Pusaka Benjina Resources, the fishing company at the centre of a recent Indonesian government crackdown, has denied allegations of slavery even after an investigation revealed it had forced hundreds of foreign workers including Myanmar migrants into physical labour, reports the Jakarta Globe on April 15.
The company was the subject of an Associated Press investigation that discovered hundreds of foreign workers on the Indonesian island of Benjina, mainly from Myanmar, working in captivity without pay, while subjected to torture.
“We do not practice slavery. You could say we abuse [our workers]. But we will cooperate with authorities who wish to investigate the matter,” PBR operational chief Mr Herman Wir Martino said.
The Myanmar workers, the AP reported, said they were forced to work 22 hours a day, were whipped with toxic stingray tails, denied any pay, and forbidden from returning to their home country or telling anyone about their plight. Some were allegedly held in cages.
Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Minister Susi Pudjiastuti immediately launched an investigation after the report surfaced. Her office has since shut down the company.
The minister said there was also evidence that other firms in the area were using slave labour — and had been for years.
Mr Herman of PBR, however, refused to call the Myanmar workers “slaves,” arguing that although they were subject to harsh and inhumane treatment, they were paid, fed and not confined to cells.
“They still get paid — although not much,” he claimed. “They still earn 300,000 rupees [K23,000] every 10 days. We also feed them.”
Herman did not deny physical abuse occurred, but insisted that any form of violence took place at sea.
“They only come [to Benjina] to unload their catch. Afterward, they sail for two to three months looking for fish. The abuse must have happened [while at sea],” he said, adding that corporal punishment was “normal” practice among fishing crews due to “stress,” but had nothing to do with Pusakaka Benjina Resources.
He did confirm, however, that a number of Myanmar crew members had died while working for PBR.
The maritime ministry formed a task force with local prosecutors, immigration officers, the Indonesian Navy and National Police to crack down on the company and confirm the AP report. The Myanmar and Thai governments have also sent teams to check out the problem.
The workers, some of whom had been held captive for nine years, were taken to Tual, some 100 kilometres west of the Aru Islands, from where they were subsequently repatriated.
The National Police is also charging company officials with human trafficking and violating the manpower law.
“Most of the Myanmar victims were underage,” National Police human trafficking unit chief Adj. Sr. Commander Arie Darmanto said. “They were offered work in Thailand but ended up in Indonesia. Their identity papers were also forged.”
Investigators are working with their Myanmar counterparts to question the victims and track down those responsible for smuggling them into Indonesia.