Feature

Taiwan says it's ready for an upcoming European investigation. Two recent incidents say otherwise.

Taiwan's High Seas Fishing Vessels Lost 13 Migrant Fishermen in February

2019/03/08 , News
Nick Aspinwall
Credit: AP / TPG
Nick Aspinwall
Nick Aspinwall is a journalist based in Taipei and an editor-at-large for The News Lens. He has also written for The Diplomat, SupChina and New Naratif, among others. When he’s not reporting, he can be found on a diving boat or perhaps stranded deep within a remote mountain range.

Taiwan’s embattled US$2 billion (NT$61.7 billion) fishing industry has made more unpleasant headlines over the past month, even as chatter increases that the country’s Fisheries Agency (FA) could be inching closer to reforms aimed at decreasing an alarmingly high rate of environmental and human rights violations on the high seas.

On Feb. 11, five Filipino fishermen went missing after the Taiwan-flagged Jung Ron caught fire off the Falkland Islands. They were never found. On Feb. 20, Taiwan’s coast guard said a deadly knife fight broke out on the Taiwan-flagged Wen Peng (穩鵬號) in the Indian Ocean in which two crew members, one Filipino and one Indonesian, were allegedly killed by another Filipino fisherman who has since been arrested. Six Filipino and Indonesian crew members who jumped overboard remain missing after reportedly jumping into the sea. A search by Taiwan’s Coast Guard, which arrived at the scene days after the incident, was discontinued after 72 hours.

The incidents occurred weeks before European Commission (EC) investigators are scheduled to visit Taiwan and evaluate its progress in monitoring illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing. Taiwan has operated under a “yellow card” warning from the EC since 2015. (A “red card” would carry a ban on seafood exports to the EU, which could cost Taiwan’s seafood industry up to NT$7 billion, or US$244 million, in annual losses.) The investigators are also likely to evaluate the state of labor rights and safety at sea on board Taiwanese distant water vessels.

Chen Chi-chung (陳吉仲), Taiwan’s minister of agriculture, said on Feb. 27 that Taiwan is prepared for the European investigation, but did not elaborate on the new “mechanisms” drafted by the Council of Agriculture (COA), the Cabinet-level parent ministry of the FA.

While the two recent cases may come across as isolated incidents, a deeper look shows that they are symptomatic of larger problems infecting not just the deep sea fishing industry, but Taiwan’s inability to safely accommodate its 700,000-strong Southeast Asian migrant workforce.

Recent cases a 'reflection' of regulatory failure

In a Feb. 22 statement following the Wen Peng incident, the FA said a fight began when “the chief officer hacked two of his crew to death in a disciplinary action dispute.” Two nearby Taiwanese vessels, the Shang Feng No. 3 and Hung Fu No. 88, arrived on the scene to assist in what FA statements describe as a selfless rescue mission. The vessels “gave up hundreds of thousands of NTD per day” to assist in rescuing three Taiwanese and 15 of 21 foreign crew members, according to the FA.

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Credit: Tung Kang Fisherman's Association
The Wen Peng.

The Filipino chief officer was arrested by Taiwanese authorities on Mar. 2 and has since been transferred to the detention room of the patrol vessel Hsun Hu No. 8, according to the Coast Guard. He will be handed over to the Pingtung District Prosecutor’s Office for investigation upon his return to Taiwan.

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Credit: CNA
The suspect after being detained by authorities.

The cause of the fight aboard the Wen Peng remains unknown. Past cases of conflict between a crew chief and crew members have stemmed from disagreements over long work hours, living conditions, and allegations of abuse, including the notorious case of Supriyanto, an Indonesian fisherman who died aboard the Taiwan-flagged Fu Tzu Chun in 2015 amid allegations of work abuse, including beatings at the hands of the vessel’s Indonesian crew chiefs.

Taiwan passed the reformative Distant Water Fisheries Act in 2017. A response to the 2015 European yellow card, the act aims to curb IUU fishing, regulates working hours and living conditions for crew members, and requires employers to provide crew with accident and medical insurance. But the act has been inadequately enforced, according to a series of 2018 reports by NGOs Greenpeace and Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF). The latest, released by EJF in December, alleges that five longline tuna vessels flagged or linked to Taiwan engaged in illegal shark finning and the killing of protected dolphins, whales and turtles, along with human rights abuses such as physical abuse, long hours, salary deductions and verbal threats.

The Wen Peng case reveals a fundamental problem which NGOs have long pinpointed: Taiwan-flagged vessels, barring exceptional cases, do not operate under the jurisdiction of Taiwanese law. This means migrant fisheries workers are not covered by Taiwan’s Labor Standards Act (LSA), which sets a minimum monthly wage of NT$23,100 (US$750) and offers other protections to workers based in Taiwan. It also means that the FA, not the Ministry of Labor (MOL), is responsible for investigating labor issues at sea – despite also representing the interests of the fishing industry.

The FA is already under-equipped in its ability to regularly inspect Taiwan’s massive deep-sea fishing fleet, which is active in all the world’s major oceans. In practice, it relies heavily on the oversight of employers and third-party recruitment agencies responsible for hiring migrant fishermen.

In the Wen Peng case, the Manila Economic and Cultural Office (MECO), the de facto Philippine embassy in Taiwan, quickly stated the incident was not under its jurisdiction, demurring to Taiwanese authorities. And while Taiwan is taking responsibility for prosecuting the Filipino crew chief suspected of murder, the FA has not yet stated its intention to investigate what happened aboard the Wen Peng.

“This case is a reflection of the entire situation,” said Chiu Shao-chi (邱劭琪) of EJF’s Taipei office. “The FA has special regulations because they say we can’t widely define fishing vessels on the high seas as under Taiwanese jurisdiction.”

The case of the Jung Ron, in which five lives were lost after a fire engulfed the vessel, also raises persistent questions of whether the FA is adequately monitoring safety conditions on Taiwan’s fishing fleet.

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Credit: Fisheries Agency
The Jun Rong.

Last year, the Fuh Sheng No. 11 became the first vessel penalized by the International Labour Organization (ILO) for running afoul of its Work in Fishing Convention (C188), a measure introduced in 2017 to regulate work and safety conditions on high seas fishing vessels. Crew members aboard the vessel said they were asked to work in dangerous conditions and medical and safety equipment was either lacking or broken.

European investigation looms

European investigators are sure to monitor the FA’s response to the two recent incidents in which 13 migrant fishermen were lost on the high seas.

In his Feb. 27 comments, Agriculture Minister Chen noted that Thailand’s “yellow card” was recently lifted after it implemented a series of reforms to regulate its own fishing fleet. Chen said Taiwan is also planning to set up mechanisms to improve fisheries oversight.

Thailand’s reforms, however, are far more comprehensive than any measures Taiwan has either proposed or implemented, EJF Executive Director Steve Trent told The News Lens. Crucially, Thailand has adopted the ILO Work in Fishing Convention and has prioritized inter-agency cooperation between its own fisheries and labor bureaus. Taiwan has taken neither step.

“Having an inter-agency task force, the Command Center to Combat Illegal Fishing (CCCIF), was central to [taking] action” in Thailand, said Trent. “That had the Ministry of Employment, the Ministry of Fisheries, the navy, the police, all these different agencies in one room.”

“I would certainly draw the lesson in Taiwan, just as we do in Thailand. You need to have [inter-agency cooperation],” said Trent, adding that Taiwan, like Thailand, must commit to “hard and fast enforcement” of any measures it implements.

Thailand’s CCCIF was established in May 2015, one month after the EC hit the country with its own “yellow card.” It has been restructured numerous times since its inception to better facilitate cooperation between separate governmental agencies.

Thailand’s regulatory policies remain imperfect, according to EJF. The country still permits workers as young as 16 to work in the fishing industry, and Thailand will have to commit to consistent enforcement of its newly strengthened regulations. However, it remains far ahead of Taiwan – a fact not lost on some Taiwanese lawmakers critical of the government’s inaction.

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Credit: Michael Garber
KMT legislator Jason Hsu accused FA and MOL officials of failing to protect migrant fishermen at a Jan. 10 press conference.

In January, Kuomintang (KMT) legislator Jason Hsu (許毓仁) criticized Taiwan’s inaction in improving regulations and enforcing existing laws in a press conference along with Mary Chen (陳曼麗), a Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) legislator, and Allison Lee (李麗華) and Wallace Huang (黃昱中) of the Yilan Migrant Fishermen Union.

“This could be Taiwan’s next major international scandal,” said Hsu.

Thailand’s reforms came after a series of international reports from the Associated Press, the Guardian, and others drew attention to its fishing industry’s history of labor abuse stemming from deep discrimination of migrant workers, primarily from Myanmar and Cambodia, and governmental apathy.

In Taiwan, cases of high seas human trafficking, labor abuse and financial deception of migrant workers are often isolated as individual cases. Before Taiwan claims victory in throwing open its doors to South and Southeast Asia, it would do well to determine the common set of social phenomena that tie together its fishery woes, the alleged exploitation of international students, and the rampant mistreatment of the countless factory workers, caregivers and tourists who say they have not experienced the “friendliness” of Taiwan.

Read Next: Filipino Students Say They Were Forced Into Factory Work


Taiwan's High Seas Hell:

Taiwan's enormous high seas fishing industry is responsible for much of the world's tuna catch. It's also come under fire for illegal fishing, human trafficking, and abuse of its migrant workforce.

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