A joint investigation by reporters from Taiwan and Indonesia has revealed new details about widespread abuse faced by Indonesians working in Taiwan’s fishing industry.

Indonesian magazine Tempo and Taiwan-based online publication The Reporter found the number of Indonesians working on Taiwanese fishing vessels is four times higher than the Taiwan Fisheries Agency’s 2015 official number of 9,000.

By cross-referencing records of Indonesians boarding Taiwanese fishing boats at major ports in Indonesia, South Africa and other countries, the Indonesian Ministry of Transport now believes that up to 40,000 Indonesians are working on Taiwanese fishing boats, Tempo reports. However, the Indonesian government does not have official statistics of the worker numbers.

Tracing the reason behind this disparity, Tempo found large numbers of "blank" crew identification documents for sale. Workers wishing to work on Taiwan fishing vessels are required to hold these identification documents, which are processed by brokers and then approved and issued by the harbor master’s office.

However, blank documents obtained by Tempo already had the office’s approval stamp, which gave brokers the ability to falsify the certification for inexperienced workers. Sources also claimed the fake identification documents have been issued directly from the harbor master’s office.

This leads to workers with the identification documents often having no experience on fishing boats; many do not know if they will be working on fishing vessels or cargo ships. In some cases, if workers did not complete their work quickly enough, their employers would abuse them by tying them up and giving them electric shocks them, one worker told Tempo.

Numerous other cases of serious physical abuse, including deaths, are also detailed in the article, which is a follow-up to a feature published by The Reporter in December.

Supriyanto, an Indonesian worker who died on a Taiwanese fishing boat in August 2015, held one of these identification documents, says The Reporter. Investigations into the death of Supriyanto were said to be insufficient, and Taiwan's Control Yuan ordered the case to be reopened in October 2016.

Taiwan's fishing industry has long exploited legal loopholes, such as hiring foreign workers via foreign brokers under the Fisheries Agency’s separate regulations instead of under the Labor Standards Act, which does not guarantee protection for foreign fishery workers.

Greenpeace released a report in 2016, detailing human rights abuses aboard Taiwanese fishing vessels. Foreign workers from the Philippines, Cambodia, and Indonesia told Greenpeace of long working hours and withheld salaries, and how Taiwanese authorities turned a blind eye to these cases when they were reported.

Taiwan has, however, been taking steps to improve the situation. In December 2016, the Act for Distant Water Fisheries was passed. Under the new law, Taiwanese brokers have to submit their contracts with foreign brokers to Taiwanese authorities, and contracts between foreign brokers and the workers need to be submitted as well. The law is expected to give better protection to foreign fishery workers and will come into force on Jan. 20.

Editor: Olivia Yang