What happens to Kenyan sailors in Chinese ships

Some 400 youth from the coast prepare to go for deep sea fishing aboard the vessel, Jonas Vessel. Deep sea fishing has become attractive for Kenyans sailors. [Omondi Onyango, Standard]

Early this month, a Senate committee was told of the horrors that Kenyan seafarers had to endure in a Chinese fishing vessel.

The Johnson Sakaja-chaired Labour and Social Protection Committee heard how Kenyan seafarers working onboard Chinese-owned vessels are mistreated.

The owners of the vessels, licensed to fish within Kenya’s maritime borders, allegedly force Kenyans to work long hours, survive on poor diet and are forced to continue working at sea long after their three-month contracts expired.

Musa Sila, who has worked in the maritime sector both locally and in the Gulf States, made the stunning allegations, adding that the fishermen faced threats and intimidation from their superiors including being forced to feed on snakes and pork, many of them being Muslims.

He also claimed that the vessels engage in duplicitous operations during fishing expeditions, exchanging what he termed as suspicious goods during odd hours.

The Chinese sailors are also accused of being in contravention with Kenyan maritime laws which require that they bring 30 per cent of their catch to the country; this is apparently not happening. They take all the catch.

Kenyan authorities, including the Kenya Maritime Authority (KMA), have acknowledged receiving complaints raised about the plight of Kenyan seafarers.

But a segment of the seafarers have broken ranks with their colleagues, fiercely defending the Chinese vessels.

A dozen local crew aboard Kenyan flagged Chinese owned fishing vessels have disowned reports of mistreatment aboard the fleet of vessels that left Mombasa to fish in the Indian Ocean on March 25, 2021.

Speaking at the Mission to Seafarers Centre in Mombasa, the seamen contradicted reports attributed to one of their colleagues who appeared before the Committee which held its sittings at the Mombasa County Assembly Hall.

Peter Okelo, a veteran seaman, said they were surprised by allegations that their masters forced them to eat foods that they were not accustomed to.

“We were never fed on snakes like it was claimed during the Senate sitting. In fact, there were various meals which one could choose from,’’ Okelo said.

Milton Odhiambo, Lead Quality Controller for the entire fleet of vessels, disputed that the vessels were involved in illegal activities.

‘’We have ship coordinates at all times. Clear records were shared with the government when the fleet entered Kenyan territorial waters,’’ he said.

Odhiambo said that prior to sailing from Mombasa, they were informed of the kind of fishing that was expected of them.

They were supposed to lay special traps that would attract seaweed growth for three months before fish were trapped. 

“We had received instructions from the Kenya Fisheries Services (KFS) to deploy Fish Aggregating Devices (FADs)  when we finally reach our designated fishing grounds near the China sea,” he said.

FADS are man-made devices used to attract pelagic fish such as marlin, tuna and other fish species.

They consist of buoys or floats tethered to the ocean floor with concrete blocks. Fish tend to move around FADs in a varying orbit rather than remain stationery below the buoys.

Odhiambo explained there were hiccups that led to delays in catching fish, which some of the seafarers misconstrued to mean that the vessels were into suspect deals.

Andrew Lugole, another seaman who worked aboard a vessel christened Lu Qing Yuan Yu 160, said in his many years at sea, he has never had a better diet than the one provided by Mombasa Ocean Limited, who are the local agents for the Chinese vessels.

Commenting about the alleged breach of contract, Lugole said sailors received written communication about an  extension prior to the expiry of their contract like the law requires.

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