Monday, July 2, 2007

Gone fishing

Inside Indonesia
no. 52 October-December 1997

AHMAD SOFIAN explores the lives of young people on hundreds of isolated fishing platforms in the Malacca Straits.

The problem of child labour is not new to Indonesia. Children have long helped in farm or domestic work. But recent economic development has driven capitalists to look to children as sources of cheap labour to push up their profits. Should we just accept this as normal?

One example is the exploitation of child labour on fish traps, or jermal, off the east coast of North Sumatra. This exploitation has been hidden from the public eye for too long.


The jermal is a fishing platform at a distance of 15-25 km from the shore. Some are even further out, though others, such as the small fish traps in Langkat waters, are less than 10 km from the beach. Jermal are on average 20 by 40 m in area, but some measure 50x70 m.

About a third of the platform area is occupied by a house. The workers use it to rest, and also for boiling and storing fish. The jermal is made of planks sawn from the nibong palm, brought from Aceh and Langkat in motor boats. The jermal are built in around 15-30 m of water.

The large fishing nets on the jermal are known as tangkul and keroncong, both about 10x20 m in size. These are sunk into the sea under the jermal. Every two hours they are lifted out, emptied and sunk again.

Jermal are found in four regencies in North Sumatra, namely Langkat, Deli Serdang, Labuhan Batu and Asahan. According to data collected by our Study Centre for Child Protection (a non-government organisation in North Sumatra) there were about 1900 jermal in these four regencies in 1995. The North Sumatra Department of Fisheries, however, says it knows of only 369 registered jermal - 23 in Langkat, 81 in Deli Serdang, 192 in Asahan, and 73 in Labuhan Batu. Presumably the department has been unable to keep track of new jermal being built amidst the isolation of the open sea, accounting for their low figures.

Each jermal has on average 6-10 children working on it. If we use the higher number of jermal, observed by the author from several sources, the number of child labourers working on them is 12,000 to 19,000. Even with the Department of Fisheries data, the number would still be around 2,000-3,700.

Jermal are unique to North Sumatra. Elsewhere they are found only in the waters off Cirebon, West Java. But their construction and working system is different from those off North Sumatra.

Daily routine

The total number of workers on a jermal is around 10-16. Of these, six to ten are children aged 14 to 16 years old, and sometimes as young as twelve. There are also foremen and their deputies who supervise the work.

Working hours are not constant. They depend largely upon the seasons, and whether it is high tide (when there are many fish) or low tide (when fish are few and waves big). At high tide, work can start at 2am and not finish until midnight, while at low tide they work from 7am to 3pm.

Workers have to pull in the nets with hand winches in a process called milling. The nets are milled by all hands together, each of them holding a winch, of which there are ten or fifteen on a jermal. Worker safety depends largely upon the cooperation between workers during the mill. It is easy to fall into the sea or be struck by the winch they are holding. In 1995 a jermal labourer off Labuhan Batu fell to the sea and drowned tragically for this reason.

Besides the milling process which is done every two hours, workers have to sort the fish they have caught. Fish are then boiled and dried in the sun. So it goes on every day. There is little time to rest.


With such a heavy working burden, jermal owners should pay attention to the workers' welfare. But the reality is quite the reverse. The vegetables, chillies and onions that are dropped from the land once every two weeks are only enough for four to five days. The other days the workers only have rice and fish or cuttlefish. And the foremen only allow them to eat certain fish. If they are found out eating the forbidden fish - valuable large fish such as tuna - their wages will be deducted.

Nor does their salary conform to the high working burden and dangerous risks. jermal child labourers are only paid around Rp 30,000-Rp 75,000 (AU$ 16-42) per month. The amount depends on how long they work and of course, on the mercy of the owners of the jermal. They only receive the money after three months work.

Once every three months the workers may go home to rest for a few days. If they go home before three months are up they get no pay. Often only a few of those who come home to land will want to go back to the jermal. To fill the vacancy the owners pay recruiters to get new child labourers. They sometimes do this by deceiving them with offers of work in factories. To make their work easier, recruiters usually look for their prey around bus terminals, offering homeless children there tantalisingly high salaries.

The description above gives an indication that the problem of jermal child labour is not only a labour problem. There are at least three aspects to the problem. First, the aspect of human rights, in which there has been an exploitation of the jermal child labourers. Second, the violation of labour law, in which normative stipulations such as minimum wages, maximum hours, and a ban on child labour are not observed. The minimum wage in Sumatra is Rp 4,650 a day, which works out to Rp 139,500 a month if workers take no break. And third, there is the issue of a breakdown in the social system when children aged 14-16 years, who ought to be at school, are forced to work, moreover in a dangerous and isolated place.


Until now there has been no serious attempt on the part of the relevant authorities to solve the issue of child labour employed on the jermal off the eastern coast of North Sumatra. Incident after incident occurs. The case is exposed in the mass media, representatives of non-government organisations (NGOs) respond, as do some members of the provincial parliament, and then, tragically, the fuss disappears.

The children working on the jermal still experience the worst forms of exploitation. There is no school for them, and no welfare. The working hours are long, and there are unfriendly waves in bad conditions.

In the period 1993-1996 many cases involving jermal child labour were exposed in the mass media. Many more were never exposed at all. In general a case is exposed when parents complain to the provincial parliament, or when a NGO receives information and conveys it to the press.

One striking event was the escape of four jermal child labourers from Sialang Buah, Deli Serdang, at the end of September 1996. The four were Adi (16), Inan (16), Harun (16) and Mistriadi (17). They came from the villages Air Joman and Bandar Tinggi. They succeeded in saving themselves from the Harapan Jaya jermal by jumping off with a plank. They floated in the Malacca Straits for seven hours before being saved by traditional fishermen. Apparently these four children escaped because of the harsh conditions on the jermal, and because their salary was not paid.

The case was taken up by a commission of North Sumatra's provincial parliament. They accepted the four's complaints, and insisted that action should be taken against the businessman who owned the jermal. Some NGOs in North Sumatra supported the initiative. As a result, an out of court settlement was made between the children's parents and the employer.

Such an escape was not new. In early 1994 two jermal child labourers from the same area also plunged into the Malacca Straits and swam ashore because they had been treated inhumanely. Then in early 1995 four children aged 15 to 16 years penetrated the savages of the sea to escape from their jermal in Labuhan Bilik, Asahan Regency, because they couldn't stand the mistreatment.

In 1994 three children were abducted and sent to work on a jermal off Pantai Labu, Deli Serdang. The three boys were Roy, Lungguk, and Minus. They were tricked into going to work on the jermal by offers of a tantalisingly high salary.

Worker safety is another important issue. There are no safeguards on a jermal. Moreover, the children who work there often do not come from the coastal areas and so cannot imagine what life on one is like.


Our surveys show that children working on jermal gain almost no economic advantage. In practice they are not working children any more, but children who are forced to work, as forced labour. They lose not only their future because of dropping out of school, but also fail to gain the income expected from the work.

Child labour on the jermal is ugly evidence of the downside of an economic transition characterised by labour surplus and family poverty. Indeed, there is a dilemma between these labour surplus conditions on the one hand, and the demand for the protection of child labour on the other hand. This dilemma creates an obstacle in eradicating child labour.

The pragmatic argument is often made that under these conditions it is better to tolerate the employment of children in jermal and elsewhere. However, though some research claims child labour helps the family economy, in our view it merely makes them sink deeper into exploitation, as the case of the jermal children indicates.

Ahmad Sofian is executive secretary of the Study Centre for Child Protection (Pusat Kajian & Perlindungan Anak, PKPA) in Medan, North Sumatra. The Centre can be contacted at Jl Mustafa no. 30, Medan 20238, North Sumatra, Indonesia, tel +62-61-611943, fax +62-61-613342.

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