Taiwan’s Fishing Agency (FA) faces potential embarrassment and the possible imposition of a “red card” from visiting European Commission (EC) fisheries inspectors amid the release of an eye-opening video on illegal fishing by Taiwanese vessels and the abuse of migrant workers employed on board.

EC officials are in Taiwan for a week to review measures to curb illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing activities following the imposition of a “yellow card” warning for Taiwan in October 2015.

The warning does not affect fisheries trade between Taiwan and the European Union but obliges Taiwan to report on its progress improving illegal fishing monitoring and prevention activities every six months.

As such, the March 13 release of a video by the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF), a UK-based non-profit, detailing the slave-like conditions and human rights abuses of migrant fishermen onboard Taiwanese vessels and the illegal fishing activities they are forced to engage in could not have come at a more damaging time.

Exploitation and Lawlessness: The Dark Side of Taiwan's Fishing Fleet from Environmental Justice Foundation on Vimeo.

Fishing in Taiwan is a US$2 billion industry, with the majority of catch exported to Europe, the USA and Japan after being processed in Thailand and Singapore.

The EJF video features interviews with migrant fisherman that detail incidents of crew being beaten with the backs of swords and threatened at gunpoint, forced to clean boat propellers using unsafe makeshift diving equipment, and an atmosphere of fear and oppression that lasts for months or even years until the vessels make port – often at remote locations with weak port inspection controls.

The video calls to mind the shocking case of Supriyanto, one of two Indonesian fishermen who died in suspicious circumstances while at sea working on a Taiwanese vessel in 2015.

Aside from the horrific conditions, the EJF reports “coordinated and persistent illegal fishing activities,” including shark finning, illegal transshipments, vessels going unregistered and repeated changes of flags both at sea and in port to avoid raids.

In an accompanying statement, the EJF called for Taiwan and other governments to ratify the International Labour Organisation convention designed to protect the rights of workers in the fishing industry.

“The fishermen, the majority of who are from Indonesia and the Philippines, reported violence, abuse and threats, squalid conditions and heavy financial deductions for food, travel, medical checks and accommodation,” the EJF statement said. “They reported working long hours, in unsafe and inhumane conditions for little or no money.”


Credit: REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

Fishing boats are seen docked in a harbor as Typhoon Malakas approaches in Yilan, Taiwan, September 17, 2016.

Some 19,100 migrant workers are employed aboard about 1,140 Taiwanese vessels, according to FA figures. Tuna is the primary target of Taiwan’s deep-sea fishing fleet, but many deploy long lines stretching thousands of miles that often snare bycatch like turtles, marlin, swordfish and shark. Illegal fishing often goes hand in hand with human rights abuses as collapsing stocks force down wages and the welfare of workers, according to the EJF.

Under current rules, migrant fisheries workers recruited to Taiwanese vessels overseas do not fall under the jurisdiction of Taiwanese law. Those hired in Taiwan are overseen by the FA and not the Ministry of Labor (MOL), ensuring they miss out on minimum wage and other protections afforded to most workers under the country’s labor laws.

Migrant worker issues are often underrepresented in Taiwan’s parliament, the Legislative Yuan, though the EJF report did receive the endorsement of Democratic Progressive Party legislator Lin Shu-fen (林淑芬).

Fisheries Agency response and NGO reaction

In a press release, the FA said that the allegations contained in the EJF video were "not completely true". It said that to check whether overseas fishermen are being treated fairly, they must be hired through an agency, and that if the agent has concerns about potential violations, they will be investigated. It also said that starting in 2017, the FA has sent written questionnaires to foreign staff working on fishing boats, as well as dispatching agency staff to conduct oral interviews. If illegalities are found, the FA will conduct an investigation, and employers found to be in violation of regulations will be severely punished.

In a response to questions from The News Lens, the FA added that it was cooperating with the MOL on the issue of "deep sea fishing boat" inspections and that they would jointly execute labor checks when vessels return to port in Taiwan.

The government has taken steps since its warning in 2015 to tighten oversight of illegal fishing, including employing more than 100 observers aboard vessels and satellite tracking to monitor ships’ whereabouts. “[The observers] have to perform duties … such as the collection of fishing information, filling in records, taking photos of catch and bycatch species, assistance in carrying out international cooperative projects, and reporting catch data weekly on real time basis,” according to a FA press release.

In July 2016, Taiwan implemented various new laws to bring its legal framework into line with international fisheries best practice, passing the Distant Water Fisheries Act and the Act to Govern Investment in the Operation of Foreign Flag Fishing Vessels, as well as various amendments to the Fisheries Act.

However, not enough has been done to protect the human rights of those aboard, according to various nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).

Greenpeace Taiwan Regional Ocean Researcher Jodie Lee (李宜蕎 ) said that while the government has amended regulations covering the employment of overseas foreign crew members to ensure they receive a minimum wage of US$450 per month and are contracted to an authorized crew hiring agency in Taiwan, the situation on the ground has not changed.

“Since the law came into effect in January 2017, Greenpeace has interviewed more than 50 crew who work on Taiwanese flagged vessels around the world. We found labor abuses still taking place and labor conditions have not improved,” Lee said, adding that wages usually total just US$150 per month following various deductions.

“Greenpeace considers that the Distant Water Fishery Act and its related regulations are not being properly implemented after a year and half of being in force,” she added. “We still question whether the FA has control of illegal transshipment and Flag of Convenience (FOC) issues.”

Greenpeace urged the FA to improve its coordination with the MOL and echoed the EJF’s call for Taiwan to sign up to the new ILO convention (ILO C188) to establish minimum labor standards for all workers on fishing vessels. The environmental NGO also said Taiwan should improve the transparency of the data it uses to track vessels and share it with NGOs to corroborate its tracking activities.


Credit: REUTERS/Kyodo

Taiwanese fishermen waving on a fishing boat as they operate on waters near Ishigaki island, Okinawa prefecture.

In a statement, the FA called attention to the protections offered to workers under the January 2017 laws, which include a minimum rest time of 10 hours a day and requirements that boat owners provide crew with accident, medical and other insurance, and that owners are required to lodge a deposit of between NT$1.5 million (US$51,000) and NT$5 million with the FA against claims of abuse and malfeasance.

Various Taiwanese NGOs told The News Lens that such provisions, even if enforced, do not go far enough.

Lennon Wong, of Serve the People, a Taoyuan-based NGO that assists migrant workers in Taiwan, urged the EC to use its warning system to keep up pressure on the government to address issues surrounding the employment of migrant workers recruited overseas.

“The warning from the EU regarding IUU fishing is crucial for the Taiwan government to continue face the problems of illegal fishing, exploitation and even human trafficking,” he said. Wong pointed out that Taiwan has been criticized for its failure to protect human rights in the fishing industry in the last five Trafficking in Persons reports from the US Department of State.

Xu Chun-hwai (許淳淮), of the Taiwan International Workers Association, said that if overseas fishermen on offshore vessels have problems with their work, or encounter employers who violate the labor contract and even resort to violence, they cannot ask for or seek help because they are far away from shore.

“The Taiwanese government ignored these issues for a long time and did not begin to discuss them until they received a yellow card from European Union,” Xu said. “The government is still reluctant to incorporate ‘overseas hired’ fishermen into the labor law protection system. Instead, it formulates relevant fishery laws and regulations, and there are only a few regulations on labor conditions, and none of them conform to the norms of the Labor Standards Act.”

Xu called for the Taiwan government to extend coverage of labor laws to include offshore fishermen and urged the MOL to “shoulder the responsibility of ensuring and supervising the labor conditions of fishermen” because the FA does not have sufficient training or manpower.

Annikmah Siti Nurul, Vice Chairperson of the Association of Indonesian Migrant Workers (ATKI), also criticized the FA's ability to regulate labor standards at sea, and said an agency must be tasked with direct oversight to end abuse. "The fishing industry system must be changed to meet an international standard of workers' rights and humanity," she said.

EJF co-founder and executive director Steve Trent said in the video: “Taiwan must confront the abuses aboard its boats and bring vessels in line with international standards, conduct inspections to make sure it eradicates these abuses.”

Additional reporting by Nick Aspinwall. Some quotes have been edited for clarity.

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