Manuel, Roland and Isidoro had waited 13 months and 15 days for the opportunity. At last, after bobbing about the Pacific and Indian Oceans, never seeing land, the fishing trawler they were on sailed into Singapore. It was their chance to quit and collect their salaries. They had not been paid.

They went to the office of the ship’s agent, the same company that had hired them as fishermen. There they were presented with a salary computation that showed that they owed the company money. “They said I must pay them US$337,” Manuel told me, incredulous.

Isidoro, 30, had dreamt of being a policeman. After finishing his ten years of schooling, he went to college for four more years and got a degree in criminology. But without the wherewithal to buy a policeman’s job, he eventually went back to the family farm in a province north of Manila, Philippines, growing rice and vegetables. He has a wife and a four-year-old son.

“Farm is OK for feeding the family,” he said, but it wasn’t enough for cash needs.

Through a relative, he got to know of a job recruiter in the capital city. The job described by her was that on a trawler, for a three-year contract, with a salary of US$200 a month and a small monthly deduction for “insurance”.  The employer would cover the cost of the airfare to Singapore, which was where they would join the ship, and on completion of the contract, he would get a free air ticket back to Manila. If, however, he broke the contract midway through the three years, he would have to pay for his own airfare home.

Isidoro thought that was a fair offer and he signed a document. Since the recruiter did not give him a copy of that document, he cannot now detail what exactly it said and naturally, he could not show it to me.

Isidoro then paid the recruiter 20,000 Philippine Pesos (S$570, US$462 at current exchange rates) as placement fee. Manuel and Roland, meeting her separately, ended up with slightly different placement fee arrangements. Roland had to pay 25,000 pesos, while Manuel had only to pay a 10,000-peso downpayment with another 10,000 pesos payable at a later date. The job conditions described to these two others, however, were nearly the same as described to Isidoro, except that Manuel was told that the work was one of “delivering fish”.

Touching down in Singapore, the trap closed in

L to R: Manuel, Isidoro and Roland

They were flown into Singapore mid-March 2010 and taken to the ship agent’s office, meeting Bill, Singaporean guy (not his real name). Bill then presented the men a new document each which they had to sign and affix a thumbprint to. They hardly knew what it was, especially since the men could barely read English, and reportedly no effort was made to explain to them. Having already left the Philippines with a new job at stake, the men had no realistic possibility of not signing. It was a Hobson’s choice. So they signed. Once again, the men were not given copies of the document.

They boarded the Taiwanese-owned trawler on 17 March 2010, sailed in April and did not see land again for more than a year.

Captained by a Taiwanese, there were slightly over 20 men on board. There were a total of 14 Filipinos, but also a handful of Vietnamese and Indonesians. Almost immediately, Roland, 31, got seasick — he would be retching on and off for a year. The only previous work he’d ever done was as a farmer on the island of Mindanao; he had never been out on a fishing boat before.

Nor had Manuel, 24, who had trained as an electrician at a vocational school and work-wise, had been a tricycle driver. While on the boat, his biggest problem was the lack of contact with his family and home. He was utterly homesick.

“No communication, no sleep,” he said, “and I didn’t even know I was supposed to be a fisherman. I thought I was going to deliver fish.”

What about family? Did he have a wife and children?

“No, not married,” he said. There was a girlfriend, “but I don’t know whether she is still my girlfriend anymore. So long I did not talk to her.”

Speaking not only for himself, but for the others as well, Isidoro reported, “It was very hard work. Too hard for me. I’m not strong.” (To be very frank, they looked perfectly fit to me, with good chest muscles and biceps, but then I don’t know what the captain’s expectations were.) “Seven days work, no holiday. And every day, we work 14 to 16 hours.”

“Even sick, we have to work,” he added.

“Sometimes, no sleep because so cold and I so sick,” Roland chipped in.

At various points, they kept emphasising the duration of their ordeal: “Thirteen months and 15 days.”

The caught fish got to dry land way before the men. Every three months or so, the trawler would meet up on open sea with a bigger ship — the men called it a carrier — and transferred their catch to it. The trawler also received new supplies.

Thirteen months later

Docking back in Singapore on 4 May 2011, they received from the captain what they called their “allowance” of US$40 a month for the 13-and-a-half months, less deductions for “dry goods”. This allowance would be deducted from the total salary. In Isidoro’s case, for example, the gross allowance was US$540, but after deductions for toothpaste, biscuits, shampoo, cigarette lighters, instant noodles, etc, he received US$404. If you can read Chinese, you can see the calculation by clicking on the thumbnail.

Manuel and Roland similarly received nett amounts of slightly over US$400 from the captain as they disembarked.

Expecting to be paid the balance of their agreed wages (US$2,700 for thirteen-and-a half months’ work, minus the allowance received), they were shocked to hear that they owed the agent (Bill’s company) money.  How could that be?

Here was when the mysterious document that they had signed on first arrival in Singapore reappeared, from Bill’s filing cabinet. It turned out to be Promissory Note, under which they had each signed away S$1,500 “to master for financing my expenses to go abroad” — whatever that means — “even I finish or no finish contract.” The amount was more than half the balance salary they were expecting. Here is the Note that Manuel had signed:

Then there were further deductions. In Manuel’s case, these included the airticket Singapore-Manila return (S$330), “Sign on + sign off fees from Shipping agent” (S$170) and a further deduction for “dry goods” of S$300. Except for the cost of the airticket which they knew they had to pay for breaking the contract, the other items were news to them. In sum, not only did the agent say they had no salary left to expect, the men were in debt to the agent!

They ended up appealing to migrant worker help organisations for assistance. The Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME) housed them in their shelter for homeless migrant workers while Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) looked into their case. Home’s Executive Director Jolovan Wham and TWC2 Executive Committee member Shelley Thio went to see Bill, at the same time reporting the facts of the case to the Ministry of Manpower. After some persuasion by TWC2 and Home, Bill agreed to give each Filipino US$500 as an ex-gratia payment and an airticket home, but there the matter more or less ended. It was nowhere near what they felt they were entitled to.

Common occurence

This kind of problem occurs regularly, as HOME and TWC2 have long come to learn. Sailors and fishermen keep falling through the regulatory gaps. In this (typical) case, the men were hired by an illegal recruiter in their home country, without giving them full information or even a copy of the contract, and flown to Singapore to board a ship. The ship is Taiwanese, but it is at sea for months or years. Whose law applies?

Where Singapore comes into the picture would be the actions of the man Bill. The illegal recruiter in Manila was acting for him and his company. He himself exploited the men’s lack of English literacy and vulnerable position when newly arrived in Singapore in March 2010, to make them sign a promissory note giving away a big chunk of their future earnings. Such a contract would come under Singapore law, and to the extent that it was not freely entered into, should be a matter of deep concern. Then when the men wanted to quit, a number of new deductions surfaced. All this took place within Singapore’s jurisdiction.

It is not clear at the time of  writing what steps the ministry will be taking, but it does not look promising that the men have been sent back to the Philippines already with no word of further action by officials.

(This is an edited version of an article that first appeared on Yawning Bread blog, reproduced here with permission of the author.)