What you need to know
KMT Legislator Jason Hsu accused top officials of inaction in a contentious meeting.
On Thursday, Jan. 10, in front of assembled media, the director of Taiwan’s Fisheries Agency (FA) and a Ministry of Labor (MOL) official sustained an hour-long barrage of criticism of their departments’ performance by legislators and labor representatives, who once again accused the FA and MOL of not doing enough to protect the human rights of foreign migrant fishermen aboard Taiwan’s fishing fleet.
In a press conference convened by Kuomintang (KMT) legislator Jason Hsu (許毓仁), he described a dire lack of respect for the human rights of migrant fishermen aboard Taiwan-flagged fishing boats. This has been highlighted by the U.S. State Department Trafficking in Persons Report for Taiwan in each of the five years from 2014 to 2018, which have highlighted ongoing work abuse and debt bondage in Taiwan’s fishing industry, along with recent European Union criticisms of Taiwan’s inaction in combating illegal fishing. Taiwan has also been criticized for insufficient anti-money laundering practices by the Asia/Pacific Group on Money Laundering (APG).
The press conference comes one month after London-based NGO Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) released a video revealing alleged shark finning and killing of whales, turtles and dolphins on board several Taiwanese-flagged and owned vessels on the high seas. At the time, the FA said it had commenced an investigation into the blood-curdling allegations, substantiated by photos and videos provided by former crew members.
On Thursday, Hsu and DPP legislator Mary Chen (陳曼麗), as well as Secretary General of the Yilan Migrant Fishermen Union (YMFU), Allison Lee (李麗華) and legal consultant Wallace Huang (黃昱中), made the case that existing laws governing labor brokers, remittance of wages, and living and working conditions of migrant fishermen are not being enforced sufficiently.
“Taiwan was already on the APG list,” Hsu said, citing the Asia/Pacific Group on Money Laundering (APG), which originally cited Taiwan in 2011 and finally removed Taiwan from its “enhanced follow-up list” in 2017.
“This could be Taiwan’s next major international scandal,” he said, adding that the apparent lack of government action was “very embarrassing” for Taiwan.
FA Director Huang Hong-yen (黃鴻燕) and MOL Deputy Director of the Labor Development Department Tsai Meng-liang (蔡孟良) were also present at the conference. They promised to develop an action plan in the coming weeks, but also defended the records of their departments in upholding migrant fishermen’s rights.
“I know the FA’s task is difficult, because labor brokers are not cooperating,” said Hsu. “But, I hope this press conference will instigate action from your departments, because Taiwan is known internationally for human rights.”
Hsu told the press conference he was notified that, within the next month, a team of EU investigators will evaluate Taiwan’s actions to defend the rights of migrant fishermen and could assess sanctions if Taiwan’s efforts are found wanting.
Taiwan has operated under a regulatory EU “yellow card,” or warning, since 2015 for inconsistent enforcement of illegal fishing practices. A “red card” would see a full EU import ban of Taiwanese seafood products, which Taiwan’s Council of Agriculture (COA) said last year could cost the seafood industry NT$7 billion (US$243.6 million) in annual losses.
The EU generally evaluates fisheries regulators on their progress in combating illegal fishing while not explicitly grading the labor conditions of fishermen, although EU officials are thought to consider both factors, which experts insist are strongly correlated.
Addressing the FA and MOL, Hsu said: “You need to show some action within this month.”
Hsu showed several photos gathered by his office in recent months which allegedly show cramped and squalid conditions aboard several Taiwan-flagged fishing vessels.
“This is our own on-site investigation of foreign fishermen’s working conditions.” he said, and listed several shocking findings, including the death and burial at sea of a fishermen due to medical neglect and the subsequent theft by labor brokers of insurance payouts owed to the family of the deceased.
Allison Lee of the Yilan Migrant Fishermen Union also recounted witnessing squalid conditions aboard Taiwanese fishing vessels docked in Yilan.
“I couldn’t even face [the fishermen] after seeing the actual conditions they live in. It didn’t even meet the minimum standard for human habitation.”
Tension arose when FA director Huang Hong-yen denied that widespread abuse and illegality are endemic to Taiwan’s fishing industry, citing several bureaucratic and legal reforms instituted in 2017 including more stringent licensing requirements for labor brokers, and an increase in the number of port inspectors up to 130.
Over protestations from the YMFU, Director Huang said the violations mentioned today all occurred in the distant past. “Maybe some criticisms in the past were valid, but you can’t criticize us after we’ve already updated our policies,” said Huang.
“But this is the reality of the situation,” Hsu retorted. “My office took these photos during on-site inspections just a couple months ago. They weren’t taken 10 years ago.”
All critics repeatedly cited the tangled oversight responsibilities of the FA and MOL as a source of confusion, as both offices frequently pass the buck to the other, making victims and advocates unsure to which office they should appeal for assistance.
“When there’s a problem, it’s the MOL’s responsibility to inspect working conditions, but inspecting the equipment on the boat is the responsibility of the FA,” said YMFU legal consultant Wallace Huang.
“But then the FA tells the local port’s association to carry it out, because the FA can’t have an inspector at every port every day, but then the port association maybe can’t find the boat or it’s already departed.”
The FA and MOL share jurisdiction over Taiwan’s inshore fishing vessels – smaller boats that return to Taiwanese ports every day. Taiwan also oversees a fleet of about 2,000 distant water vessels, in which crew members stay at sea for months at a time and often never set foot in Taiwan. The MOL has no jurisdiction over these vessels, and they have been repeatedly pinpointed as hotbeds for human trafficking, illegal fishing, and physical, verbal and financial work abuse.
Attorney Huang said Taiwanese employers are bound by international labor conventions, as well as domestic labor regulations: “They all require employers to provide a safe, suitable working environment, but we didn’t see anything of the sort in those photos. So who should we call for help? Who will assess the damage and hold those responsible to account? As it stands, there’s no use in seeking help from the MOL or FA.”
Legislator Hsu requested the FA and MOL undertake five reforms to benefit migrant fishermen, including clarifying the division of powers and responsibilities between the FA and MOL, an improved program to prevent abuse, improved enforcement of working and living standards, preventing forced labor and strengthening labor inspections.
The press conference adjourned with the FA and MOL agreeing to submit an action plan of improvements to the legislators before the Lunar New Year holiday.
Editor: Nick Aspinwall (@Nick1Aspinwall)