Indonesian fisherman Susanto says he was on a Taiwanese commercial fishing vessel in the Pacific Ocean in 2022 when a fish hook flew out of a fish and embedded in his eye.

A coworker pulled it out, he says, and he quickly asked his captain to dock so he could seek medical attention.

Susanto, (most Indonesians don’t have surnames), says he was ignored, and allowed only three days rest before he was forced to go back to work. It was several weeks before the boat reached land.

On Sunday, Susanto was in Boston at the Seafood Expo North America demanding that industry leaders hear what happened to him and help provide internet access to fishermen far from home.

“That's why we campaign for Wi-Fi. We need Wi-Fi so we are not being isolated,'' he said through an interpreter at the event at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center during North America's largest seafood trade exposition. "When we have a severe accident like this, I can connect to people to ask for help.”

Susanto spoke at a protest in Boston accompanied by other deep sea fishermen from Taiwanese fishing boats as well as local and international human rights activists and union representatives. They say it’s time for seafood companies, distributors, buyers, and large retailers to pay attention to human rights in their supply chains — specifically the fact that their fishermen are cut off from the outside world while enduring significant abuses.

“U.S. buyers must be aware of forced labor in their supply chains,'' said Yi-Hsiang Shih, of the Taiwan Association for Human Rights, through the help of an interpreter. "We need to require U.S.-based seafood brands to protect labor rights for fishers. The code of conduct must include fishers' rights, including Wi-Fi communication rights.”

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Yi-Hsiang Shih, of the Taiwan Association for Human Rights, says US buyers and companies need to be aware of the labor abuses the people who fish for them endure.
Photo by Sarah Betancourt, GBH News

Migrant deep sea fishermen work for months on vessels, often without communication with their families, or access to passports, several activists said.

“The Wi-Fi also will allow us to communicate with our families — also give us help support, mental support. We are working long hours on the high seas,” said Susanto.

Susanto said the Taiwanese government deemed him to be “defective” due to the visual impairment caused by his accident, rejected his work visa and deported him back to Indonesia. Now he sells chicken at a stand but says it's a far lower income for his three children than when he was fishing. He says he doesn’t want this to happen to anyone else.

Adrie Arnold Nelwan, a migrant fisherman from Indonesia, says he also was badly injured when a fishing line snapped in his eye and he went months without any medical care or communication with the outside world.

When he finally got to port and got medical care, it was too late: he lost eyesight in one eye, spending thousands trying to save it.

Adrie Arnold Nelwan.jpg
Adrie Arnold Nelwan, a migrant fisherman, was badly injured when a line snapped in his eye and he went months without any medical care on a boat. Here he speaks in front of the convention center where the Seafood Expo North America is taking place.
Photo by Sarah Betancourt, GBH News

Most fishermen are in Taiwan under visa schemes that amount to forced labor, according to the Global Labor Justice International Labor Rights Forum. A spokeswoman said the fishermen “constantly fear deportation and even being thrown overboard if they speak out.”

They have no way to communicate with authorities or worker organizations. Julie Blust, a spokesperson for Global Labor Justice International Labor Rights Forum, says that's why they are calling on the industry to work toward a solution.

“A few of the names we’ve engaged are Walmart, Costco, Bumble Bee, Thai Union, and Starkist,'' she said. "All were invited to a round discussion table tomorrow to meet the fishers and learn more about solutions. So far, none have responded.”

The companies didn’t respond to request for comment.

Many local activists and unions were present at Sunday's event to lend their support — and echo that human rights abuses also exist in Massachusetts waters.

“This campaign was a no-brainer for us to join,” said Al Vega of Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health. He said his group works with others to help contracted fishing workers in New Bedford who face health, safety, harassment, and discrimination. “A lot of these workers are undocumented, and the companies use those facts to put these abuses at a higher level to these workers.”

“We will not stop being the voice of workers, not only in Mass, not only in the U.S., but all over the world,'' said Fabricio DaSilva, a member of the union UFCW 1445, which represents about 11,000 people including some who work at a fish processing center in Gloucester. "When workers need justice at sea, we will get in their face. We will not stop until every one of those vessels has Wi-Fi,” DaSilva said.

The Indonesian fisherman and local groups are holding a candlelight vigil on Monday evening at Martin's Park in Seaport to honor the 100,000 fishing-related deaths that occur worldwide annually.