The death on the high seas of Eril Morales Andrade was featured in The Online Citizen’s story, dated January 9, 2012. The case of this Filipino, recruited by a Singapore company, Step Up Marine, to work aboard a Taiwanese fishing vessel, has been monitored closely by TWC2 executive committee member Shelley Thio for several months.

Eril died 5 months later on 22 February 2011 on board the vessel when it was fishing in the Bay of Bengal. But it was only 6 weeks later on 16 April, when the ship docked in Singapore that his family was notified of his death. (His body was placed in the ship’s cold store to prevent decomposition.) The post-mortem performed in Singapore concluded that the cause of death was “consistent with acute myocarditis” (inflammation of the heart due to infection).

According to Eril’s elder brother Julius, a secondary post-mortem performed in the Philippines concluded that Eril had died of a heart attack, and that he had sustained several injuries before his death. He also said that the Philippine pathologist told him that the pancreas and one of Eril’s eyes were missing, without any written explanation.

— The Online Citizen (TOC)

The Online Citizen however added an editor’s note that  “the Philippine post-mortem report seen by TOC did not mention these matters.”

Shelley told TOC that the problems faced by these fishermen are exacerbated by the lack of legal protection for abuses committed against fishermen out at sea. Many countries are not legally obliged to help fishermen in trouble, and Singapore is no exception.

The article recounts how Eril was recruited and the amounts paid for the job. After his death, attempts were made between his family and Step Up Marine to arrive at a compensation sum, but negotiations broke down.

TOC contacted the Philippine embassy in Singapore for comments and reported that

The Philippine Embassy in Singapore believes that the Filipinos, who had sought help from it, had been illegally recruited in the Philippines and trafficked into Singapore. They would arrive in Singapore as tourists, and upon arrival, Singaporean agents would facilitate their employment as fishermen. The Embassy named Step Up Marine Enterprise, the Singapore firm that had acted on Eril’s employment, as one such agent.

The Embassy also noted that many of these Filipinos were former farmers without any seamanship training or experience. The fishermen would be subjected to harsh and dangerous working conditions, and would be made to work up to 18 to 20 hours a day.

When in Singapore, the men would be made to sign onerous contracts with salaries or as low as US$200 per month. These contracts would also stipulate that the men would have to pay a certain amount if they tried to terminate the contracts and ask to return to the Philippines. The contracts would usually not be properly explained to the fishermen, as they would be immediately asked to board the fishing ships. The Embassy has seen contracts signed only by the fishermen, without any signatures from the employers or agents, which raised questions about the validity of any employment relationship.

— ibid.

This case is not the first that TWC2 has dealt with involving Step Up Marine.

TWC2 has assisted with the repatriation of 5 fishermen recruited by Step Up Marine. Shelley said that the fishermen complained about unpaid wages and that Step Up Marine did not inform them of the long working hours and the dangerous working conditions, which exposed them to life-threatening situations at seas.

— ibid.

A critical problem, TOC noted, was the absence of any system here addressing fishermen’s grievances. There are no official avenues to assist in settling their disputes with ship owners and manning agents. This contrasts with the situation for seafarers, who have a right to appeal to the Director of Shipping Division of the Maritime Port Authority (MPA) of Singapore. However, the Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore Act covers the employment only of seafarers — a term that at the moment does not include fishermen.