[Marxism] Tricked and Indebted on Land, Abused or Abandoned at Sea
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Mon Nov 9 09:13:17 MST 2015
(The human costs of an industry that is leading to the extinction of
NY Times, Nov. 9 2015
TRICKED AND INDEBTED ON LAND, ABUSED OR ABANDONED AT SEA
By IAN URBINA
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
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
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
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
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
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.”
“A JOB IS SOMETHING YOU SHARE”
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
“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.
“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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