Montevideo - A group of 28 African immigrants were held in slavery on a fishing vessel off the coast of Uruguay, beaten and forced to work without pay, attorneys said on Wednesday.
The migrants, 24 of whom were from Sierra Leone and the rest from Ghana, said they had not been paid "a penny" since boarding the China-flagged vessel seven months ago.
They were initially divided up between three fishing boats but, upon Uruguay's territorial waters, they were transferred to a single vessel, who name has not been disclosed, docked in Montevideo on Sunday and were taken to a hotel. A complaint was filed late on Tuesday.
"It's a case of forced labour," Isabel Camarano, a lawyer with Uruguay's fishermen's union, told reporters.
Camarano said the men, who were taken from port to port as forced labour, were also abused. Doctors have confirmed that they have wounds and scars consistent with having been beaten, according to Camarano.
Local news reports said that the men had signed on as contract labour to work on the ship, but that the ship's captain confiscated their passports and the crew held them captive. Most had embarked in Sierra Leone.
The workers told the fishermen's union that "they were beaten aboard the ship. Apart from that, they said that food was withheld from them, and that they have become ill," Camarano said.
Stanley Elisami said he and the other migrants blamed the owner of the vessel for keeping him on board against his will.
"The captain said that no one who gets sick would be allowed to sleep on this ship. Even if you're sick, you have to work," Elisami told reporters.
He said the men were given small rations of rice to eat just once per day and had to resort to drinking ocean water, while "the Chinese drank fresh water."
The men have been examined by doctors who said they appeared to have the early symptoms of malaria and possibly tuberculosis.
They have been referred to two Uruguayan hospitals for treatment.