Uruguay: Message in a Bottle highlights forced labor in China’s fishing fleet

In late June, a woman walking on a beach in Maldonado, Uruguay, found a bottle containing a message written in an Asian language. Because the message ended with the word “SOS,” the woman understood it to be a call for help and took the bottle to the Prefecture of Piriapolis, which began an investigation.

With the help of a translator, authorities deciphered the daily Uruguayan text Country mentioned. The message reads in Chinese: “Hello, I am a crew member of the ship Lu Qingyuan Yu 765, I have been locked up in the company (sic). When you see this paper, please help me call the police! Help help,” Argentine Daily Clarion mentioned.

The Uruguayan province and navy raided the Chinese ship. Although investigators did not find an emergency, they did discover that the workers had not touched the ground in two years, according to the Argentine news site. information mentioned. This incident highlighted the terrible working conditions and forced labor of crew members of the Chinese fishing fleet plundering the South Atlantic.

“The fact that it has been two years since they reached shore amounts to abuse of the crew,” said Milko Schwartzman, an expert in marine conservation and illegal fishing monitoring. a dialogue. “Furthermore, although the crew members admitted during the search that they were the ones who threw the bottle, none of the crew members admitted that they threw the bottle for fear of retaliation.”

He added: “This actually means that there is an irregular situation of exploitation on board the ship.” Schwartzman, a member of the Environmental Policy Circle, discovered the location of the Chinese vessel Lu Qingyuanyu 765 and announced it to the public. After leaving China, the ship fished in the Pacific Ocean off Ecuador and Peru and then moved off the coast of Argentine Patagonia.

Deceased crew members

Abuses aboard Chinese fishing vessels have been repeated in recent years in the South Atlantic. For example, in May 2017, the Chinese ship Lu Qing Yuan Yu Yu 206 (LQYY 206) unloaded a deceased crew member in the port of Montevideo. Schwartzman said the crew organized a protest to authorities over the living and slave labor conditions on board the ship, which included 24-hour workdays, spoiled water, expired food, lack of medicine, mistreatment and physical abuse.

“Three months later, in August of the same year, LQYY removed another 206 deceased crew members,” the expert said. “In 2021, this same ship unloaded a third of the deceased crew members in Montevideo, and is still operating today (…).”

From 2018 to 2020, the deaths of 17 crew members were linked to foreign fishing vessels — mostly from China — in South Atlantic waters, according to the US State Department’s 2022 Trafficking in Persons Report.

“Prior to 2018, observers reported an average of 11 crew deaths per year. The State Department report noted that foreign workers on board these ships are subjected to abuses indicative of forced labor, including non-payment of wages, confiscation of identity documents, and abuse.” Physical.

Crimes of the Chinese fishing fleet

In addition to destroying ecosystems in the South Atlantic, the Chinese fleet is committing a large number of crimes on board. According to Schwartzman, crew members sometimes work 24 or 30 hours straight. They do not have access to healthy food, and often do not have access to drinking water. There is no medicine. They did not receive their promised wages and their passports were seized so that they could not escape the ship when they arrived at port.

“When a crew member has a health problem, in many cases evacuation is not ordered and the crew member ends up dying on the ship,” Schwartzman said. In addition, the contracts signed are written in languages ​​that many crew members do not speak. “This is a violation of ILO standards,” the expert concluded.

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