A former director of a ship manning agency has been charged in a Filipino court with human trafficking and illegal recruitment, the Sunday Times reported on 21 September 2014. However, he appears to be still in Singapore, and there is no extradition treaty between Singapore and the Philippines.

Victor Lim, formerly of Step Up Marine Enterprise, had allegedly recruited 10 Filipino men from the country’s Aklan province to work as fishermen on Taiwanese fishing vessels, where they were forced to work for up to 20 hours a day for no pay.

One of the men also died at sea. The case went to trial last Monday at the Aklan Regional Trial Court.

— Sunday Times, 21 Sept 2014, S’pore man accused of trafficking fishermen, by Danson Cheong

TWC2 has long taken an interest in fishermen recruited from neighbouring countries to board trawlers docked in Singapore. These trawlers are typically Taiwanese-owned, but often fly flags of convenience. Many cases we saw led back to Victor Lim and Step Up Marine. The recruited men fly into Singapore and are documented and assigned to ships by Step Up Marine. The court charges allege a culpable connection between Victor Lim and recruiters in the Philippines sourcing crewmen for him.

Lim’s alleged recruiter, Filipina Celia Robelo, has also been charged. Robelo allegedly promised them US$550 ($700) a month to work as fishermen.

The men then had to pay 25,000 pesos ($710) in agent fees, and often borrowed heavily to do so, said one of the case’s lead investigators, who declined to be named because he was not authorised to speak to the media.

When they got to Singapore, the men were allegedly forced to sign contracts paying them far less.

“Step Up Marine provides crew to Taiwanese fishing vessels. The Taiwanese are utilising this Singaporean company, Step Up, to provide them with cheap labour,” an investigator involved in the case said.

TWC2 has written about the plight of trafficked fishermen before. See:

The Sunday Times report mentions that Singapore’s Ministry of Manpower had been alerted to the situation but saw the situation is no more than “bad HR practices” that did not warrant action. As with many cases involving construction workers, MOM does not consider deception about salaries and coercive contract substitution worthy of official interest.

The Manpower Ministry investigated the agency in 2011 but found that it handled only administrative work for overseas clients. Mr Kandhavel Periyasamy, director of MOM’s Joint Ops Directorate, also added: “We cannot take action based on bad HR practices.”

The Sunday Times goes on to detail a particularly tragic case in which a man died while at sea.

The family of Mr Eril Andrade, the fisherman who died, said he had wanted to build his mother a better home than their nipah-thatched hut. His older brother, Mr Julius Andrade, 36, said that was why his brother left in 2010 for a job on the high seas. “We had to borrow money from relatives (to pay the fees),” he said. “But he was very excited to go. He said he was going to use his salary to renovate and rebuild our house.”

He never heard from him again. Mr Eril, 31, died on the boat on the Indian Ocean, seven months after he set sail.

According to his passport, Mr Eril travelled to Singapore in September 2010, when he supposedly signed a contract at Step Up’s People’s Park Complex office and later boarded the Taiwanese vessel Hung Yu 212.

The boat next returned to port in April 2011, and the body was handed over to the Health Sciences Authority (HSA). The autopsy found the cause of death to be acute myocarditis – an inflammatory disease of the heart muscle.

A secondary Philippine autopsy found his eye and pancreas to be missing, said the Aklan investigator.

“(Eril) sustained head injuries, and other injuries on his body… prior to his death,” he added. “He was subjected to some form of physical punishment or an accident.”

The other fishermen sent abroad complained of long 20-hour work days, physical abuse, and working under the threat of death. Their plight highlighted the hazards of working on long-haul fishing vessels. These boats dock in Singapore at the Jurong Fishery Port to undergo repairs and to offload their catch for export to international markets.

The case has raised concern in Manila. “This is a transnational crime because the syndicate has connections in the Philippines, Singapore and even in Australia,” said Mr Jonathan Lledo, head of the National Inter-Agency Task Force Against Trafficking in Manila. He estimated that of the about 1.3 million Filipinos working abroad, about a third are victimised by illegal recruiters.

Victor Lim was contacted by the Sunday Times. Over the phone, he denied actively recruiting the fishermen. It is not clear if he will be travelling to Aklan province (on the island of Panay in the central Philippines) to stand trial.