Cheated seafarers speak out: ‘It’s simply human trafficking’

Ko Aung Naing’s dream was to be a seaman on a shipping vessel. But when his parents paid an employment agency K3.3 million to get him a job on a foreign cargo ship, he didn’t expect to end up working near a foreign port for a meagre wage as an assistant welder.

By Shwegu Thitsar   |   Monday, 27 October 2014

Ko Aung Naing’s dream was to be a seaman on a shipping vessel. But when his parents paid an employment agency K3.3 million to get him a job on a foreign cargo ship, he didn’t expect to end up working near a foreign port for a meagre wage as an assistant welder.

His 900 ringgit (US$300) per month salary is barely enough to cover his living expenses in Sibu, in Malaysia’s eastern state of Sarawak, let alone begin paying off the loan that his parents took out to pay the agency.

Employment and living conditions in Sibu are “very unpleasant”, says Ko Aung Naing, who has been in Malaysia for three months. He relates the case of one Myanmar man working on a palm oil plantation in the area who was “severely beaten” by a gang because he had tried to run away from his job.

“Most people can’t endure that kind of hard work,” he said. “I felt very sorry when this happened but I can’t give any help to him because I’m struggling to get by as well. Plantation owners have even threatened to kill anybody who runs away.”

But with debts at home and no money to return to Myanmar, Ko Aung Naing has little option but to wait for a chance to get on a ship. And he is not alone; he and others in Sibu interviewed by The Myanmar Times estimated there are several hundred Myanmar nationals waiting for jobs on shipping vessels – including one man who has been there for six years. Some have jobs in small workshops, like Ko Aung Naing, while others work in factories, or on fishing boats or local vessels carrying construction materials.

“We are in a very tough situation,” he said. “So far, we haven’t seen any opportunities to get on a ship but we also can’t go home. Instead, we have to work for a meagre income and try to save money to pay back the fee that our parents borrowed to pay the agency. But I am not ready to give up on my dream to be a sailor.”

Going to sea has always been an attractive job in Myanmar. However, in the past two years an industry has arisen to exploit the dreams and lack of knowledge of young Myanmar men and their families. Many are misled into thinking that by paying thousands of dollars to employment agencies they will secure well-paying jobs on reputable cargo ships.

As a result, the number of registered sailors has grown to more than 98,000, according to the Department of Marine Administration, yet of this figure only 30,000 are on a ship at any one time. Those without experience are also at a disadvantage, with experienced sailors getting most of the jobs on offer.

Seafarers’ organisations, such as the Myanmar Maritime Workers’ Federation (MMWF) and the Myanmar Seamen’s Federation, have been widely criticised for failing to address the problem. Some of them seem more interested in raising funds than helping their members, said Ko Nyo Tun, an executive at the Bangkok-based Seafarers’ Union of Burma.

“There are no organisations able to resolve seamen’s problems effectively. They just want to recruit more members and seek international financing,” he said.

But MMWF general secretary U Tin Ko Ko Thet said the federation helped to negotiate on behalf of seafarers who get in disputes with job agencies, while also conducting training to better prepare sailors before they head abroad.

He said seamen who have been misled by the agency could take legal action, including the filing of criminal charges for deception. However, most do not because they do not have enough money or do not realise their rights. Some find it too difficult because they are from outside Yangon, where most employment agencies are based. “People who live in Yangon can go to the agency every day. But those from outside the city have difficulty demanding a refund because of the expense of transport, so they don’t claim a refund,” he said.

He agreed that many agencies are exploitative, pointing to the fact they collect service charges from seafarers for placements but also get payments from shipping lines for placing workers in jobs. This continues to happen despite the government issuing an order on July 17, 2013, outlawing the levying of service charges to sailors. U Tin Ko Ko Thet said the fee had actually risen since the order was issued.

“I don’t know who started the system that seafarers have to pay the agents but the agents get income from both sides. The fee used to be $300, but it has now risen to $500 or more. The government has asked the agencies not to charge the seamen, but only the employers, but I’m not sure if any agreement has been signed.”

U Toe Myit, director of the DMA’s Seafarer Division, said because of the service charge agencies have an incentive to recruit as many sailors as possible, regardless of whether they have positions for them.

“If they can’t get the service charge from them, [agencies] won’t lie,” he said. “The DMA is planning to help seafarers so they can avoid being cheated by creating a list of shipping companies so they can check whether the company they are in contact with is official.”

U Htin Aung Thwin from Victory Shipping & Trading Company agreed that there were some dodgy agencies in the industry but said it was also difficult to ensure every sailor is placed on a ship immediately.

“Sometimes the ships leave the port suddenly after they have finished loading. In this situation, the men have to wait until that ship lands again,” he said. “My company has sent more than 700 seafarers and most of them can work on the ship within a short time. But some companies lie and say they have work on a ship when they don’t.”

U Tin Ko Ko Thet said prospective sailors also need to be aware of their rights and responsibilities. “If a vessel is not the one stipulated by the company, the seafarer can charge the company. If they’re afraid to fight for their rights, they will lose their rights,” he said.

In practice, however, this can prove difficult. Until recently, sailors who asked for help or submitted a complaint to the International Transport Workers’ Federation or International Labour Organization were likely to have their Continuous Discharge Certificate – an identity document for registered seamen – confiscated by the DMA. While the government insists this policy is no longer in place, many sailors fear they will have trouble getting work if they complain about abuses or exploitation.

While Ko Aung Naing is not ready to give up on his dream, others would be more than happy to return home from Sibu – if they had the money. Ko Soe Thu, who paid the K3.3 million agency fee with support from his parents, said the delay and the uncertainty over when he would board ship had left him depressed.

“The agency assured me of an urgent job on a bunker ship earning nearly K500,000 a month. I wanted to acquire sea experience and then shift to another job with better pay. But I’ve been stranded here for two months,” he said by phone. “I will go home if I don’t get a job on a bunker [fuel] ship.”

He expressed anger at the way the recruitment company in Yangon had misled him and other Myanmar sailors in Sibu.

“All of us came here in the hope of getting a job immediately. Recruitment companies should take responsibility for their failings and should refund the money,” he said.

Mandalay resident Ko Ko Naing, who is waiting in Sibu to join a ship, said he had been promised a job on a bunker. “I’ve been waiting a month. They asked me to join other vessels. I told my family to send me money to get back home if no suitable vessel becomes available.”

He said some had little option but to stay. “I feel sorry for those who can’t afford to go back. I’ve since learned from more experienced people you should bring enough money with you to get home again.”

Ko Khun Chan said he graduated as an engineer before training as a sailor and signing a contract with an agency for an immediate job on a bunker ship. He paid K3.2 million to come to Sibu, where he has spent the past month waiting, with no word about a ship.

“We’ve found there are a lot of seafarers waiting here for months. My cousin’s parents mortgaged their home to raise the agency fee,” he said. “People here are demoralised and angry.”

Ko Chan, who has been working at a car workshop for the past two months while waiting for a berth, said even returning home is fraught with danger. “Two men who arranged a return trip for themselves are now in hiding from the police because their agent informed the police about their plans,” he said.

He expressed anger at both the Myanmar government and seafarer organisations for ignoring those stuck in Sibu – and not lifting a finger to stop more young men from Myanmar’s rural areas chasing their dreams and ending up stuck in a foreign town, heavily in debt. “There’s no one here to help us,” he said. “Agents in Yangon and in Malaysia know exactly what is happening but they don’t stop cheating people, they just keep sending new men here. It’s simply human trafficking.”

Translation by Thiri Min Htun and Zar Zar Soe