The reporter Ian Urbina gives readers a taste of his experience reporting on illicit activities in the sea near the Philippines.
By IAN URBINA
Sometimes even open secrets are worth exploring. During the year I spent reporting on lawlessness at sea, many sources mentioned so-called manning agencies that trick seafarers into working on the world’s ships, especially fishing vessels.
Stories about these scams — how they work, whom they target and with what consequence — piqued my interest. In the article I wrote for today’s paper, I focused on the Philippines, which produces roughly a quarter of the world’s seafaring population. Since much of the recent international attention to sea slavery has concentrated on the waters near Thailand, I decided to investigate trafficking and forced labor elsewhere in the maritime world.
I began by looking at the fraudulent recruitment and suspicious death of one Filipino man, Eril Andrade. But my scope quickly expanded.
As I traveled around small villages in the Philippines, police investigators, provincial prosecutors, seafarer advocates and former deckhands told me about widespread patterns of trafficking and related abuse.
I learned that agencies, most of them illegal, typically used local recruiters to target rural men, promising them twice what they actually paid them after they had signed exploitative employment contracts. The agencies then dispatched the recruits to some of the most violent and dangerous ships, usually Taiwanese tuna longliners.
Trouble at sea, including beatings, rapes, injuries and killings, is common and when trouble arises, the manning agencies sometimes disavowed responsibility for the men, and refused to pay them. “And at sea, there are no embassies,” Celso Celso J. Hernandez Jr., a lawyer with the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration, the agency responsible for protecting Filipino workers sent abroad, said about how detached and unprotected seafarers are.
It was not difficult to find villagers who had this experience. But many of these men were ashamed of the fact that they had been scammed. So it took some doing to get them to speak candidly. Sexual abuse, debt still owed to relatives, and the violence faced at sea are particularly sensitive subjects. I tried to talk privately with the men in the hopes of making it easier for them to open up about these topics.
Hannah Reyes, the photographer on this story, was born in the Philippines, and is a native Tagalog speaker. She has a gentle manner and was very helpful in getting the men to share their stories. In the end, we interviewed nearly a dozen villagers who, through manning agencies, had been duped and sent to sea, only to return penniless and often indebted from having paid broker fees to get the job.
Some were more difficult than others to find. Hannah and I trekked through the woods in a remote island village about 200 miles south of Manila looking for a trafficking victim whose story I had read about in a police report. We also tracked down a former deckhand who worked as a fry cook at a fast-food restaurant in Kalibo. It took a day of persuading, but I finally got him to share his experience with us. I traveled 40 miles out to sea on a fishing expedition with a 10-man crew to get time talking with another man whose story I wanted to hear.
We did additional reporting outside the Philippines. In Singapore, we pressed government officials to explain why they failed to investigate allegations against Step Up Marine Enterprise related to Mr. Andrade. When our repeated calls went unanswered, we hand delivered a letter to the manning agency’s office that detailed both our findings and numerous accusations made by Filipino law enforcement. In Taiwan, we questioned the police, fishery authorities and asked the fishing company whose boat that Mr. Andrade died on for more information about his case. In Cape Town, we combed through police and harbor records related to some of the men who fled ships docking there.
Though many manning agencies operate ethically, scams are not uncommon and Filipino labor officials readily admit that illegal and unscrupulous firms operate with impunity.
I spent a day in Manila at a federal agency office sifting through a stack of reported abuse cases. I found a study that showed that, from January 2010 to April 2011, 63 Filipino men who had been on fishing vessels, looked to the Filipino Embassy in Singapore for help escaping trafficking related problems. The finding was especially striking because it was far higher than the number of requests the embassy received during the same period from Filipino women involved in the sex and night life entertainment industry. Historically, the sex and entertainment sector has been thought to be more prone to rights abuse.
I also found fake forms that recruiters use to trick men into paying fees for jobs that did not exist. The upper right hand corner of some of these forms were emblazoned with official looking stamps. When I looked at the fine print, I saw that these had been made with a children’s stamp kit and included the face of Minnie Mouse.
Apprentice seafarers commonly pay more in fees to get jobs than they would earn per year in those jobs. Many of these men lack better alternatives as higher paying positions often require several years’ experience at sea.
One seafarer told me that he had borrowed more than $2,100 from relatives to pay for course work necessary to become an accredited seafarer. He was $9 short, however, when instructors came to collect bribe money required to take final exams. He dropped out of the program and sought work from an illegal manning agency, called Step Up Marine Enterprise, which is based in Singapore. But the ship where Step Up placed him was more violent than the man could handle, he said. So, he left without fulfilling his contract and returned home, unpaid.
In a small village called Linabuan Sur, I spent the better part of two days talking with Celia Robelo, a 46-year-old Filipino woman, who has spent more than two years in a ramshackle, rural jail awaiting trial on charges of human trafficking and illegal recruitment connected with Mr. Andrade. Emotionally distraught, she cried most of the time we talked. She seemed as if she was still in shock over her fate and that she is facing a potential life sentence for what she said she thought was merely providing job assistance to fellow villagers.
Prosecutors dispute that, saying that Ms. Robelo knew she was recruiting men for an illegal manning agency. But her situation highlights a larger truism about the outlaw ocean: The transient, multinational nature of maritime work makes it easy for companies and governments to deflect responsibility when seafarers are abused. In the rare instance that an investigation or prosecution of human trafficking at sea occurs, it typically targets low-level players not the more culpable decision-makers.
Summing up the situation, a police investigator involved in Mr. Andrade’s case voiced frustration with official inaction on the part of governments in Manila, Taipei and Singapore to target the people most to blame. “The hope,” he said about the investigation that resulted in Ms. Robelo’s arrest, “was always that this would be the beginning, not the end.”
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