From Victim to Activist: A Trafficked Fisherman Speaks Out

From Trafficking Victim to Activist


Rizky Oktaviana spent months stuck at sea, a victim of forced labour on a fishing vessel thousands of miles from his home. Now he’s speaking out about his story and leading activism to reform the fishing industry in Indonesia as the Advocacy Coordinator of Serikat Buruh Migran Indonesia (SBMI). We sat down with him to hear about his journey from victim to activist, and to get his take on how to protect migrant workers. In his words, “Every victim needs a space to voice their rights, and I think SBMI is the right place for me to do so.”


What were you doing before you took the job as a seafarer? How were you recruited?

I was working as a waiter at a Japanese restaurant in Jakarta, but in April 2012 I was approached by a recruiter who promised me a job as a seafarer on a fishing vessel that would sail to Africa. The recruiter also promised that I would earn a huge salary, get a large bonus and even have vacations abroad because this was a “proper job”. Because of his promises I thought these things would happen.


Can you describe your experiences on the ship: who were you with and what did you do each day?

I worked as a seafarer on a fishing vessel with a crew mostly made up of other Indonesians. My ship was a longline fishing vessel.

I would start work at three in the morning and finish around midnight every day. We caught tuna, marlin and shark. Just the fins of the shark were cut off; then their bodies would be thrown back into the sea. We often stored shark meat to sell because the captain told us that we would get a bonus if we did so.

If there was a hailstorm at sea, the captain would still force me to work, and if I refused, the captain would get furious and threaten to not pay me. I realized I was in trouble, but I couldn’t do anything because I was stranded on the ship.

Until now, I’ve never been paid.


What happened when your ship finally went to shore? How did you get back to Indonesia?

When my ship docked, immigration officials and the police came aboard. A few days after that, the ship’s catch was confiscated by local authorities because they found that the ship had been fishing illegally. All of us were put in jail but somehow the company arranged for bail for the captain, so he was able to leave. The rest of us were stuck.

I managed to return to Indonesia with the help of International Transport Workers’ Federation and IOM, once they interviewed me and determined that I was victim of human trafficking.


How did you feel when you saw your family again? What was their reaction? 

I felt sad because I came home with absolutely nothing. At first my family thought I wasted all of my money abroad and didn’t believe that I was a victim of trafficking even though I tried to explain to them that I was abused and suffered on the ship.


What happened to the company that exploited you? 

Unfortunately, until now the foreign company that trafficked me still operates as before, still sending crew to foreign countries.


What advice would you give to people who want to work as a seafarer?

In my opinion, those who want to become a seafarer must first find out if the company that wants to hire them has a permit in Indonesia. Secondly, they must carefully read their work contract.

If they are not given permission to read their contract they should refuse to board the ship and request that the money they paid to the company’s recruiter be given back to them.

They should also attend training and education sessions specific to their future work. If they receive no training, these seafarers are very vulnerable to becoming victims of exploitation. Working on a ship is extremely difficult for people who are doing it for the first time.


What do you think needs to happen to stop exploitation in the fishing industry? 

I think the government should play a big role, starting from giving clear and accurate information to Indonesians about the risks of working as a seafarer. Furthermore, law enforcement and the legal system need to sanction and firmly punish companies that illegally operate without a license.


What can the public do to support victims of human trafficking?

The public needs to first fully understand the issue of human trafficking. From there, they can take an active role in monitoring companies and their recruitment procedures. I also really hope that society can also campaign to stop human trafficking through social media.


To report a case of trafficking or exploitation, contact SBMI at:


Domestic Worker Rights: Gauging the Impact of Open Doors

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Hiring a live-in domestic worker in Southeast Asia is not uncommon among middle and upper income families. These domestic workers are often migrants from other countries. Unfortunately, domestic workers – and especially those living with families – can face abuses such as no weekly day off, having to be on call 24 hours a day, not being allowed to keep their passports and not being paid a fair salary.


To address exploitation in the domestic work sector, IOM X created a regional video programme called Open Doors: An IOM X Production.


Open Doors aims to reach as many employers in the region as possible, in order to increase awareness of the exploitation of domestic workers and encourage employers to adopt better behaviours towards them.


Testing the impact of a regional programme requires a regional approach. Open Doors was tested with viewers in Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand by IOM X’s research partner, Rapid Asia. In each of the countries, the video was shown to a sample of the intended target audience – people between the ages of 15-50. Most of the survey participants employed domestic workers (47% of Thai, 62% of Indonesian and 100% of Malaysian respondents), some of which were migrants and some of which were nationals of the country where they work.


Over 700 people were surveyed before and after watching Open Doors, to see what impact the programme had on viewers’ levels of knowledge, attitudes and intended practices towards domestic workers and their rights.


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Surveyed viewers from Malaysia and Indonesia appear to have learned the most about domestic worker entitlements after watching Open Doors, as their knowledge levels increased by an average of 32 per cent. Thai viewers’ knowledge also increased, although to a lesser extent, at 17 per cent.


In all three countries, knowledge of a weekly day off and paid rest days was high, about 85 per cent of those surveyed knew about these rights. However, across the board, audiences from all three countries showed low awareness on what constitute fair working hours. This shows that there needs to be more efforts to inform employers that domestic workers deserve fair working hours, just like employees in any other sector.


Unfortunately, negative attitudes towards migrant domestic workers were still expressed by an average of 42 per cent of the people surveyed after watching Open Doors. Shifting attitudes is generally an extremely difficult task that is unlikely to be accomplished after seeing one video. However, despite the high levels of negative attitudes, Open Doors was able to make a small dent. When comparing the scores of all three countries, ignorance, measured by asking participants if they agree or disagree with the statement ‘live-in domestic workers should be available to work at any time’, on average decreased the most (by 18%) in all three countries. The most remarkable shift in attitudes was found in Malaysia, where negative attitudes decreased by 19 per cent. Such a high decrease in negative attitudes speaks for the effectiveness of Open Doors to connect to employers.


The three-country survey found that intended behaviours towards domestic workers were high; although in general behavioural intent was high in the pre-survey already (at an average of 72%), it increased in all three countries, especially in Indonesia (up 16%). The most significant increase in behaviour was concerning the practice of advising friends who are about to hire a domestic worker. On average this behaviour increased by 18 per cent.


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One interesting finding was that those who employ migrant domestic workers always showed higher levels of knowledge, attitudes and intended practices than those who employ local domestic workers. It was also found that those who were previously exposed to news around domestic workers had higher levels of knowledge, attitudes and intended behaviour, compared to those who didn’t. This shows that experience and exposure to information, and interaction with domestic workers, may contribute to a better understanding about domestic worker rights.


With about 84 per cent of surveyed viewers saying they found Open Doors interesting and learned something new, it can be said that across the region the programme accomplished its objective. The programme set out to raise awareness of the exploitation that domestic workers face, and to encourage employers to adopt positive behaviours that will reduce exploitation. Encouraged by these positive findings, IOM X continues to disseminate Open Doors across the region.


To read the full comparative impact assessment study of Open Doors in Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand click here.