After a Russian trawler crewed in part by 42 Myanmar fishermen sank in a tragic disaster last week, the veil was lifted on a duplicitous recruitment scheme that has for years profited by illegally tricking labourers onto fishing boats, The Myanmar Times has learned.
Two of the five Myanmar recruitment agencies responsible for sending seamen aboard the now sunken Russian freezer Dalniy Vostok admitted they knowingly falsified workers’ registration cards, and said such practices were standard in the industry.
The companies told The Myanmar Times they regularly registered recruited seamen to government-approved vessels, but instead sent the workers into unchartered territories and unpermitted industries, such as the fishing sector.
“That’s a normal case. We always have to do it because the [approved] shipping companies have no jobs, but another, unregistered ship has a vacancy so we [send them there] even though it violates the laws of the Department of Maritime Administration,” said U Soe Tint, manager of Myanmar Sea Rider Shipping.
Myanmar migrants can work aboard cargo ships, oil tankers or cruise vessels but government rules make it illegal for them to join the overseas fishing industry, which is rife with abusive and exploitative conditions.
It is also illegal to transfer a recruited seaman from one ship to another without the Department of Maritime Administration’s prior approval, said U Toe Myint, director of the administration’s seaman department.
But the regulations are flagrantly ignored.
On its website, Sea Rider lists worker registration cards posting seamen to vessels in Malaysia, Singapore and the United Arab Emirates. But in late November, 2014, Sea Rider sent a group of fresh recruits to Busan, South Korea where they joined the crew of Russian pollock trawler Dalniy Vostok.
According to manager U Soe Tint, all the seamen accepted the transfer from various posts to the fishing ship. He said they even signed a document agreeing to crew a vessel not registered with the Myanmar government as it sailed back into Russian waters.
But their families tell a different story; they say the men had no idea they were being sent to a fishing vessel until it was too late. When the men found out their lot, they were given no other employment options and, having already paid a steep fee to the agency, felt they had little option but to take menial fishing work in exchange for promised high wages.
Sea Rider admits it sent 27 Myanmar workers to the Russian trawler now submerged in freezing waters of the Northern Pacific. One of those Sea Rider recruited is dead and another 13 are unaccounted for, presumed dead.