By Ian Urbina, New York Times
When Eril Andrade left this small village, he was healthy and hoping to earn enough on a fishing boat on the high seas to replace his mother’s leaky roof.
Seven months later, his body was sent home in a wooden coffin: jet black from having been kept in a fish freezer aboard a ship for more than a month, missing an eye and his pancreas, and covered in cuts and bruises, which an autopsy report later concluded had been inflicted before death.
“Sick and resting,” said a note taped to his body. Handwritten in Chinese by the ship’s captain, it stated only that Mr. Andrade, 31, had fallen ill in his sleep.
Mr. Andrade, who died in February 2011, and nearly a dozen other men in his village had been recruited by an illegal “manning agency,” tricked with false promises of double the actual wages and then sent to an apartment in Singapore, where they were locked up for weeks, according to interviews and affidavits taken by local prosecutors. While they waited to be deployed to Taiwanese tuna ships, several said, a gatekeeper demanded sex from them for assignments at sea.
Once aboard, the men endured 20-hour workdays and brutal beatings, only to return home unpaid and deeply in debt from thousands of dollars in upfront costs, prosecutors say.
Thousands of maritime employment agencies around the world provide a vital service, supplying crew members for ships, from small trawlers to giant container carriers, and handling everything from paychecks to plane tickets. While many companies operate responsibly, over all the industry, which has drawn little attention, is poorly regulated. The few rules on the books do not even apply to fishing ships, where the worst abuses tend to happen, and enforcement is lax.
Illegal agencies operate with even greater impunity, sending men to ships notorious for poor safety and labor records; instructing them to travel on tourist or transit visas, which exempt them from the protections of many labor and anti-trafficking laws; and disavowing them if they are denied pay, injured, killed, abandoned or arrested at sea.
“It’s lies and cheating on land, then beatings and death at sea, then shame and debt when these men get home,” said Shelley Thio, a board member of Transient Workers Count Too, a migrant workers’ advocacy group in Singapore. “And the manning agencies are what make it all possible.”