In March 25, 2011, Yusril became a slave. That afternoon he went to the East Jakarta offices of Indah Megah Sari (IMS), an agency that hires crews to work on foreign fishing vessels. He was offered a job on the Melilla 203, a South Korea-flagged ship that trawls in the waters off New Zealand. “Hurry up,” said the agent, holding a pen over a thick stack of contracts in a windowless conference room with water-stained walls. Waving at a pile of green Indonesian passports of other prospective fishermen, he added: “You really can’t waste time reading this. There are a lot of others waiting, and the plane leaves tomorrow.”
Yusril is 28, with brooding looks and a swagger that belies his slight frame. (Yusril asked that his real name not be used out of concern for his safety.) He was desperate for the promised monthly salary of $260, plus bonuses, for unloading fish. His wife was eight months pregnant, and he had put his name on a waiting list for the job nine months earlier. After taking a daylong bus ride to Jakarta, he had given the agent a $225 fee he borrowed from his brother-in-law. The agent rushed him through signing the contracts, at least one of which was in English, which Yusril does not read.
The terms of the first contract, the “real” one, would later haunt him. In it, IMS spelled out terms with no rights. In addition to the agent’s commission, Yusril would surrender 30 percent of his salary, which IMS would hold unless the work was completed. He would be paid nothing for the first three months, and if the job were not finished to the fishing company’s satisfaction, Yusril would be sent home and charged more than $1,000 for the airfare. The meaning of “satisfactory” was left vague. The contract said only that Yusril would have to work whatever hours the boat operators demanded.
The last line of the contract, in bold, warned that Yusril’s family would owe nearly $3,500 if he were to run away from the ship. The amount was greater than his net worth, and he had earlier submitted title to his land as collateral for that bond. Additionally, he had provided IMS with the names and addresses of his family members. He was locked in.
What followed, according to Yusril and several shipmates who corroborated his story, was an eight-month ordeal aboard the Melilla 203, during which Indonesian fishermen were subjected to physical and sexual abuse by the ship’s operators. Their overlords told them not to complain or fight back, or they would be sent home, where the agents would take their due. Yusril and 23 others walked off in protest when the trawler docked in Lyttelton, New Zealand. The men have seen little if any of what they say they are owed. Such coerced labor is modern-day slavery, as the United Nations defines the crime. (The South Korean owners of the Melilla ships did not respond to requests for comment.)
The experiences of the fishermen on the Melilla 203 were not unique. In a six-month investigation, Bloomberg Businessweek found cases of debt bondage on the Melilla 203 and at least nine other ships that have operated in New Zealand’s waters. As recently as November 2011, fish from the Melilla 203 and other suspect vessels were bought and processed by United Fisheries, New Zealand’s eighth-largest seafood company, which has sold the same kinds of fish in the same period to distributors operating in the U.S. (The U.S. imports 86 percent of its seafood.) The distributors in turn have sold the fish to major U.S. companies. Those companies—which include some of the country’s biggest retailers and restaurants—have sold the seafood to American consumers.
Yusril’s story and that of nearly two dozen other survivors of abuse reveal how the $85 billion global fishing industry profits from the labor of people forced to work for little or no pay, often under the threat of violence. Although many seafood companies and retailers in the U.S. claim not to do business with suppliers who exploit their workers, the truth is far murkier. (see the link for the rest of Yusril's story)