Kenya: ‘I Am a Muslim but I Had to Eat Pork’ – Kenyan Seafarers Claim Mistreatment on China Vessels

Kenyan seafarers have revealed unbearable working and living conditions and suspicious business activities aboard Chinese fishing vessels operating in the Indian Ocean.

They cited torture and mistreatment, including being forced to engage in illegal business and being barred from communicating with their families.

Though many of the sailors were recruited by reputable placement agents, they said, their Chinese supervisors threatened to throw them into the sea if they did not cooperate.

For Musa Sila, 57, who has worked as a diver and seafarer for 37 years, working on Chinese vessels was the most trying time in his career. He said he was forced to eat snakes, pork and other foods he did not like.

He decided to return home when his colleague mysteriously died on a foreign ship.

“I was on the high seas for five months, but I decided to come back home after my colleague suddenly died. They claimed it was because of a heart attack but they know what killed him,” he said about an incident from earlier this year.

“There was no food, we were forced to eat pork, and we could not communicate with our families when we were in Indonesia.”

Sometimes they would spend weeks in the high seas without engaging in any fishing activities, he said.

Suspicious activity

“At night the vessels exchange suspicious goods with other vessels. We wondered why whenever we were in fishing grounds, everything was ready but the vessels did not fish for almost a month stationed in the same spot,” he said.

“But at night we could see foreign vessels exchanging goods wrapped in boxes and sacks whose contents were suspicious.”

At such times, Mr Sila said, they were told to remain in ships as the vessels exchanged unknown goods.

“Are we fishing or engaging in other illegal businesses? When we asked, we were told that as long as we are fed and paid we should be content. The ships were not engaging in fishing,” he said.

Vessels, he said, recruit Kenyan fishermen who end up staying in the ships without doing any fishing.

“I am a Muslim. I had no option but to eat the pork. What would I eat in a Chinese vessel?” he said during an enquiry by the Senate’s Labour and Social Welfare Committee at the Mombasa County Assembly on Friday.

The seafarers suggested that the vessels could be engaging in the illegal drug business and not fishing.

Other challenges they cited were unpaid wages, unfair dismissals without notice and long working hours.

They said they sign a three-month contract but are forced to work beyond expiry dates.

“The company I worked for still owes me one month’s salary,” Mr Sila said.

They said the foreign vessels are violating Kenya’s maritime labour laws and International Labour Organisation laws on maritime operations. Kenya has licensed seven Chinese fishing ships to operate in its exclusive economic zone.

The meeting was convened to allow seafarers to share their experiences aboard Chinese-owned vessels registered in Kenya. Each employed five Kenyans.

The committee’s chairperson, Johnson Sakaja (Nairobi), said the Directorate of Criminal Investigations (DCI) should investigate the allegations.

“We want to address the challenges affecting Kenyan workers. We want the relevant agencies to probe this matter further. The blue economy is an important sector that has spurred growth in many countries. We want the coastal region to benefit from this resource. We cannot allow foreigners to benefit from our resources,” he said, adding that whistleblowers should be protected.

John Omingo, the head of commercial shipping at the Kenya Maritime Authority (KMA), acknowledged receiving some of the complaints, saying mediation and corrective actions had been taken with the relevant entities.

Mombasa Senator Mohammed Faki had petitioned the committee to have a sitting with the seafarers and hear their complaints.

‘Failed to protect Kenyans’

Some of the seafarers said that the Chinese vessels do not bring the catch back to Kenya although the law dictates that 30 per cent of their haul be brought back.

Kilifi Senator Madzayo Stewart condemned KMA, saying it had failed to protect Kenyan workers.

But KMA officials said they were addressing the concerns. Mr Omingo said some of the measures they had adopted were deregistering five Chinese vessels upon complaints by Kenyans.

He urged seafarers to ensure they are issued with employment agreements.

Shipping recruitment agents, led by Iddi Musa of the Mombasa Ocean Agency, defended their firms for offering employment opportunities to Kenyans. He said that in March this year, his firm recruited and placed 30 seafarers in different fishing vessels.

“We have not had any complaints about our seafarers’ working conditions. We have had cordial relationships with our seafarers and other agencies. We are not here to oppress anyone,” he said.

Renson Thoya, the chairman of the Mombasa County Assembly’s Labour Committee, urged the government to look into the matter further.

“We want this matter investigated and no stone will be left unturned. This game might be what is affecting our Mombasa youth. Even if it means going into the deep sea, we shall do it,” he said.

Changamwe Ward Representative Bernard Ogutu said some seafarers are threatened when they reveal the truth.

“We must unearth the truth. We need this matter to be dealt with in totality so that the crimes in the seas are dealt with once and for all,” he said.

The Mombasa MCAs said some young people in the region are languishing in drug addiction due to the illegal drug business in the ocean.

They called for the protection of whistleblowers who have revealed what is happening in the high seas.

Recently, Agriculture and Fisheries Cabinet Secretary Peter Munya said all foreign vessels operating in Kenya’s Indian Ocean waters must hire local youths after the government began training its fishers.

In partnership with a Namibian company, the Kenyan government began training its first batch of 400 fishers to venture into the sector.

Currently, foreign vessels and trawlers fishing in Kenya’s exclusive economic zones employ foreigners, including Sierra Leoneans, due to lack of local expertise.

Kenya’s annual fish production stands at 160,000 metric tonnes annually, against a potential of 300,000.

Statistics from the Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute show that Kenya has a deficit of about 400,000 metric tonnes of fish.

In 2019, total annual fish production stood at 146,687 metric tonnes (MT), comprising 23,700MT from marine resources, 18,542 from aquaculture and 102,331 from freshwater production.

Between May and August 1, the Nation, through the Global Fish Watch tracker site, compiled more than 230 fishing vessels undertaking deep-sea fishing in Kenya’s waters.

Most of them are foreign-owned, with China, Seychelles, Italy, Taiwan and Hong Kong-flagged vessels appearing multiple times on the tracking site and recording more than 50,000 fishing hours in Kenyan waters.

In 2020, seven Kenyan-flagged, Chinese-owned and operated fishing vessels were authorised by the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission to fish in the ocean from January 1, 2021 to December 31, 2031.


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Author : Nation

Publish date : 2021-10-05 07:05:55

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