A coalition of NGOs called “Human Rights for Migrant Fishers” held a joint rally in front of the Presidential Office Building in Central Taipei this morning to demand better enforcement of labor laws and an end to systemic abuses of migrant fishermen in Taiwan.

The demonstration, which brings several NGOs together as a group for the first time, was supplemented by a press conference at Greenpeace's Taipei offices, and was timed to coincide with the second anniversary of Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) inauguration.

The coalition is leveraging the anniversary to push for better enforcement of the Labor Standards Act (LSA), and to protest against labor violations and abuses committed against migrant workers from countries with whom the Tsai administration is trying to foster improved relations.

A press release accompanying the rally stated that Taiwan exports fishing produce worth up to US$2 billion annually, and cited the U.S. Department of State Trafficking in Persons Report 2014 as saying that up to 160,000 migrant workers are employed in the country's deep-sea fishing industry.

The demonstration comes on the back of several reports of violence and systemic forced labor of migrant fishermen from Southeast Asia aboard Taiwanese-owned fishing vessels, primarily from the Philippines and Indonesia. The majority are trafficked by brokers in their home countries and in Taiwan.

Reports have surfaced of violence and systemic forced labor of migrant fishermen from Southeast Asia aboard Taiwanese-owned fishing vessels.

While most abuse reported is verbal, physical beatings and even accusations of murder are not unknown. Brokers and commercial fishing associations are also accused of skimming fees off monthly pay. Demonstrators said that these violations continue even after the LSA was revised in 2017 specifically to address such abuses.

Protections offered to workers under the January 2017 amendments 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 Taiwan's Fisheries Agency against claims of abuse and malfeasance. NGOs have previously protested that these rules, even if enforced, do not go far enough.

Heading South

President Tsai has been pushing to rekindle greater trade and relations with Taiwan’s Southeast Asian neighbors as part of the New Southbound Policy, which is intended to diversify Taiwan’s trade portfolio and compensate for worsening relations with China.

The coalition – representing the interests of Greenpeace, the Environmental Justice Foundation, the Presbyterian Church of Taiwan Seamen / Fishermen’s Service Center, Serve the People Association, the Taiwan International Workers’ Association, the Taiwan Association for Human Rights and the Yilan Migrant Fishermen’s Union – argues that if President Tsai wants the New Southbound Policy to succeed, the government must enforce the provisions of the Labor Standards Act.


Photo Credit: James X. Morris

The coalition presents their work and answers questions from reporters and activists at Greenpeace headquarters in Taipei on May 17.

Coalition representatives added that Taiwan’s fisheries, labor, and immigration agencies need to utilize their full power to enforce laws to protect migrant workers coming from Southeast Asia.

This is the first public press conference held by the coalition, which says it has been planning this event for three months.

The coalition presented their work addressing the problems of migrant fishermen labor violations before fielding questions from an audience of more than 40 reporters and activists.

Their hope, they say, is to make Taiwanese citizens aware of the problem, and to pressure the relevant government agencies to enforce the law. They argue that the current lack of implementation since the 2017 revision stands to hurt the success of Tsai’s New Southbound Policy, and by extension, all of Taiwan.

The group called for the government to adopt several measures:

1. Ratify the International Labor Organization’s Work in Fishing Convention 188, which provides a framework to ensure that that fishers have decent conditions of work on board fishing vessels.

2. Apply the Labor Standards Act to all the fishers and for the Ministry of Labor to oversee workers in both Taiwanese waters and on distant water fishing vessels.

3. Invest sufficient resources to ensure labor inspections are timely and accurately conducted.

4. Provide training for prosecutors and judges to increase the prosecution and conviction of human traffickers or human right abusers.

5. Develop a complaint channel so fishers can receive help while at sea.

6. Develop a delivery plan with clear timelines to address the above measures.

7. Work with NGOs to review the process regularly.

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TNL Editor: Morley J Weston