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As Taiwan’s fishing industry awaits a critical EU decision, nonprofits and NGOs call for assistance for migrant workers and improvements in deep sea regulation.

Lost at Sea? Taiwanese Fishery Regulation Faces Continued Scrutiny

2018/04/03 , Voices
Nick Aspinwall
Credit: Reuters/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 and News Deeply. When he’s not reporting, he can be found on a diving boat or perhaps stranded deep within a remote mountain range.

Last month, an explosive video released by the UK-based Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) made unwelcome waves throughout Taiwan’s prosperous yet embattled fishing industry. The EJF revealed that migrant workers at sea are continually abused, underpaid, and subjected to long working hours and deplorable working conditions. The video brings to the forefront the role of Taiwan’s Fishing Agency (FA) in policing up to 1,800 Taiwanese fishing vessels, many of which engage in illegal fishing. Hundreds of additional vessels operate under flags of convenience (FOC) and change flags while at sea, making it harder for Taiwan and other states to regulate their activities.

Following a March visit by European Commission (EC) fisheries investigators, Taiwan may be subjected to a “red card” after receiving a “yellow card” warning in October 2015 for illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing activities. Taiwan’s Council of Agriculture (COA) has said it has complied with the EU’s requirements and hopes to see its “yellow card” lifted.

EJF representatives and migrant workers' advocates have consistently said that the FA and the Ministry of Labor (MoL) must tighten regulations on illegal fishing and the treatment of the industry’s predominantly foreign workforce.

The EJF is calling for Taiwan to ratify the International Labour Organisation (ILO) Convention C188, which “would end the practice of deductions being made from worker’s salaries, whether by brokers in Taiwan or home countries,” EJF deputy director Max Schmid told The News Lens.

The EJF is also calling for a public register of all Taiwanese and FOC vessels to be published. “Currently, if FOC vessel owners do not register with Taiwanese authorities as they are supposed to, it is very difficult for other states, legitimate fishing captains, or NGOs who come across them in foreign water to identify this,” said Schmid. A public list would let other states help Taiwan identify vessels which fail to register, he said.

The perils of establishing connectivity

After the EC “yellow card” in 2015, Greenpeace and EJF conducted consecutive investigations which hinted at deeply rooted problems within Taiwan’s lucrative fishing industry. The EJF was assisted in its investigation by regional NGOs, which are often the first point of contact for distressed fishermen. Among these is the Taoyuan-based Vietnamese Migrant Workers and Brides Office, where the Rev. Peter Nguyen Van Hung has worked with dozens of aggrieved Vietnamese fishermen. “When they work on Taiwanese vessels, there were many violent incidents where they’re treated… they use the word animal. Animal. They’re treated on the vessel like slaves,” Hung said in the opening minutes of the EJF video.

Hung told The News Lens that he helped EJF launch its investigation when he came into contact with inshore fishermen stranded on the outlying Taiwanese islands of Kinmen and Penghu. Unlike distant fishermen, who transfer between vessels at sea and go months without setting foot on Taiwanese soil, inshore fishermen stay close to Taiwanese shores. “Their employers didn’t want them anymore,” said Hung, so “their brokers took them and sent them to live in places without water, basic utilities, and food.”

“They used Facebook to contact me,” said Hung. “I asked them where they were, and they didn’t know.” Hung instructed them to use Facebook to find their locations and send him the results.

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Credit: Vietnamese Migrant Workers and Brides Office

The sign reads: "Dear Fr. Nguyen Van Hung, Taiwan Labor Ministry. We are four fishermen working in a boat on the high seas. We have to do hard labor 19 hours a day. We do not have enough food to eat. Our main foods are chicken, eggs, and vegetables. Our employer rarely provides us a few kilograms of pork. We are suffering and need your help. Two months ago, we wanted to transfer ashore but our employer refused. He wanted to repatriate us to Vietnam. We are anxious and scared. Please help us work ashore as soon as possible. Thank you very much for your help – Son, Thuy, Cuong and Loi."

With the help of a Council of Labor Affairs (CLA) agent in Penghu, Hung was able to arrange for the transportation of 15 fishermen to his shelter in Taoyuan. There, said Hung, they spoke about their past employment on distant fishing ships – “they witnessed their coworkers being handcuffed, beaten, thrown into sea.”

In this case, the workers established a mini-network via Facebook to stay in contact with Hung, sending pictures from Penghu and Kinmen and managing to get in touch with former coworkers who were still at sea. Some fishermen “took a picture holding a sign saying, ‘Help me, I have no food to eat’ and sent it to me,” said Hung.

Migrant fishermen increasingly talk to each other through social media, but their communication remains limited. “We have talked to workers who share news with each other through Facebook and messaging apps, usually in our experience about how to find help rather than to warn about particular captains,” said Schmid.

Hung said that most fishermen who leave their countries to work in Taiwan have no prior knowledge of the litany of abuses which occur aboard distant fishing vessels. The majority “who came here and became victims of abuse were those who didn’t have such a network so they could connect with people,” he said. Workers, fearing repercussions from brokers and vessel captains, are also afraid to seek help and to contact NGOs such as his, Hung continued.

These same problems in communication may be plaguing the FA in its regulatory efforts. The FA said in a press release that, in 2017, it started sending questionnaires to foreign staff and conducting oral interviews aboard distant fishing vessels. The FA told EJF it has distributed questionnaires to about 100 migrant fishermen, said Schmid.

“It is unclear to us [to which distant water ports] they have gone to, how they intend to reach workers on vessels that use transshipments [or “motherships”] to remain at sea, and how they can be assured that the questionnaires are being completed confidentially by crew who can understand them,” said Schmid.

“No sanctions or other actions have resulted yet from the questionnaires,” he said.

Gaps in 'flag of convenience' regulation

In its video, the EJF interviewed one foreign fisherman who recalled that his ship changed flags and names all the time. “I don’t remember all the names because they were changed so often,” he said.

The FA says it cannot regulate the labor conditions aboard the hundreds of FOC vessels owned by Taiwanese captains, as it is hard to prove which vessels are under Taiwanese jurisdiction. “Even when cases are identified by other states, the lack of transparency over their ownership means it is very difficult to hold their owners to account,” said Schmid.

The EJF thus believes that a public register of all Taiwanese-owned vessels – operating under all flags – has become essential. Along with concealing labor abuses, FOC vessels often operate illegally and engage in harmful “longline” fishing which targets endangered migratory tuna and ensnares other vulnerable marine species.

In its investigation, the EJF “passed information on the Taiwanese vessels operating without Taiwanese flags as well as their captains, most of whom were Taiwanese, to the FA,” Schmid said. The FA has shared the information with the High Prosecutors Office, but “there has been no further result since then,” he said.

The FA may have to act fast. A decision by the EC on Taiwan’s IUU compliance status is expected later this month. A “red card” issuance would bring with it a full ban on fishery exports to the EU, which would cost the industry NT$7 billion (US$243.6 million) in estimated annual losses, according to the COA. Such a penalty would, if nothing else, serve as a powerful impetus for Taiwan’s fishing industry to clean up its act.

Read Next: INTERVIEW: Peter Nguyen Van Hung on Migrant Brides and Workers’ Rights

Editor: David Green

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