An Indonesian fisherman aboard the Taiwanese fishing boat Ming Man Hsiang No. 38 remains missing after being stabbed and pushed overboard by a fellow crew member during an altercation on Thursday.

The Tung Kang Fisherman Association of Pingtung County told Taiwanese news agency CNA that the fishing boat was 530 nautical miles (982 km) northeast of Guam at the time.

The association said that the suspect, who had knife cuts on his arms, was in an emotionally unstable state, prompting the boat's Taiwanese captain, surnamed Ku (辜), to ask for help from Taiwan's Fisheries Agency (FA). The suspect is currently being detained by the nine other Indonesian fishermen on board the vessel.

A representative of Presbyterian Church in Taiwan Seamen and Fishermen's Service Center (漁民服務中心) (PCTSFSC) who asked not to be named told The News Lens that the FA has asked the Coast Guard to meet the boat at sea and provide assistance, after which it will lead the vessel back to shore. The Coast Guard will reach the fishing boat on Wednesday or Thursday.

"The captain is worried that their lives are under threat," the representative said. "We are very concerned and quite worried about the situation."


Photo Credit: Greenpeace

A Greenpeace boat approaches Sheun De Ching No. 888 engaging in illegal fishing on the Pacific Ocean on Sept. 9, 2015.

Upon the boat's arrival in Pingtung, all crew members will be investigated by authorities and the Criminal Investigation Bureau may question the suspect, the representative added.

General practice mandates that the vessel stay in the area for 72 hours looking for the missing person. However, the FA granted permission for the Ming Man Hsiang No. 38 to begin returning to port, and asked the nearby Shun Man Fa No. 2 to assist in searching for the missing fisherman.

It is unclear whether the missing fisherman is dead or alive.

The FA is intervening in this case as it is of a criminal nature, but the incident shines a light on the unregulated state of Taiwan's distant water fishing vessels, said Allison Lee (李麗華) of the Yilan Migrant Fishermen Union (YMFU).

Distant fishermen often encounter physical abuse, strenuous working conditions, and underpayment while working aboard Taiwanese flagged fishing vessels. However, they are not covered by Taiwan's Labor Standards Act (LSA). They thus have little recourse when they wish to seek assistance or report labor or contractual violations to Taiwanese authorities.

The FA does not administer distant water vessels as Taiwanese territory in non-criminal cases such as labor disputes, said Lee.

The FA does not administer distant water vessels as Taiwanese territory in non-criminal cases such as labor disputes. — Allison Lee (李麗華), Yilan Migrant Fishermen Union

NGOs like the PCTSFSC and YMFU have long pushed for the Taiwanese government to consider distant water vessels as extensions of Taiwanese territory, and to cover distant water fishermen under the LSA.

On Thursday – the same day as the incident at sea – a newly formed coalition of NGOs called "Human Rights for Migrant Fishers" held a rally outside the Presidential Office Building in Taipei demanding improvements to labor conditions aboard Taiwanese flagged fishing boats.

The coalition also demanded an overhaul of Taiwan's migrant worker brokerage system. Proposals have ranged from increased oversight to outright abolition.

An overwhelming majority of Indonesian fishermen are employed via third-party recruitment agencies, said Shaochi Chiu (邱劭琪) of the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF).

It remains uncertain whether the missing fisherman was hired by an overseas brokerage firm. Brokers are obligated to insure workers in case of injury or death, said Chiu, but they often fail to register fishermen under insurance policies.

Because this case lies outside the jurisdiction of the LSA, the family of the missing fisherman may not receive compensation, said Chiu.

Migrant workers from other countries, such as the Philippines, have been encouraged to apply for jobs via Taiwan's direct hiring system, eschewing the need to find employment via brokers.

However, Indonesia has not reached an agreement with Taiwan to establish a direct hiring platform, said Chiu. EJF has approached both governments about beginning such a system, and while they have expressed interest, nothing has materialized as of now, she said.

Members of the Human Rights for Migrant Fishers coalition told The News Lens they will continue to track this case as it develops.

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Editor: David Green