Jakarta (ANTARA) - Since 2000, over nine million Indonesians left to seek work abroad, averaging over 400 thousand annually, and on International Migrant’s Day, Indonesia celebrates contributions of its migrant workers who sent US$9.96-billion personal remittances in 2022.

Nonetheless, at the same time, it must be recognized that the rights and protection of Indonesian migrant workers in sea-based sectors are precarious.

Before the Constitutional Court, Law No. 18 of 2017 Concerning the Protection of Indonesia Migrant Workers and its subsequent amendments are being challenged on grounds that its inclusion of "seafarers" and "fishers" as migrant workers is unconstitutional.

While the Constitutional Court considers the case, it is important to remember that the protection of Indonesian migrant workers must remain paramount.

Indonesians working on foreign-flagged vessels as fishers and seafarers are entitled to the same protection as Indonesian migrant workers in other sectors. The fact that their workplace is at sea should not result in the erosion of their protection.

Although flag states are responsible for the living and working conditions onboard a vessel and have exclusive jurisdiction on the high seas, in reality, many are unable or unwilling to protect fishers and seafarers.

This is particularly the case for those who are not their citizens and who work at sea for long periods, out of sight of regulatory authorities.

Sea-based work is complex. An Indonesian fisher or seafarer may work onboard a foreign-flagged vessel and remain at sea for months, or even years, while passing through various coastal and port states.

This means that the key opportunity for the protection of these workers is before they arrive onboard foreign vessels.

The regulation of manning agencies that recruit and place workers onto foreign fleets and their recruitment practices, is therefore, one of the most critical opportunities for the Indonesian government to ensure the protection of their migrant workers in sea-based sectors.

Indonesia has one of the highest unemployment rates in ASEAN, leading many to seek work abroad.

However, the forthcoming ILO research shows that Indonesian migrant fishers typically pay more than US$630 to get a job on a foreign-flagged fishing vessel, with 75 percent going into debt to do so.

On vessels flagged to China or Taiwan (China), where Indonesian migrant fishers are predominantly placed, fishers work nearly seven days a week, 15 hours per day, and more than 100 hours per week.

Many reported that their jobs involved working longer and wages were all worse or lower than promised when recruited. Meanwhile, around 30 percent of Indonesian migrant fishers reported being in situations that constitute forced labor.

In recognition of the contributions of migrant workers, Indonesia, as the Chair of ASEAN in 2023, led the adoption of ASEAN instruments aimed at protecting migrant workers in vulnerable situations.

At the 42nd ASEAN Summit held in May 2023, the ASEAN Declaration on the Placement and Protection of Migrant Fishers was adopted.

As the name suggests, the Declaration recognizes the importance of the recruitment and placement process in the protection of migrant fishers throughout the migration cycle.

Fishing is recognized as a hard-to-reach sector and a hazardous occupation that aggravates the vulnerabilities of migrant workers.

The Declaration specifically calls on member states to improve “ethical and fair recruitment and placement” processes for migrant fishers. Indonesia, as the instigator of the ASEAN Declaration, must stand firm on its commitment to protect migrant fishers.

The regulation of recruitment and manning agencies is a critical element in the prevention of forced labor, and the accountability of recruitment and manning agencies is crucial to ensuring adequate response to cases of forced labor if they arise.

While Indonesia has demonstrated regional leadership in several respects, the government should take decisive steps to implement protection measures.

Whether it is the Ministry of Manpower, the Indonesian Migrant Worker Protection Agency, the Ministry of Transportation, or a form of shared mandate across government authorities, Indonesia has a whole-of-government responsibility to implement fair recruitment policies and processes for all migrant workers, especially those working in sea-based sectors, such as fishing.

The government should promote schemes that hold employers and recruiters accountable for the respect of workers’ rights in the recruitment process and promote fair recruitment, including effective complaint mechanisms accessible to workers.

Fundamentally, migrant workers in sea-based sectors must enjoy equal protection as the workers in other sectors. Their rights and protection must remain water-tight, especially as their workplace is at sea.

*) Mi Zhou is a Chief Technical Advisor at the International Labour Organizations and heads the Ship to Shore Rights South East Asia programme, a multi-country initiative of the European Union (EU) and the United Nations (UN).

The views and opinions expressed on this page are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the ANTARA News Agency.

Copyright © ANTARA 2023