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Uruguay: Message in a Bottle Highlights Forced Labor in Chinese Fishing Fleet

URY Chinese Crew Request for Help

Members of the Prefecture of Uruguay raided the Chinese fishing vessel Lu Qing Yuan Yu 765, which had not touched land in two years. (Photo: Prefecture of Uruguay)

In late June, a woman walking along a beach in Maldonado, Uruguay, found a bottle with a message written in some Asian language. Because the message ended with “SOS,” the woman understood that it was a call for help and took the bottle to the Piriápolis Prefecture, which launched an investigation.

With the help of a translator, authorities deciphered the text, Uruguayan daily El País reported. The message in Chinese read: “Hello, I am a crew member of the ship Lu Qing Yuan Yu 765, I was locked in the company[sic]. When you see this paper, please help me call the police! Help help,” Argentine daily Clarín reported.

The Prefecture and the Uruguayan Navy raided the Chinese ship. Although the investigators did not find an emergency situation, they discovered that the workers had not touched land in two years, Argentine news site Infobae reported. The episode highlighted the terrible working conditions and forced labor of the crew members of the Chinese fishing fleet that plunders the South Atlantic.

“The fact that it’s been two years since they’ve come ashore is labor abuse for the crew members,” Milko Schvartzman, an expert in marine conservation and of illegal fishing monitoring, told Diálogo. “Furthermore, although during the inspection the crew members admitted that the bottle had been thrown by them, none of the crew members admitted that they had thrown the bottle for fear of reprisals.”

“This already implies that there is an irregular situation of exploitation on board,” he added. A member of the organization Environmental Policy Circle, Schvartzman found the position of the Chinese vessel Lu Qing Yuan Yu 765 and made it public. After leaving China, the vessel fished in the Pacific off Ecuador and Peru and then moved on off the coast of Argentina’s Patagonia.

Deceased crew members

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

“Three months later, in August of that same year, the LQYY 206 removed another deceased crew member,” the expert said. “And that same vessel in 2021 unloaded a third deceased crew member in Montevideo and it is still operating today […].”

From 2018 to 2020, 17 crew member deaths were associated with foreign fishing vessels — mostly from China — in South Atlantic waters, according to the U.S. State Department’s 2022 Trafficking in Persons Report.

“Prior to 2018, observers reported an average of 11 crew member deaths per year. Foreign workers aboard these vessels are subjected to abuses indicative of forced labor, including unpaid wages, confiscated identification documents, and physical abuse,” the State Department report indicated.

Chinese fishing fleet’s crimes

In addition to devastating the ecosystems of the South Atlantic, the Chinese fleet commits a multiplicity of crimes on board. According to Schvartzman, crew members sometimes work 24 or 30 hours at a stretch. They do not have healthy food and often do not have access to drinking water. There is no medicine. They are not paid their promised wages and their passports are withheld so they cannot escape the ship when they arrive at port.

“When a crew member has a health problem, in many cases an evacuation is not requested and the crew member ends up dying on board,” Schvartzman said. In addition, the contracts that are signed are in languages that many crew members do not speak. “That is a violation of International Labor Organization standards,” the expert concluded.

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