After six months cramped tightly aboard a Taiwanese fishing vessel in Costa Rica’s Pacific waters, Dian, a 23-year-old migrant worker from Indonesia, leaned back in a hammock.
He and others in the same situation are being lodged at a hostel in the Central Valley, under the vigilance of the National Police.He smiled, revealing his crooked, cracked teeth with yellow stains. His long, wavy brown hair drooped down past his shoulders.
For the first time since arriving here in late 2009, he was able to stretch out his lanky, tired legs and take a break from the 20-hour work days when he hauled sharks out of the sea for Imperio Pesquero del Pacífico S.A, a Taiwanese owned fishing company based in Puntarenas, on the Central Pacific coast.
In early April, authorities pulled Dian and 35 of his counterparts from Indonesia, China, the Philippines and Vietnam off of two boats in the port town. On board the ships, he said, Dian and his shipmates were kept in harsh conditions and often forced to work without food.
“No much food,” Dian said in English as he rubbed his stomach. He pointed to a half eaten plate of rice and beans on a table in front of him and shook his index finger back and forth. “No,” he said.
The boat owners promised each individual $250 per month for their labor on the ships. Of that money, $20 would be given directly to the workers and the rest would be sent to their families in Asia.
Some of them reported having spent a year on board the ships. None of them have received any money.
“Nada,” Dian said in the best Spanish he could muster as he held up a one dollar bill. The public prosecutor says that the workers were being held as slaves, and has announced that it will take legal action against the owners of the Imperio Pesquero del Pacífico – a man and a woman whose last names are Tseng – and against two additional company employees for human trafficking.
In May, the Philippine Consulate in Costa Rica pledged to help assure safe living conditions for the five Filipino workers while the court examines the case. Some of the other workers have accepted refugee status in Costa Rica and are working in restaurants around San José, officials said, while the Costa Rican government is working to determine the best option for the remaining victims.
Some have expressed interest in returning to Asia and others wish to seek refuge in Costa Rica.
Dian is still waiting to hear about his situation. When asked if he would like to go back to Indonesia, he shrugged his shoulders and said, “Maybe, one month, one year. Maybe.”
The money promised to the workers was to be generated by the sale of shark fins, an essential ingredient in fine Asian dishes, suchas shark fin soup.
While selling shark fins is not illegal in Costa Rica, removing the appendages before docking is prohibited.
Because a shark’s fins sell for much more than its body, finners prefer to cut these off at sea and dump the body back into the ocean, often still alive, to leave more space in the vessel’s cargo hold.
In 2001, to help protect shark populations, Costa Rica outlawed the removal of fins at sea and prevented fisherman from discarding shark carcasses.
The Ministry of the Environment, Energy and Telecommunications has said that the Taiwanese boats had all the necessary permits to fish for sharks in Costa Rican waters and that, as far as fishing is concerned, the owners of the ships did not commit any crimes.
But Fajar, a 36-year-old Indonesian worker on one of the boats, tells a different story.
Fajar has two children and a wife in Indonesia and said he has had no contact with them in over a year.
During his time on the fishing boat, he said that they pulled around 20 sharks out of the sea on an average day.
On a 2,000 colón bill, he pointed to the dorsal fin on the hammerhead shark printed on the currency. With his long index fingernail that grows to a sharp point at the tip, he made a slashing motion through the fin.
Then, he pointed to the two pectoral fins and at the tail fin and made the same slashing motion.
On the back of the foil flap that covered his cigarette pack, he wrote, “4 = 1,000,000 in Indonesia,” which equals roughly $110 dollars.
Again, pointing to each of the hammerheads fins, he said, “one, two, three, four. Mucha plata,” (a lot of money). Then he pointed to the shark’s belly. “No mucha plata,” he said.
He made a hurling motion with his arms.
Fajar spent roughly seven months working on the Taiwanese vessel. He has scars on his hands from the long hooks used to pull the sharks onto the boat.
In September 2009, he was flown from Indonesia to Europe and then to Panama. After two weeks there, he entered Costa Rica through Paso Canoas on the Panamanian border where immigration officials stamped a 90-day tourist visa in his passport.
He was driven to Puntarenas where he remained until April.
Fajar said he was going to use the money promised to him and his family to buy a house in Indonesia, which he said he could purchase for $1,000.
Like Dian, Fajar is waiting to hear about his situation. National Police officers escort him to the courts once a week, he said, where he meets with judges and lawyers.
He says will not go back to Indonesia until he gets the money that he was promised. “I work here, life better in Indonesia,” he said. “But no money. They no give money. I no go sin plata.”
When asked how many migrant workers are in similar conditions in Costa Rica’s Pacific fishing areas, he took a deep breath and gazed upward. “Hundreds,” he said, “hundreds.”
The names of the persons interviewed for this report have been changed at their request.