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Ghanaians traded by Danish shipowner: We were treated like slaves

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Photo : Michael Drost-Hansen

A shipowner in Thyborøn has been indicted for human trafficking and violation of the Aliens Act after exploiting two sailors from Ghana to work under slave-like conditions.

For more than three years, two African sailors worked under slave-like conditions on a fishing vessel in Thyborøn. No vacation and 11 hours of work six days a week have been the everyday life of Reuben Kotei and Justice Numo, who came to Denmark from Ghana with a promise to sail a ship back to Ghana.

– You say we have been treated as slaves. I’m never happy to be called names, but especially not when I find that to be true, says 57-year-old Reuben Kotei, who, along with 52-year-old Justice Numo, is under the Center for Human Trafficking until after the trial in August.

The Central and West Jutland Police have charged a 55-year-old Danish shipowner for trafficking in human beings and for having employed the two without the necessary work permit and having assisted in staying illegally in the country.

According to the indictment, the prosecution requires jail sentences, fines, damages to the two Ghanaians and confiscation of the vessel in question owned by the shipowner and his company.

Soldiers at war

Reuben Kotei and Justice Numo lived on the fishing vessel and were paid 1,200 euros a month, equivalent to just under DKK 9,000.

They have not vacationed in all their time in Denmark. The shipowner also withdrew their passports and travel documents. And when the work and residence permit expired on April 3, 2017, the two men therefore stayed illegally in the country, the two sailor tells Fagbladet 3F.

They were told that contacting the authorities would cause problems because their papers were not in order. They therefore stayed calm and found themselves in the poor working conditions.

– We were dependent on wages, and in our culture you don’t ask questions. We were soldiers in war. And when you are at war, you stay on until the battle is either won or lost. There is no expiration date, says Reuben Kotei.

The two Ghanaians were also told that they did not have to move further than a 500 meter radius of the ship, otherwise it would have consequences.

Back to Senegal

Reuben Kotei and Justice Numo first met the Danish shipowner when they were working in Senegal. Reuben Kotei says he helped the shipowner find the best fishing areas off the coast of Senegal. As a result, the shipowner asked the two Ghanaians if they would accompany him back to Thyborøn to help him finish the fishing ship “Emma Helene”.

Then the plan was for Reuben and Justice to sail the ship back to Senegal.

– It just had to be finished and then it was ready for departure. We had only expected to be in Denmark for a short time, says Reuben Kotei, who has worked as a sailor for many years.

Due to a sailing in the harbor, “Emma Helene” sank before reaching the port of Thyborøn, after which Reuben and Justice signed on to another of the shipowner’s ships, “Helene”.

Still with the goal of getting the ship ready to sail back to Senegal.

Stop asking

Three years later, the two Ghanaians were still on the ship “Helene” without heading back to Africa.

Until May 26, 2020, Reuben Kotei and Justice Numo each lived in their small cabin aboard the vessel. They worked on “Helene”, did forged work on the harbor and even helped on other fishing boats owned by the same shipowner.

– Over the years I have happily asked when he (the shipowner, ed.) Figured we could sail out. He just kept responding that it would probably take three months. Eventually, I stopped asking, says Justice Numo.

The fishing vessel “Helene” is owned by a Danish shipowner, but sails under the Belize flag. By sailing under Belize or other so-called convenience flags, the shipowner escapes Danish taxes and security requirements. Therefore, the herd often has to deal with poor security, poor working conditions and owners who do not take responsibility for their herd.

The trade magazine 3F also knows that the Danish shipowner has another ship, “Amalie”, under the Belize flag lying in Thyborøn harbor. Here live three other Ghanaians who he imported to Denmark in April this year. The three have now been expelled by Danish police and leave the country by plane as soon as covid-19 allows.

No holidays, no family visits

Although “Amalie” sailed to Ghana on March 7, 2019 to bring the other three African sailors to Denmark, Reuben Kotei and Justice Numo did not get the opportunity to sign off and travel back to their families.

Each month, the two African sailors have sent a large portion of their pay home to their wives and children in Ghana. It is more than three years since they last saw their families, because without a holiday it was not possible to go home. All contact has therefore taken place over iPads.

– It’s really tough. We talk to our family day and night and they keep asking when we are coming home. But we didn’t know what to answer. We really miss them, says Justice Numo.

“It’s grotesque”

With 12 years of experience as ITF inspector (International Transport Workers’ Federation), Morten Bach has extensive knowledge of cheating and deception in the Danish waters. Therefore, unfortunately, he is not surprised to learn that two Ghanaians have lived and worked under slave-like conditions for more than three years. 

– I am deeply upset that a Danish shipowner may find that robbing two people of their freedom and treating them in this way. It’s grotesque, says Morten Bach, who works under 3F’s transport group.

Among other things, his job is to board ships in Danish waters, where he checks agreement, rest time, salaries and other terms.

Morten Bach points out that he experiences a couple of cases of this kind per year, where foreigners work under miserable working conditions under the radar of the police and the Maritime Authority.

– I’m glad the police found him. And it’s really good that the two have come out of his custody, he says.

The dream of a replacement

On August 21 and 31, the case will be processed by the Holstebro court. 

According to the indictment, the two men must each receive a sum of 40,562 euros – which is equivalent to about DKK 300,000. So much money in your pocket will make a huge difference to the two Ghanaian sailors. If Reuben Kotei and Justice Numo end up being able to leave Denmark with a replacement each, Reuben Kotei dreams of fulfilling a big dream: 

– If we get the money, my dream of being able to buy my own boat might come true, he says.

Fagbladet 3F has tried to get a comment from the shipowner’s defense attorney, Peter Secher, who has refused to comment on the case and does not want to confirm having anything to do with the case. The trade magazine 3F has also tried in vain to get a comment from the ship owner itself.

Source: fagbladet3f.dk

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