A version of this article appeared in print in The Korea Times on 8/5/2014. Photo: Fish are piled on the deck of a foreign vessel off the coast of New Zealand. / New Zealand Ministry of Fisheries

By Kim Young-jin

An Indonesian sailor, known as “Arif,” worked on three fishing vessels owned by Dong Won Fisheries for six years until 2012.

Arif remembers his stint working for the company as one long nightmare, in which he was forced with his colleagues to endure hardships beyond the already rugged realities of hauling fish.

During peak season, Arif alleges that supervisors on Dong Won 522, one of three boats that he worked on, compelled workers to haul squid in inhumane conditions ― working up to 20-hour shifts ― while fishing in New Zealand waters.

“The more fish we caught, the better. (Supervisors) had the attitude to push us to work as fast and quick as possible,” the 39-year-old told The Korea Times in a phone interview. “Sometimes we worked two full days without proper sleep, and even got our food late.

“They usually yelled at us to make us work as fast as possible, while screaming at us for good measure,” he said through an interpreter.

For his troubles, Arif says he was paid around $700 a month, depending on quantities of fish caught throughout the year. This was on a good month and is less than half the minimum monthly wage set by the New Zealand government.

His story sheds light on a long history of alleged abuses on Korean-flagged vessels operating in international waters.

Complaints filed with New Zealand authorities in recent months have brought the issue into the spotlight. Some 230 Indonesian sailors, including Arif, claim that both Dong Won Fisheries and Dong Nam owe them $14 million in unpaid wages.

Arif said he took the job because Indonesian job agencies offered the promise of “big money.” However, he claims he wasn’t properly informed about the working conditions, which pushed workers beyond acceptable, humane limits.

Such agencies have been reported as having rushed workers through the signing of contracts. Agents then reap high commission fees while the contracts provide few rights for the workers.

The Indonesian said he once severely injured his ankle while unloading fish at a warehouse due to fatigue and pressure from his boss.

“We were working in two groups and I was constantly pushed by a Korean officer to work in the other group. The transfer to the other group had to be as fast as possible because I was afraid of being a target of verbal abuse from the officer.

“Because of fatigue, I stepped on a conveyer belt. I soon became unconscious (after falling),” he claimed.

During the peak fishing season, there were even greater expectations of catching high volumes of fish. Former crew aboard Dong Won vessels said they worked 20-hour shifts with only four hours of rest.

Arif said those who showed up late risked having an object thrown at him, such as an apple or a shoe.

Another sailor claimed he suffered violence.

“One time it was my turn to roll the things with a small wire and it was a bit loose…I got scolded right away, got cursed at, and was kicked around my thigh section really hard,” he said in a testimony recorded by Darren Coulston, a former fishing captain advocating for the crew.

Activists say employment agencies have a system in place that makes it hard for workers to leave, imposing large penalties on those who do. Passports are sometimes seized and those who attempt to leave a ship face fines of around $3,500.

If a worker does not pay, agencies then attempt to get the money from family members, Arif said.

A Dong Wong official did not respond to an interview request.

An official at the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries said that the allegations were largely a problem of the past. However, reports of harsh conditions periodically emerge.

Earlier this year, a number of Indonesians aboard Dong Won 519, since being relocated from New Zealand to waters off of Uruguay, complained of not being paid before being sent home, Coulston said.

In May, a Uruguayan newspaper El Pais reported that three Indonesian men aboard Korean vessels were abandoned at the port of Fray Bentos and forced to catch fish to survive.

Arif implored Korea to make sure that more abuses do not occur.

“They should follow international regulations to make working conditions aboard fishing vessels better,” he said.