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The report was released just after a protest against increased work hours for fishermen.
Taiwan’s foreign workers remain vulnerable to “exploitation” and “significant debt burdens” and its Ministry of Labor has decreased its inspections of employers, according to a human rights report released on Wednesday by the U.S. State Department.
The 2018 U.S. Country Report on Human Rights Practices for Taiwan also flags the “mistreatment and poor working conditions for foreign fishermen,” noting several high-profile reports and cases in 2018 which drew attention to a culture of abuse on Taiwan’s high seas fishing vessels.
Wednesday’s report was released on the same day migrant workers and labor rights advocates slammed a Ministry of Labor plan to exempt migrant fishermen from standardized work hour and overtime limits, citing flexibility for employers.
The report noted severe issues in work conditions for Taiwan’s migrant workers, of whom up to 700,000 come from Southeast Asian countries, according to Taiwan’s National Immigration Agency (NIA). Workers were burdened by “excessive brokerage fees, guarantee deposits, and higher charges for flights and accommodations” during the recruitment process, the report said.
The report repeated a previous U.S. State Department claim that the practices of third-party brokers leave foreign workers “vulnerable to debt bondage.” It noted that NGOs have reported the monthly pay of some domestic workers “was as low as 6.7 percent of the official poverty level” – which consists of a disposable monthly income between NT$16,157 (US$526) and NT$12,388 (US$404) per person, depending on location.
Labor inspections are infrequent and inspection law is weakly enforced, the report said. Inspections by the MOL dropped by 40 percent in 2017 compared to 2016, it said, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) of the MOL dropped its rate of inspections by 89 percent in 2017. Just seven out of 8,324 cases of labor violations were referred to the district prosecutor’s office, it said.
“Labor inspections often failed to serve as an effective deterrent against labor violations and unsafe working conditions,” the report said.
Taiwan’s industrial safety record has been scrutinized after three factory fires in a 14-month span took the lives of migrant workers. Two of those fires took place in on-site factory dormitories, but the MOL has refused to consider proposals to ban on-site dorms, which NGOs and firefighters say are unsafe.
The report also noted that foreign workers are often reluctant to call the 24-hour toll-free “1955” hotline to report abuse, citing a “fear the employer would terminate the contract and deport them, leaving them unable to reimburse debt accrued during the recruitment process.”
“Foreign fishermen recruited offshore were not entitled to the same labor rights, wages, insurance, and pensions as those recruited locally,” the report said, noting a case in which Taiwan’s Control Yuan rebuked the Fisheries Agency (FA) and the Kaohsiung City Marine Bureau for charging 37 foreign fishing crews NT$300 (US$9.77) per day to live in a 645 square foot shore house.
The U.S. report noted 2018 reports from the NGOs Greenpeace and Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) which flagged cases of “inhuman treatment” aboard deep sea vessels such as Taiwan’s Fuh Sheng 11, which last year became the first vessel cited by the International Labor Organization (ILO) for violating a new regulation governing human work conditions for fishermen.
The report’s release came on the same day that migrant workers protested a proposal by Premier Su Tseng-chang (蘇貞昌) to apply Article 84-1 of the Labor Standards Act (LSA) to migrant fishermen, removing rules which currently disallow them from working over 12 hours per day and five days per week, and working a maximum of 46 hours per month of overtime.
“Migrant fishers typically work long hours, receive low wages and are charged illegal, expensive service fees by brokers,” the Migrants Empowerment Network in Taiwan said in a statement.
Workforce Development Agency official Chuang Kuo-liang (莊國良) said the plan was proposed as there is “little flexibility in work hours in the fishing industry” and noted it would apply to both Taiwanese and foreign workers.
The Cabinet proposal to allow for increased work hours comes shortly after Kuomintang (KMT) legislator Jason Hsu (許毓仁) and Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) legislator Mary Chen (陳曼麗) criticized the government for failing to protect the rights of foreign fishermen. “This could be Taiwan’s next international scandal,” Hsu said at a Jan. 10 press conference.
The plan would only cover fishermen working close to shore. Fishermen on Taiwan’s deep sea vessels are not covered by the Labor Standards Act and distant water captains are not bound by limits on work hours and overtime. Many migrant fishermen have reported working up to 20 hours per day and receiving no days off.
The U.S. report noted that regulations require a minimum monthly wage of only US$450 (NT$13,892) for foreign fishermen on distant water vessels, far below the minimum wage of NT$23,100 (US$748) in Taiwan. It added: “NGOs reported that foreign fishing crews on Taiwan-flagged long-haul vessels generally received wages below US$450 per month because of dubious deductions for administrative fees and deposits.”
European investigators will evaluate Taiwan’s progress in combating illegal fishing and work abuse at sea this month. Taiwan’s deep sea fishing industry suffered several incidents in February which led to the loss of 13 fishermen from the Philippines and Indonesia.
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