Duncan Graham: Anomalies dog NZ-Indonesia ties

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Five Indonesians and their Korean captain died when the Oyang 70 capsized. Photo / NZDF
Five Indonesians and their Korean captain died when the Oyang 70 capsized. Photo / NZDF

Indonesians would not have missed the irony.

While Prime Minister John Key was in Jakarta discussing human rights abuses in West Papua, the sufferings of Indonesian workers in our region were being scrutinised in the Wellington Coroner's Court.

Five Indonesian deckhands and their Korean captain died when the Korean stern trawler Oyang 70 capsized in the Southern Ocean in August 2010.

Evidence garnered by police from the 31 Indonesian survivors and other crew created a picture of a dysfunctional and dangerous workplace run by an angry skipper.

Tragically that wasn't the only problem. Through the police statements (no Indonesians attended the inquest) the survivors alleged verbal and physical abuse, shifts of up to 20 hours and a culture dominated by catch, not care.

Four months after Oyang 70 vanished another Korean fishing boat, No 1 Insung, sank - probably after hitting an iceberg. Two of the 22 fatalities were Indonesian.

Spurred by these disasters and 32 Indonesians walking off the Oyang 75 last July, a team from the University of Auckland's Business School investigated conditions aboard foreign charter vessels operating in New Zealand waters.

They interviewed 144 people, including surviving crew in Indonesia and the widows of the men who perished. The academics found "disturbing levels of inhumane conditions and practices [that] have become institutionalised".

The university report published last year entitled Not in NZ's Waters, Surely? told of men being recruited by agents in Java signing two contracts, one for display to NZ authorities, the other for a fraction of the proper wage.

Indonesians who work overseas are known as National Heroes. Not all the millions who venture abroad to clean, care and labour survive unscathed.

They remit US$6.6 billion ($8.13 billion) a year, according to the World Bank, but the cash is often bloodstained. Some return with the scars of judicial whippings and employer torture from nations such as Malaysia. A few go home in coffins, killed in workplace accidents or executed in places like Saudi Arabia.

But few would expect mistreatment in an advanced and well-regulated democracy like New Zealand, a nation concerned for minorities and serious about its international obligations.

This image took a heavy battering in the coronial inquest. It highlights the hypocritical relationship we have with our closest Asian neighbour.

Mr Key took 26 people with him to Jakarta for three days, selling our education system, geothermal energy skills, dairy products and meat.

The team rightly trumpeted the quality goods and services we can supply to a nation with a population 60 times larger than ours.

Our schools and universities can offer world-class education that will help Indonesia advance while our engineering know-how and hard-won disaster responses can help save lives and property in a nation prone to natural disasters.

Not on the agenda of the Jakarta meetings was any analysis of labour conditions in the South Pacific.

International long-term relationships have to be based on more than selling cheddar and chicken wings. We've offered a few post-grad scholarships and working holiday visas, but that's about all - unless there's a swag of secret goodies yet to be announced.

Much is said about developing people-to-people relationships, but little is done. We've long focused on China and India, overflying the archipelago while heading for Beijing and Delhi.

We know next to nothing about the world's largest Muslim country. We don't teach Indonesian in our schools; most Indonesian experts are in Australian universities.

If we don't build our cultural knowledge and language abilities we'll never be able to understand how Indonesians think and behave.

Through its values, history, religion and outlook the Republic is robustly independent, growing in importance and unlike any other nation. It's not an add-on to our other trading partners in the region.

Not surprisingly, there's been some cynicism in Indonesia about Mr Key padding behind British Prime Minister David Cameron on another quickie sales trip.

The West is showing interest now because the Indonesian economy is surging, and a cashed-up middle class is developing a taste for our goods.

Like "old mates" appearing after a Lotto win, we want to know Indonesians only when their wallets are full. That's no foundation for a lasting relationship.

Apart from our natural beauty and pure products, we're famous in Indonesia for being the world's least corrupt nation and genuine about human rights.

That's why Mr Key reportedly spoke about West Papua to President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

Although the military-dominated province is off-limits to foreign journalists, there have been enough horror stories of extra-judicial killings and torture by the army to justify international concern.

Shouldn't the same concerns be applied to the way we allow Indonesians - and other crews of foreign charter vessels - to be treated in the ships that work off our coast?

A letter from the widows read to the inquest spoke of "the heart-wrenching loss of our loved ones, yet we still do not know what happened to cause their demise".

Should the two leaders ever meet again, Mr Key can tell Mr Yudhoyono why the fishermen died and how human rights abuses in New Zealand's seas are being handled.

Duncan Graham is a Wellington-based journalist writing on Indonesian issues.

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