Kenya: “I am a Muslim but I had to eat pork” – Kenyan sailors say they were mistreated on Chinese ships
Kenyan sailors have exposed unbearable working and living conditions and suspicious business activities aboard Chinese fishing vessels operating in the Indian Ocean.
They cited torture and ill-treatment, including being forced to engage in illegal activities and being prohibited from communicating with their families.
Although many sailors were recruited by reputable placement officers, they said, their Chinese supervisors threatened to throw them overboard if they did not cooperate.
For Musa Sila, 57, who worked as a diver and sailor for 37 years, working on Chinese ships was the most trying time of his career. He said he was forced to eat snakes, pork, and other foods he didn’t like.
He decided to return home when his colleague mysteriously died on a foreign ship.
“I spent five months on the high seas, but decided to return home after my colleague’s sudden death. They claimed it was because of a heart attack but they know what caused it. killed, “he said of an incident earlier this year. .
“There was no food, we had to eat pork and we couldn’t communicate with our families when we were in Indonesia.”
Sometimes they would spend weeks on the high seas without engaging in any fishing activity, he said.
“At night, the vessels exchange suspicious goods with other vessels. We wondered why every time we were in the fishing grounds, everything was ready but the vessels did not fish for almost a month parked. in the same place, ”he said.
“But at night, we could see foreign ships exchanging goods packed in boxes and bags with suspicious contents.”
At those times, Mr Sila said, they were told to stay on board the ships as the ships were exchanging unknown goods.
“Are we fishing or are we engaged in other illegal activities? When we asked the question, we were told that as long as we are fed and paid, we should be satisfied. The vessels were not fishing,” a- he declared.
The ships, he said, recruit Kenyan fishermen who end up staying in the ships without fishing.
“I am a Muslim. I had no choice but to eat pork. What would I eat from a Chinese container?” he said on Friday during an inquiry by the Senate Labor and Social Welfare Committee at the Mombasa County Assembly.
The sailors suggested that the ships could engage in illegal drug trafficking, not fishing.
Other challenges they cited were unpaid wages, unfair dismissals without notice and long working hours.
They said they were signing a three-month contract but were forced to work past the expiration dates.
“The company I worked for still owes me a month’s salary,” said Mr. Sila.
They said the foreign vessels violated Kenya’s maritime labor laws and the International Labor Organization’s laws on maritime operations. Kenya has authorized seven Chinese fishing vessels to operate in its exclusive economic zone.
The meeting was organized to allow seafarers to share their experiences aboard Chinese ships registered in Kenya. Each employed five Kenyans.
Committee chairman Johnson Sakaja (Nairobi) said the Criminal Investigations Directorate (DCI) should investigate the allegations.
“We want to address the challenges that affect Kenyan workers. We want the relevant agencies to investigate this issue further. The blue economy is an important sector that has boosted 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), admitted receiving some of the complaints, saying mediation and corrective action had been taken with the entities involved.
Mombasa Senator Mohammed Faki had asked the committee to have a meeting with the sailors and hear their complaints.
“Failed to protect Kenyans”
Some sailors said Chinese ships are not bringing the catch back to Kenya despite the law dictating that 30 percent of their catch be brought back.
Kilifi Senator Madzayo Stewart condemned KMA, saying it had failed to protect Kenyan workers.
But KMA officials said they were responding to concerns. Mr Omingo said some of the measures they adopted were the delisting of five Chinese ships following complaints from Kenyans.
He urged sailors to make sure they get work contracts.
Maritime recruiting officers, led by Iddi Musa of the Mombasa Ocean Agency, have defended their businesses for providing employment opportunities to Kenyans. He said that in March of this year his company recruited and placed 30 sailors in different fishing boats.
“We have not received any complaints regarding the working conditions of our sailors. We have enjoyed cordial relations with our sailors and other agencies. We are not here to oppress anyone,” he said. declared.
Renson Thoya, chairman of the Mombasa County Assembly labor committee, urged the government to pursue the matter further.
“We want this matter to be investigated and nothing will be left out. This game could be what affects our youth in Mombasa. Even if it means going to the deep sea, we will,” he said. he declared.
Changamwe neighborhood representative Bernard Ogutu said some sailors are threatened when they reveal the truth.
“We need to find out the truth. We need this case to be dealt with in its entirety so that crimes at sea are dealt with once and for all,” he said.
MCAs in Mombasa said some youth in the area are languishing in drug addiction due to the illegal drug trade in the ocean.
They called for the protection of whistleblowers who have revealed what is happening on the high seas.
Recently, Cabinet Secretary of Agriculture and Fisheries Peter Munya said that all foreign vessels operating in Kenya’s Indian Ocean waters must hire local youth after the government started training their staff. fishermen.
In partnership with a Namibian company, the Kenyan government has started training its first group of 400 fishermen to venture into the area.
Currently, foreign vessels and trawlers fishing in Kenya’s Exclusive Economic Zones employ foreigners, including Sierra Leoneans, due to the lack of local expertise.
Kenya’s annual fish production is 160,000 metric tonnes per year, compared to 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, the total annual fish production was 146,687 metric tonnes (MT), of which 23,700 MT came 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 tracking site, compiled over 230 fishing vessels deep-sea fishing in Kenya’s waters.
Most of them are owned by foreigners, with vessels flying the flags of China, Seychelles, Italy, Taiwan and Hong Kong repeatedly appearing on the tracking site and recording more than 50,000 hours of fishing in Kenyan waters.
In 2020, seven Kenyan-flagged fishing vessels owned and operated by Chinese were authorized by the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission to fish in the ocean from January 1, 2021 to December 31, 2031.