The Migrant Fishermen Union on the Frontlines Against Covid-19 and Bosses

The Migrant Fishermen Union on the Frontlines Against Covid-19  and Bosses
Photo Credit: Baliyoho Cheng

What you need to know

The Yilan Migrant Fishermen Union has pointed out the increased vulnerabilities that their workers face under Covid-19. But this is just their latest campaign since their establishment in 2013.

The breathless praise of Taiwan’s successes halting the spread of Covid-19 sometimes overlooks how prevention measures have had particularly harmful repercussions on the most vulnerable in society. 

The case of 140 fishery migrant workers stranded at the Port of Kaohsiung for almost a month was a vivid but little reported on example of this. At the end of their ordeal, the workers were classified as illegal migrants and deported. 

A recent press conference held by the Yilan Migrant Fishermen Union (YMFU) and other NGOs at Taiwan's Legislative Yuan sought to bring attention to the situation of fishery migrant workers under Covid-19, many of whom work on flag of convenience (FOC) ships.

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Photo Credit: CNA
"Human Life First" reads a banner held by the Yilan Migrant Fishermen Union, at a demonstration demanding the Control Yuan give a full account of the death of a migrant fisherman, September 4, 2019.

The NGOs called upon the Taiwanese government to ban FOC ships as the working conditions on those ships are especially exploitive. A flag of convenience ship sails under the flag of a country other than the country of ship’s owner. According to the International Transport Workers' Federation (ITF), "flagging out" allows ship owners to take advantage of minimal regulation, reduced registration fees, low or no taxes, and cheap labor.

At the press conference, the organizations said that lacking regulations, Taiwan's Fishery Agency does not have jurisdiction over the FOC ships owned and managed by Taiwanese citizens. 

The Fishermen's Union

The Union's campaigning extends well beyond their goal to ban FOC ships. Founded in 2013 and based in Nanfang'ao (南方澳), the Yilan Migrant Fishermen Union is Taiwan’s first labor union composed of and led by foreign workers. It is one of the few organizations fighting for the rights and dignity of Taiwan's fishery migrant workers. 

At the beginning of the Covid-19 outbreak in February, YMFU distributed more than 1,000 medical-grade masks to fishery migrant workers in Yilan County. Recently, YMFU accepted subsidies from Taiwan’s National Human Rights Museum to launched a series of conferences across the country to promote human rights education.

Allison Lee (李麗華) is co-founder and Secretary-General of YMFU. She is a Taiwanese human rights advocate who helped organize fishermen into the union. In 2017, Lee was the first Taiwanese to receive the "Hero Acting to End Modern Slavery Award" from the U.S. State Department.

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Photo Credit: Baliyoho Cheng
Allison Lee (L) with Wallace Huang (R)

Wallace Huang, a volunteer legal consultant for YMFU, spoke about how most migrant workers are economic support for their families, and fear losing their jobs, calling them “structurally oppressed.” Huang has been providing legal advice to YMFU since he was a graduate student at Cornell University. After coming back to Taiwan, he spent a month in Su’ao interning at YMFU. Nowadays, working as a lawyer, Huang can still be seen at most of the YMFU’s events advocating for workers rights and dignity.

The Nanfang’ao Bridge Collapse Brought To Light Systemic Exploitation

On June 13, YMFU held their first conference in Su’ao. At each conference, they introduce the Union’s mission and labor rights philosophy through the collapse of the Nanfang'ao Bridge.

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Photo credit: CNA
The collapsed Nanfang'ao Bridge

Last year on October 1, Nanfang'ao Bridge in Yilan County collapsed, killing six migrant workers, including three Indonesians and three Filipinos. Most people injured were migrant fishermen.

The accident has caused great harm to the fishermen community in Nanfang'ao, both substantially and spiritually. "The collapse of Nanfang'ao bridge has changed a lot of things and brought a lot of problems to the surface," said Lee.

It was not an accident that those killed were all migrant workers. Migrant workers had to stay on board overnight to look after their boats. Safety equipment on fishery boats often is inadequate or useless, Lee added.

Even now, migrant workers must remain on board ships overnight during typhoons. The YMFU fighting against this. Lee said that although working conditions are difficult for all fishery workers, “at least our local workers do not need to stay overnight onboard, and are generally protected by the Labor Standards Act.” 

Many fishery migrant workers are working much longer hours than Taiwan's labor laws allow. They often are not paid for overtime because enforcement of labor laws is slack. Language barriers makes it hard for workers to file formal complaints, and many do not come forward out of justifiable fears employer reprisal. 

Powerful opposition from ship owners

On the path of its advocacy for the rights of fishery migrant workers, Lee and her partners have become a thorn in the side of employers, the local fishermen's association, labor brokers and even the local government.

Like many other local fishermen’s associations, Su’ao’s fishermen’s association has long been controlled by pro-business, local interests. Furthermore, the powerful ship owners have a say in the County Council. Lin Chi-shan (林棋山) is an employer, a managerial staffer at Su’ao’s fishermen’s association, and a County Councillor.

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Photo Credit: Baliyoho Cheng
Allison Lee

During a meeting at the county council, Lin directly asked the county government to form a working group to investigate Lee and the YMFU. 

Lee is often sued by the employers and labor brokers for slander. Even though she eventually wins the cases that have been brought against her, she is forced to spend a lot of time at court. The litigation process can be stressful. Apart from formal accusations, she has faced several incidences of anonymous harassment. 

Lee also shared a story about the lengths the ship owners go to co-opt the union. Wardino, an Indonesian fishery migrant worker and the President of the YMFU, was forced by his employer and the Su’ao District Fishermen’s Association to lead a protest against the YMFU. 

“The President led his fellow Indonesian workers protesting against his own union,” said Lee. When Wardino was asked about the protest, he kept repeating that he did it voluntarily and his boss treated him “like his own child.” 

Despite the underhanded tactics of the fierce opposition arrayed against her, Lee has not lost hope that conditions will improve for the workers. "I do not think that we are weak. I believe that good will always prevail over evil. Now there is coalition of many human rights organizations, not just me alone."


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TNL Editor: Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)

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