A version of this article appeared in print in The Korea Times on 8/4/2014. Photo courtesy of Marinetraffic.com.
By Kim Young-jin
More than 200 Indonesian sailors who worked for Korean fishing companies off New Zealand are taking their former employers to court for nearly $14 million in unpaid wages.
In actions taken up at New Zealand’s employment authorities, the sailors allege that Dong Won Fisheries and Dong Nam underpaid them and subjected them to poor working conditions.
The claims have set up a showdown over long-standing allegations of abuse aboard Korean vessels, which prompted Seoul to investigate the matter two years ago.
“It appears there are hundreds of crew on Dong Won and Dong Nam vessels who have not received their legitimate entitlements under New Zealand law,” said Darren Coulston, a former fishing captain advocating for crew.
In 2012, following reports of abuse, the Korean government investigated Korean fishing companies and ordered them to settle outstanding wages.
But Coulston claims most of the money has not been paid. Instead, some fishermen have allegedly received “peace agreements” from Dong Won, under which they received “a portion” of what they were owed in exchange for revoking all wage claims.
Last month, the Employment Relations Authority (ERA) in New Zealand determined that a branch of the High Court should hear a claim filed by former sailors on Dong Nam vessels.
In the claim, 87 Indonesians say the company failed to keep accurate time records and that they were on-call for 24 hours a day, seven days a week without proper compensation.
They are claiming $6.6 million unpaid wages.
Dong Nam has denied the allegations. An official told The Korea Times that the company was willing to negotiate with “one or two” sailors who may not have been paid for overtime, but denied failing to pay the others.
In separate claims against industry giant Dong Won, about 130 sailors are claiming $6.1 million in unpaid wages for their time aboard the Dong Won 519, 530 and 701, an ERA spokesperson confirmed.
An additional 18 sailors have claimed $1 million for their time aboard Dong Won 522, Coulston said.
The sailors allege they were paid as little as $600 a month despite working an average of 12 hours a day, and were subjected to physical and verbal abuse.
The workers, who speak Indonesian, said they experienced difficulties in obtaining pay stubs and had to sign documents in Korean and English to acknowledge payments.
One plaintiff said that during the peak season, he and others were compelled to work 20-hour shifts, sleeping only four hours at night.
“We didn’t have any energy. It was very hard to move our bodies,” the sailor, who asked to be identified by the alias Arif, told the The Korea Times through an interpreter.
Supervisors would “grab our hands and pull to make us work faster, while abusing us in Korean,” he said, adding that supervisors threw objects at those who arrived late on deck.
A Dong Won official did not respond to an interview request.
An official at Korea’s Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries was not initially aware of the proceedings in New Zealand. But he said the government had established a hotline for foreign crew to address labor abuse issues.