Out of Sight: Taiwan’s Hidden Contribution to Global Human Trafficking

Out of Sight: Taiwan’s Hidden Contribution to Global Human Trafficking
Photo Credit: Reuters/達志影像
What you need to know

Taiwanese are involved in human trafficking crimes across Asia and the Pacific, and at least five traffickers convicted of offences in Cambodia remain at-large on the island.

Taiwan has been ranked among the world’s top countries for its efforts to police human trafficking, but some of its nationals remain contributors to the growing global problem.

The latest “Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report” by the U.S. State Department places countries onto one of three tiers based on the extent of governments’ efforts to comply with minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking.

Taiwan, a Tier 1 country for the seventh-straight year, has issues domestically and the Taiwanese, particularly via the fishing industry, contribute to the lower rankings in a handful of other countries, including Cambodia, Laos, Indonesia, Palau and Fiji, according to the report.

“Documented and undocumented fishermen on Taiwan-flagged fishing vessels, mostly from China, Indonesia, and Vietnam, experience non- or under-payment of wages, long working hours, physical abuse, lack of food, and poor living conditions, which are indicators of trafficking,” the report says.

No arrests or convictions were made in Taiwan last year for trafficking violations on Taiwan fishing vessels.

The State Department says Taiwan authorities need to “vigorously investigate and prosecute” the owners of those Taiwan-owned or -flagged fishing vessels that allegedly commit abuse and labor trafficking onboard long-haul fishing vessels.

Isolation

The report, released by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, shows that 77,800 victims were identified globally last year, up 75% from 44,500 in 2015. Prosecutions likewise almost doubled from 10,000 to 18,900. It highlights "isolation" as a key contributor to human trafficking.

“Such isolation increases workers’ vulnerability to human trafficking and associated indicators, including confiscation of passports or other identity documents, non-payment of wages, substandard living and working conditions, restricted movement, threats of deportation, psychological coercion to remain employed, and physical force,” it says.

Fishing is listed as one those industries most at risk from isolation issues.

“Fishers aboard vessels in vast international waters are particularly vulnerable to human trafficking due to often protracted periods of time at sea and an inability to report mistreatment or escape their ships,” the report says. “Luring fishers with promises of good wages, traffickers force some to work under extreme conditions and deny them compensation or the freedom to leave.”

While Taiwan promulgated interagency procedures for handling cases involving trafficking of foreign workers on fishing vessels last year, it still needs to clearly define the roles and responsibilities for the agencies that oversee Taiwan-flagged fishing vessels.

According to Greenpeace, Taiwan has the biggest tuna fleet in the Pacific. The organization said late last year that “with 1,200 small boats, mainly fishing on the high seas, regulation, monitoring and surveillance are a massive challenge.”

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Photo Credit: Greenpeace
Greenpeace activists prepare to board illegal fishing vessel Shuen De Ching No 888. The Rainbow Warrior travels in the Pacific to expose out of control tuna fisheries. Tuna fishing has been linked to shark finning, over-fishing and human rights abuses.
Regional impact

The report notes that in 2014 a Cambodian court convicted six Taiwan nationals for enslaving 74 Cambodians onboard Taiwan fishing vessels. While investigations in Taiwan are understood to be ongoing, authorities have not yet convicted any traffickers associated with this case. Five of the six men remain at large.

In Indonesia, there have been on-going reports of Indonesian fishermen in forced labor on Taiwanese and South Korean fishing vessels in non-Indonesian waters.

“In past years, Indonesian men have been subjected to forced labor on fishing vessels in Indonesian waters,” the report says. Indonesian women and girls are also subjected to sex trafficking primarily in Malaysia, Taiwan, and the Middle East.

In Fiji, workers from other Asian countries are forced to work on fishing vessels and transit through Fiji or board fishing vessels from Fiji ports and waters, the report says. “They live in poor conditions, accrue significant debts, and work for little or no compensation on foreign fishing vessels, mainly Chinese- and Taiwan-flagged, in Pacific waters.”

Likewise in the Solomon Islands’ territorial waters and port, fishing crew members from Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, North Korea and Fiji have similarly reported “situations indicative of human trafficking.” These include “non-payment of wages, severe living conditions, violence, and limited food supply on Taiwan-flagged fishing vessels.”

In the tiny country of Palau — population 21,000 — Chinese and Filipino women are recruited to work as waitresses or clerks, but some are subsequently forced into prostitution in karaoke bars or massage parlors. Many of these are operated by Taiwanese, Filipino, or Palauan nationals.

Meanwhile in Laos, the report says, migrants seeking better opportunities outside the country may experience labor or sexual exploitation after arriving in destination countries, “most often Thailand, as well as Vietnam, Malaysia, China, Taiwan, and Japan.”

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Photo Credit: RITCHIE B. TONGO / EPA / 達志影像
epa05067160 A migrant worker carries placard during a protest near the Presidential office in Taipei, Taiwan, 13 December 2015. Migrant and local workers from Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Vietnam, Thailand, Taiwan and other parts of Asia demand Taiwan government for their better welfare. EPA/RITCHIE B. TONGO
Domestic issues

The report, as in previous years, notes Taiwan’s massive migrant worker population — 587,000 people in a country of 23.5 million — is most at risk for trafficking.

“Some migrant workers are charged exorbitantly high recruitment fees, resulting in substantial debts used by brokers or employers as tools of coercion to obtain or retain their labor. After recruitment fee repayments are garnished from their wages, many foreign workers in Taiwan earn significantly less than the minimum wage,” it says.

It adds that domestic workers and home caregivers are “especially vulnerable to exploitation, since they often live in their employers’ residences, making it difficult to monitor their working and living conditions.”

In addition to recommending greater Taiwan authorities improve oversight of the fishing industry, it has called on the judicial system to increase efforts to prosecute and convict traffickers under Taiwan’s anti-trafficking law.

It says, while authorities have the Human Trafficking Prevention and Control Act (HTCPA) at their disposal, they prosecuted the majority of trafficking cases under other laws, such as the criminal code, and the Children and Youth Sexual Transaction Prevention Act.

Moreover, the sentences imposed on the majority of the traffickers were six months to less than one year, “which are inadequate to serve as an effective deterrent to the commission of trafficking crimes.”

“Prosecutors and judges continued to treat many cases involving trafficking indicators as lesser crimes and, in many cases, sentenced traffickers to lenient penalties not proportionate to the crimes,” the report says.

Some local NGO workers had been hoping that Taiwan’s ranking would be downgraded to Tier 2, so that the government would be pressured into taking a greater interest in dealing with the country’s trafficking problems.

First Editor: Olivia Yang
Second Editor: J. Michael Cole