong pointed at you, three of the seafarers recounted, it 
meant you were to sleep in his room, where, they said, he demanded sex. 
“No was not an option,” one of the men said, because Bong controlled who 
got which jobs.

Mr. Andrade’s relatives say they lost track of him shortly after 
receiving his final text message. “Bro, this is Eril,” Mr. Andrade wrote 
on Sept. 15, 2010. “I am now here in Singapore I was not able to text 
earlier I ran out of phone credit.”


Established in 1988, the manning company, then known as Step Up 
Employment Agency, initially recruited domestic labor, providing workers 
for cooking, cleaning and child care jobs in Singapore. In 1995, it 
adopted a new name and agenda. “Supplies Philippines, China, Indonesia, 
Vietnam, Myanmar, Nepal, India fisherman,” a business card said. “With 
Over 25 years of experience in fishing Vessel, We Strive To Serve You 

Within the past year, the sign for Step Up Marine Enterprise, which 
recruited Mr. Andrade, was removed from the office in Singapore where it 
had operated. The sign now advertises 123 Employment Agency, run by the 
Step Up owner's son. Credit Amrita Chandradas for The New York Times
For years, the agency was run by Victor Lim, now in his mid-60s, and his 
wife, Mary, according to court records. Its main office, on the second 
floor of a shopping mall, across from a sex-toy shop and a massage 
parlor, is small and cramped.

Within the past year or so, the company’s sign was removed, leaving only 
one for a business owned by Mr. Lim’s son, Bryan, called 123 Employment 
Agency. Singapore tax records indicate that it has had annual revenues 
of about $1 million in recent years.

The comment section of a website advertising Step Up’s services contains 
just two. The first is from a man saying the agency sends men to boats 
with unsafe working conditions. The second is from a woman who wrote in 
2013 that Step Up had offered no help after placing her brother on a 
ship from which he went missing.

In 2009, human rights groups criticized Step Up for not helping more to 
raise a ransom for the crew of the Win Far 161, a Taiwanese tuna vessel 
that was attacked by Somali pirates. The pirates used the boat, 
allegedly fishing illegally in the Indian Ocean near the Seychelles, to 
attack a Maersk container ship in an episode made famous by the movie 
“Captain Phillips.” The Win Far 161 crew was held hostage and tortured 
for 10 months, during which two members died before the others were 

That same year, when eight Filipino seamen were jailed in Tanzania for 
months on charges of illegal fishing after their captain fled, Step Up 
officials refused to hire lawyers or post bail, advocates said.

Seamen on small fishing boats like this one, in the Sibuyan Sea, make 
about $32 a month. They say they want to work on larger vessels for the 
promise of a higher income, despite reports of abuse and unpaid wages.
Hannah Reyes for The New York Times

Mr. Lim, his son and Step Up did not respond to repeated requests for 
comment for this article. But in a lawsuit decided by the Supreme Court 
of the Philippines in 2001, Mr. Lim and his partners offered an argument 
that they would repeat in later interviews about trafficking 
allegations. “Total strangers,” the defendants said, denying ties to a 
seafarer who had sued for unpaid wages.

The court revoked the recruiter license of JEAC, then Step Up’s partner 
firm in Manila, and ordered JEAC to pay the back wages. The only thing 
worse than the companies’ sending “unlettered countrymen to a foreign 
land and letting them suffer inhumane treatment in the hands of an 
abusive employer,” the court said in its decision, was that they had 
conspired to deny workers their pay.

This was roughly when Mr. Lim and Step Up shifted away from using 
registered manning agencies in the Philippines and began to rely instead 
on Filipino domestic workers in Singapore to recruit through their 
relatives in villages back home. Ms. Robelo, for example, was brought 
in, even though she had no experience, by her sister-in-law, Roselyn 
Robelo, who had worked as a domestic helper for Mr. Lim.

After Mr. Andrade died, officials from Step Up and Hung Fei Fishery Co., 
the owner of the Taiwanese fishing ship he had worked on, offered to pay 
his family about $5,000, according to a 2012 letter from the Philippine 
Embassy in Singapore. (The death benefit provided to a seafarer by a 
legal manning agency in the Philippines is typically at least $50,000.) 
The family declined, instead filing a complaint against Step Up in 
November 2011 with Singapore’s Ministry of Manpower. Officials at the 
ministry and on a government anti-trafficking task force said last month 
they were waiting for a formal request from the Philippine government 
before investigating.

Police officials and prosecutors in Mr. Andrade’s province, Aklan, 
voiced frustration at what they said was a lack of response from the 
federal authorities in Manila. Celso J. Hernandez Jr., a lawyer with the 
Philippine Overseas Employment Administration, the agency responsible 
for protecting Filipino workers sent abroad, said he had no records on 
Mr. Andrade’s death or on Step Up. “The illegal manning agencies are 
invisible to us,” he said. The Philippine anti-trafficking task force 
did not respond to requests for comment.

Taiwanese police and fishery officials said they had no record of having 
questioned Shao Chin Chung, the captain of Mr. Andrade’s ship, about his 
death. The ship, Hung Yu 212, was cited for illegal fishing in 2000, 
2011 and 2012, according to the commissions that regulate tuna fishing 
in the Indian and Atlantic Oceans. A secretary at Hung Fei Fishery Co., 
based in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, said recently that the owner was traveling 
and was not available to answer questions. Efforts to interview other 
crew members were unsuccessful.

On April 6, 2011, Mr. Andrade’s cadaver arrived at port in Singapore on 
the Hung Yu 212. Dr. Wee Keng Poh, a forensic pathologist at Singapore’s 
Health Sciences Authority, conducted an autopsy six days later. He 
concluded that the cause of death was acute myocarditis, an inflammatory 
disease of the heart muscle. His report gave little more detail.

The body was then flown to the Philippines, where Dr. Noel Martinez — 
the pathologist in Kalibo, the provincial capital — performed a second 
autopsy. He disagreed with the first, instead citing a heart attack as 
the cause of death. Dr. Martinez’s autopsy report also noted extensive 
unexplained bruises and cuts, inflicted before death, on Mr. Andrade’s 
brow, upper and lower lip, nose, upper right chest and right armpit.

Mr. Andrade’s pancreas and one eye were missing. The two pathologists 
could not be reached, but a provincial police investigator suggested 
that the organs could have been damaged in an accident aboard the ship 
or removed during the first autopsy. Removing an eye is not typical in 
an autopsy, several pathologists in New York said, adding that the 
pancreas might have been missing because it sometimes decomposes faster 
than other organs.

Shaking his head, Emmanuel Concepcion, a friend of Mr. Andrade’s, said 
he knew what conditions on long-haul fishing boats were like and doubted 
that Mr. Andrade had died of natural causes. After being recruited by 
Step Up, Mr. Concepcion also worked on a Taiwanese tuna ship, in the 
South Atlantic, but quit after the cook fatally stabbed the captain, who 
had routinely beaten crew members. Asked what he thought was the most 
likely cause of his friend’s death, Mr. Concepcion said, simply, “Violence.”


Down a dirt road, surrounded by rice paddies, Ms. Robelo sat behind 
cinder-block walls in a remote jail. Housing about 223 prisoners, only 
24 of them women, the five-acre Aklan Rehabilitation Center has the feel 
of a bustling shantytown. Chickens and visiting children scurried 
underfoot as prisoners squatted on a roof overlooking the courtyard.

Most of the 10 Step Up workers who have been charged in absentia by the 
Philippine authorities are in Singapore, and they are unlikely to be 
prosecuted because there is no extradition treaty between the countries.

Jailed since May 2013, Ms. Robelo cried while explaining what had led to 
her arrest.

“When I got a name,” she said, “I called it to Singapore.” She never met 
or spoke directly with any of the Lims, she said; she communicated only 
with her sister-in-law in Singapore. Before Mr. Andrade’s death, she 
said, she never heard from the men prosecutors say she recruited, some 
of them her relatives, about what happened in Singapore or at sea. She 
said she had signed up only three men, not 10, as prosecutors charge.

“If no one has work, a job is something you share,” Ms. Robelo said, 
adding that she saw her role as “helping the boys,” not officially 
recruiting them. She said she had been told that the $2 promised (but 
never paid) for each person she referred was not a commission but 
intended to offset the cost of driving to the men’s houses for paperwork.

Visiting the jail, her husband, Mitchell, 44, and children — Xavier, 9, 
and Gazrelle, 7 — stood nearby. Mr. Robelo has been unemployed since he 
sold his auto rickshaw to raise $2,800 to pay his wife’s first lawyer, 
who, the couple said, took the money and disappeared without doing any work.

In Kalibo, a prosecutor, Reynaldo B. Peralta Jr., said the local police 
had not interviewed other crew members from Mr. Andrade’s ship about how 
he died because they were elsewhere in the Philippines, beyond Mr. 
Peralta’s jurisdiction.

“Were it not for her recruitment,” Mr. Peralta said of Ms. Robelo, 
“these victims would not have left the country.” Ms. Robelo knew she was 
recruiting illegally, he claimed, because some villagers gave her money 
to send to Singapore.

Back in the village, hidden behind a thicket of banana trees, the empty 
metal lining from Mr. Andrade’s coffin sat alongside the now-abandoned 
house that he had hoped to repair. A half-dozen unpaid electric bills 
were wedged into the cracked front door, addressed to his mother, 
Molina, who died in 2013 from liver failure. Inside, water dripped 
through the ceiling.

Julius, Mr. Andrade’s brother, said that unless officials in Manila got 
more involved, he did not believe he would ever get justice for his 
brother’s death. “It’s not right,” he said of Ms. Robelo’s 
incarceration. The real culprits who should be in jail, he added, are in 
Singapore and at sea.

Susan Beachy contributed research from New York.

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