Child workers ‘abandoned’ at sea

The harsh life of child labourers on Indonesia’s offshore fishing platforms.

indonesia child labour package feature

Far offshore, the isolation of jermal fishing platforms
makes it easy to employ illegal child labour 

Across the Asia-Pacific region some 122 million children aged between 5 and 14 are forced by poverty to work for a living.

Perhaps one of the worst places for a child to work is on one of the fishing platforms known as jermals off north Sumatra, Indonesia.

These are basic wooden structures, hours from dry land, where people – many of them underage – work for months at a time for less than a dollar a day.

Under Indonesian law it is illegal for anyone under 18 to work on jermals. But with the platforms located far offshore it is a law that is often ignored.

On one platform, 50 kilometres off the coast of Tanjung Balai, in northern Sumatra, we found two older men and four workers who looked like teenagers.

All four claimed to be at least 18, but they looked much younger.

Workers on jermals spend many months away from their families and dry land

Alan Boulton of the International Labour Organization says conditions for child workers aboard the jermals amount to virtual imprisonment.

“They can’t be attending school if they are on platforms,” he says. “They are completely cut off.

Of the workers on board the jermal we visited Ngadiman is the smallest and probably the youngest.

Poverty in their home villages means workers
on the jermals have little choice

He says he has been working on the jermal since the beginning of the year.

“In my village there are jobs but the salary is very low,” he says. “It’s less than $20 for working in a rubber plantation. Here, it’s about $28 a month”

Neither Ngadiman nor any of the other workers on the jermal will see the money until they return to dry land after at least three months at sea.

Many stay for much longer.

Ahmad Sofian of an Indonesian NGO that monitors the jermals says the average age of workers on the fishing platforms is between 14 and 17.


Ten years ago, he says, there were more than 1,000 jermals, employing hundreds of underage workers.

For Ngadiman and his fellow workers, life on
the jermal means working day and night 

A government crackdown shut many of the platforms down and while only about 50 ageing jermals are still operating today, the children that work on them seem to have been abandoned.

“The government’s commitment to eliminate child labour from jermals has dropped off,” Sofian says.

“They are satisfied the number of jermals and child labour has decreased but they don’t do anything to eliminate it.”

Instead, he says, the authorities seem content to let nature to take its toll on the remaining jermals so they eventually fall into disrepair and go out of business.

On the jermal we found Ngadiman says his contract is for a year and, if he is lucky, he will be allowed a home visit in September for Ramadan, the Muslim fasting month.

By then, it would have been 9 months since he last saw dry land.

Life on a jermal is tough. Ngadiman says he works everyday doing the same thing: hauling the catch up from the sea, before the fish is boiled, dried and graded.

He says he misses his family and wants someday to be able to go back to school.

New recruits

If the parents come to me I will ask whether the child is 18. If they say yes, I have to believe them

His foreman, Bawor, returns to the mainland every three weeks and is responsible for recruiting labour for the jermal

“The parents bring the children to me to ask for a job,” he says.

“I know the minimum age to work in a jermal is 18. If the parents come to me I will ask whether the child is 18. If they say yes, I have to believe them – it depends on what the parents say, not how old the worker looks.”

With no other way to make a living he says some parents even beg him to employ their children.

At night on the jermal, during the few hours of downtime, Ngadiman and his fellow workers gathers around a tiny television set powered by a generator.

It is their only connection to the outside world at least 4-hours boat ride away – the same distance they have to travel if they need medical help.

On a jermal safety precautions are virtually non-existent and accidents are common.

Staying quiet

There are few safety precautions and medical
help is many hours boat-ride away 

“I once stepped through a hole while drying fish and injured my leg,” says Ngadiman. “There was blood. I cleaned it with my shirt, had a short rest and started working again.

While child labour is officially illegal in Indonesia, officials in charge of monitoring the situation say they lack resources to do their job effectively.

Dr Suwito Ardiyanto, Indonesia’s director-general of labour inspection, says there are only about 1,600 inspectors spread across Indonesia, an archipelago of more than 13,000 islands.

Since local authorities took over responsibility for labour issues he says few people have been penalised for breaking child labour laws.

“I think it’s because local authorities are not ready to take on more work if the cases go to court – so they prefer to stay quiet.”

Back at sea the jermal on which Ngadiman and his foreman Bawor live and work is more than 20 years old.

With a lack of wood to repair the platform and growing competition from fishing boats, Bawor thinks it will last another two years before it finally rots and falls into the sea.

Source: Al Jazeera