The fisher boys of Sumatra

The jermal fish factories of Indonesia are dangerous, even deadly, floating sweatshops for children lured or kidnapped into servitude. David Higgs visited with the support of Anti-Slavery International
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Stripped to the waist, 16-year-old Parlin drips with sweat. Eyes glazed from regular 23-hour stints of back-breaking work, the teenager is stirring a cauldron of fish in boiling salted water that's heated by a huge kerosene stove. It roars in a corner of the shelter like a demented dragon.

The swirling clouds of vapour it emits are slatted by beams of sunlight streaming through the cracked and broken walls. In the background another eight bare-footed youngsters, some no more than 12 years of age, sift dried fish, and sort their latest catch, separating out jellyfish and deadly black and white striped sea snakes.

The children are producing teri, desiccated anchovy-like salted fish. This is a Far Eastern delicacy, which sells for upwards of 35,000 Indonesian Rupiah per kilo (about pounds 1.60). The teri are bound for the lucrative markets of Singapore, Malaysia, Japan, Thailand, Hong Kong and Taiwan as well as for local consumption in Indonesia.

This is Sinchiacuan jermal, a rickety fishing platform whose deck is just two to three metres above the green and heaving ocean. Not much larger than a tennis court, it functions as a giant fish trap, processing plant and workers' dormitory combined. We're 15 miles out to sea, two hours by chugging fishing boat from the north-eastern coast of Sumatra. From this one location a further 30 jermals can be seen. These remarkable structures are unique to this region and there are as many as 1,600 such platforms operating in the Straits of Malacca, between the Indonesian island of Sumatra and the Malaysian peninsula. The vast majority are illegal, only about 370 are officially licensed.

According to the Indonesian humanitarian foundation KKSP, the jermals feature some of the worst instances of child slave labour in the region. In the course of a five-year investigation, KKSP researchers visited and interviewed workers on over 140 fishing platforms. Their survey reveals that there are more than 8,000 children employed in this industry. At least 75 per cent of the employees are boys, of whom a third are under 14 years old.

Not only does this flout UN and International Labour Conventions on children's rights and forced labour, to which Indonesia is a signatory, but it also breaks Indonesian law forbidding employment of children below 14 for more than four hours per day. Here, l2 to 13 hours at a stretch is the norm, but when the tide is high and the fish are running, children may have to work up to 23 hours.

The jermals resemble the tattered fragments of abandoned piers, each with their own emigrant ecology of ants, geckos, spiders, cockroaches and vermin. The structures are built from dozens of giant logs which are sharpened like stakes, and dropped vertically from barges into water up to 20m deep to form an open-ended rectangular stockade. The piles are then spanned horizontally with smaller logs, lashed together with wire and hawsers and decked with sawn timbers. On to this is erected a shanty made from wooden planks roofed with corrugated iron sheets.

At one end of the jermal upright timbers are formed into a v-shape in the direction of the prevailing tide, concentrating and directing fish under the platform where two or three long nets are strung. These are raised every few hours, day and night, using hand-operated windlasses. The netted fish are scooped into wicker baskets and dragged into the jermal's shelter and the contents poured on to the deck. Then the hazardous and laborious task begins, sorting teri, squid, shrimps, eels, crabs and larger fish from the noxious and the downright nasty. The latter, hacked, crushed and scattered, are swept back to the sea through cracks in the deck. Within a few minutes glistening silver scales like sequins coat the floor and the skins of the boys.

In reality, though fixed on the sea bottom, such platforms are anything but stationary. In the swell and streaming tide the deck sways and bucks. The backbone of the jermal is intentionally jointed, articulating like the vertebrae of some marine monster - a rigid structure would be smashed to pieces in days. Storms are but one of many hazards for these jermal children. Worse than almost anything else is the misery caused by lack of sleep. Some foremen pour boiling water on children who inadvertently doze at their post or fail to wake promptly when summoned. The jermals have no emergency or life-saving equipment, no toilets or sanitation, and there are no beds for the children - that's a luxury reserved for the foreman, often the only adult on board these lonely outposts. Meals are almost exclusively boiled rice or salted fish. Vegetables, which only last about two days in this climate, may come once a month together with fresh water, often of dubious origin and quality. Fatigue-related injuries, illnesses such as malaria, blood pressure problems due to high sodium intake, together with vitamin deficiency, respiratory and skin complaints caused by continual exposure to damp, salt water and jelly-fish stings, are commonplace.

First aid is basic and often woefully inadequate. Typically this extends to iodine tincture for cuts, battery acid for stings and a poultice soaked in diesel for stomach ache. There are also accounts of physical, verbal and sexual abuse but the children have nowhere to run. A basic Citizens' Band radio is the only link with the outside world. There isn't even a boat.

At night the children of Sinchiacuan secrete themselves on improvised shelters in the roof, sleeping as best they can on sheets of brown paper. They have almost no personal possessions and anyway there would be nowhere to put them. A few months ago this jermal was raided by thieves armed with sticks and panga knives, a not irregular occurrence. They stole fish, fuel, money and what little the boys owned. "Yes, they were very bad men," says Parlin. "They would have killed us all if it had been necessary."

As he rests his head on the boards, 14-year-old Sugiwan clutches the few faded photos he saved of his father who died in the year he was born. Sunar, a 14-year-old, complains that the foreman kicks and slaps him if he's slow or makes a mistake. He's worked on this jermal for three years with just five months on dry land. Benny, 13, has been here continuously for 18 months and Parlin for almost as long without a break. Young Wahyudi, curly haired and clad in filthy trousers and a grey singlet, doesn't know his age. His mother never told him when he was born. He looks about 13 years of age and confides that he ates working on the jermal. "The boys all want to go home," he says. "They're all unhappy, bored and afraid." Rain is beginning to rattle on the roof.

The children are lured to the jermals from poverty-stricken peasant families and inland villages by agents offering vague promises of good wages for hard work. The preference for child labour is not surprising: children are compliant, easily intimidated and unworldly enough to be grateful to slave for wages as low as IR50,000, around pounds 2 per month.

Many of the children seem to have no idea how much, or even when, they might be paid. They cling to the hope that the jermal owner will ensure they are rewarded for their hard work. Furthermore, most of the children seem unaware that deductions for food and other essentials will be made, reducing this pittance by as much as two-thirds. Written contracts of employment do not exist, but the majority of jermal owners insist on a minimum three- to four-month tenure. Any child who is determined to leave the jermal before the obligatory three months can expect not a rupiah.

Once the child reaches the jermal he can be effectively held prisoner. It is common to meet children who have worked from 12 to 18 months on jermals without a break or leave of any kind. The usual rule applied is that a child cannot leave unless a replacement can be arranged and yet the children will not be paid until they return to dry land. Neither will they qualify for a full salary unless they agree to return to the jermal after any absence.

Accounts of trickery and even kidnapping of children are not unknown. In March 1993 four shoe-shine boys working in Medan in northern Sumatra were approached by jermal agent Sahat Sihotang and a colleague who offered them food, drink and the opportunity of "easier" employment. There was only one snag. The boys would have to leave immediately and would not be able to tell their parents where they were going. Sensing skulduggery, one of the boys was able to give his captors the slip at the seaside town of Pantai Labu. The remaining three were quickly hustled on board a fishing boat and taken eight miles offshore to work on the jermals.

Luckily the boys were known to KKSP social workers who were running welfare projects for street children in the area and the alarm was raised. Nevertheless, it was not until June that KKSP investigators and police were finally able to rescue the children, arresting both the jermal foreman and the agent. Attempts to prosecute the offenders through the courts, however, were in vain. "The explanation," alleges KKSP's founder and chairman Taufan Damanik, "is corruption at the highest level." Jermal owners pay the fisheries authority and the Indonesian Navy for their permits. According to KKSP sources, however, the Indonesian tax office has no record of direct income from the jermal operations since 1987. Simply put, once the money is paid to the appropriate official or department it disappears.

"We believe that the jermal owners are basically paying the Indonesian Navy protection money," says Taufan. "They are paying certain persons and not the institution or the department. That's why whenever we protest to stop child labour on fishing platforms or try to take a case to court we always lose. Why else has our government done nothing to try to protect these children?"

Sadly jermals offer appalling scope for human tragedy. In October 1996 the body of a 14-year-old boy was found by fishermen off the coast of northern Sumatra. Four days later the body of another boy aged 13 was also washed ashore. The boys had both drowned while working on Suk Wang jermal. Jumadi, the younger of the two, had fallen through a hole in the deck while winching in the net. Miswan dived in to save him but both boys were dragged under and drowned.

Jermal children have even tried to escape their servitude by swimming to shore. In early 1995 four young teenagers from a platform in Labuhan Bilik made it to safety after diving overboard. In the autumn of the following year a group of boys was found half submerged on a makeshift raft miles out to sea and rescued by a passing fishing boat. Under cover of darkness they had lashed planks of wood together before setting off to drift for hours in the hope of reaching safety. The number of children lost in failed escape attempts will never be known.

Back on Sinchiacuan jermal it is 2am. The Chinese foreman rings the gong for the nightshift, "Oi, Oi, Bangun [wake up]! Giling [lift the net]! Like a scene from Oliver Twist, the children emerge, puffy faced and bleary eyed, and clamber down to the floor. A tropical storm is brewing and the nets must be brought in quickly. Already the jermal is beginning to yaw alarmingly. Water barrels inside the shelter are sloshing over their sides. The children trudge on to the deck, their heads shrouded in towels to protect them from the driving rain. Using winches they grapple to collect the fish before conditions become impossible.

It is three hours before some of the children can once again snatch a few minutes' rest. In the meantime the storm has increased its fury. The rain pours and the jermal rocks and groans in the wind like an old clipper ship. Wearing tattered sarongs, the children huddle wherever there is a dry patch on the floor. If the conditions become severe the children will lash themselves to pieces of wood or anything which may float in the event that the platform is wrecked.

Wind is whipping through the shelter now, up through the gaps in the floorboards, lifting paper and other debris. Soon, folded nets, sheets and other fishing paraphernalia is fretting and struggling to take flight. Only one youth cannot creep off to snatch some fretful sleep like the other boys. Sixteen-year-old Parlin sits puffy eyed on the edge of a large wooden tub. He must tend the stove and boiling fish, ladling them out into wicker baskets to drain. He looks a forlorn sight, yet only yesterday he swaggered and said that he liked working on the jermal. In truth he knows no other life

To find out more about the work of Anti-Slavery International or to send donations to help the KKSP's campaign to liberate and rehabilitate the jermal children please write to: KKSP Appeal, Anti-Slavery International, Thomas Clarkson House, The Stableyard, Broomgrove Road, London SW9 9TL (0171-924 9555); e-mail:; internet: Make cheques payable to `Anti-Slavery International'.

Above, Beng Ciong, one of the most run-down jermals visited, eight miles from the coast. Four of the five children who work there take a break between tasks and smoke marijuana in their shanty fish-factory-cum- homeAll photographs by David Higgs/The Environmental Press Agency (UK)