What you need to know
Amid the release of a Greenpeace report chronicling cases of physical abuse and financial exploitation of migrant workers in Taiwan’s fishing industry, The News Lens reveals the commonplace practice of dumping bodies of deceased migrant fishermen at sea.
Wardino figures he came to Taiwan for the same reason as most of his 650,000 fellow migrant workers – to make money and send it home. “In Indonesia, the work is very hard, and the salary is very low,” he says. “I had no choice.”
The 36-year-old had just interrupted his midday nap to amble off the fishing boat and greet us.
Growing up in the town of Brebes in central Java, Wardino has worked as a fisherman since he was 12 years old. He left Indonesia for the inshore vessels of Yilan’s Nanfangao Port in 2010, where he became president of the 100-member Yilan Migrant Fishermen Union (YMFU), the only labor union of its kind in Taiwan, in 2014.
As the bright May sun glistened off his broad shoulders, he spoke with pride about the importance of his role. “I really wanted to help people,” he says.
Wardino and YMFU Secretary General Allison Lee (李麗華) manage a caseload characterized by accounts of physical abuse, contractual violations, and debt bondage aboard Taiwanese vessels that shape a culture of lawlessness on the high seas.
A press release ahead of the release today of a Greenpeace report, “Misery at Sea,” shows how widespread human rights violations poison the seafood supply chain. It details the involvement of Kaohsiung-based Fong Chun Formosa (FCF), a major seafood trader linked to the robust consumer markets of Japan, the Americas, and Europe.
The report also exposes more information relating to the notorious case of Supriyanto, an Indonesian fisherman who died aboard the Taiwan-flagged Fu Tzu Chun under suspicious circumstances in 2015.
Taiwan’s Fisheries Agency (FA) said at the time that Supriyanto had died from an infection. However, after years of volleying between the FA, YMFU, and the Control Yuan, the government watchdog, an investigation into his death was reopened, and hearings were held earlier this month at the Pingtung District Prosecutor’s Office in southwest Taiwan.
The News Lens interviewed Sukhirin, 44, a fellow Indonesian who worked aboard the Fu Tzu Chun at the time, who corroborated allegations from another Indonesian crew member that Supriyanto’s fatal wounds resulted from continuous abuse by the ship’s captain and two fellow crew members.
Documents and photos shown to The News Lens by the YMFU reveal a practice of throwing the bodies of deceased fishermen out to sea, rendering it impossible to determine the cause of death. Taiwanese employers often fail to communicate with the grieving families of deceased fishermen, leaving them without answers, and stall in paying out contractually mandated compensation, according to YMFU's Lee.
Documents and photos reveal a practice of throwing the bodies of deceased fishermen out to sea, rendering it impossible to determine the cause of death.
Supriyanto’s body was dumped at sea before washing up on the coast of south Taiwan. Many bodies – like that of Supriyanto’s crew mate Urip Muslikhin, who was thrust overboard by a wave while working during a storm aboard the Fu Tzu Chun in 2015 – are lost forever.
Taiwanese vessels serve as a primary node of a global fishery supply chain, providing a significant portion of the world’s tuna to traders like FCF, which sells products on to multinational seafood titans like Chicken of the Sea and Bumble Bee.
Along with labor abuses, Taiwan’s vessel captains are frequently censured for illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing.
Taiwan received a regulatory “yellow card” warning for IUU fishing from the European Commission in October 2015. The commission extended a period set to review Taiwan’s yellow card status to September 2018 after the 2017 enactment of the reformatory Act for Distant Water Fisheries, which aims to better conserve marine resources, curb IUU fishing and improve the traceability of catches. “Misery at Sea” alleges that there has been inadequate enforcement of these tighter regulations.
“Taiwan’s fishery supply chain is still tainted with human rights abuses,” investigation leader Yi Chiao Lee (李宜蕎) of Greenpeace East Asia said in a press release. “This means there is high probability that tainted seafood is making its way into sushi shops and dinner plates in Asia, Europe and the Americas. There are no excuses.”
“Taiwan’s seafood industry,” says Lee, “must now act urgently to eliminate these appalling practices.”
Supriyanto was a 46-year-old father of three children when he left his home in Tegal, in the Central Java Province of Indonesia in 2014. Recently separated from his wife, he longed to secure a stable income to bring his family back together.
A medical checkup dated March 30, 2015, showed Supriyanto to be in perfect health. In April, he boarded the Fu Tzu Chun as it departed Taiwan to fish for tuna in the distant waters of the Pacific Ocean. Four months later, he was dead.
His autopsy stated the cause of death as septic shock from infected wounds, but it failed to disclose the origin of his injuries. Despite this, the case was closed until the Control Yuan, citing errors in prosecution and inadequate translation, demanded that the case be reopened in 2016. The ongoing investigation brought Sukhirin, a former Fu Tzu Chun crewmate, back to Taiwan to testify at a closed hearing in Pingtung in early May.
In an exclusive interview with The News Lens, Sukhirin said that Supriyanto died from infections in two major wounds on his knee, injuries which were exacerbated by the frequent beatings he would receive from the Taiwanese captain and two young Indonesian crew members, identified as Munawir Sazali and Agus Setia on the ship’s manifest, who Sukhirin said were encouraged by the captain to beat their compatriots so they could act as supervisors.
Supriyanto was the eldest member of the ship’s crew. “He was always dizzy, always sleepy,” says Lee, who took the case to the Control Yuan in 2016 after traveling to Indonesia on a trip to investigate the case. “They would work three days with only two, three hours of sleep.”
“Sometimes Supriyanto would get caught by the captain getting sleepy at work. [The captain] would beat him,” Sukhirin adds.
Sukhirin recounted his story in even, steady tones, revealing only the slightest hint of anger or pain as he spoke, though his eyes at times grew slightly watery.
“There was one time when Supriyanto went to pull up the [fishing] net. He hit his hand so hard, he dropped it,” says Sukhirin. “Because of this mistake, the captain beat him. After he fell, the captain kicked him and hit him with a buoy, which was very heavy.”
Fishermen would sometimes get medical treatment when the wounds were serious, Sukhirin said, but not always.
Sukhirin does not remember much about the day Supriyanto died. What is known, via satellite data obtained by Greenpeace, is that the Fu Tzu Chun continued with its normal business operations in the days immediately following his death.
Supriyanto’s contract, viewed by The News Lens, called for him to be paid an average of US$292 per month over a 24-month period – well below Taiwan’s minimum monthly wage of NT$22,000 (US$740). Distant water fishermen are not covered by Taiwan’s Labor Standards Act, and the FA does not consider deep sea vessels to be Taiwanese territory, despite mounting pressure from a newly formed coalition of NGOs for it to change its stance.
After the deduction of broker’s fees – a contentious practice which labor advocate say amounts to debt bondage – Supriyanto was due to be paid a total of US$530 for his first four months of work. At the time of his death, he had received nothing. The family of Supriyanto did eventually receive the contractually stipulated compensation for death of NT$100,000 (US$3,337). Sukhirin said that, upon their return to Taiwan, their broker told the crew to lie about not being paid on time. Sukhirin said that he still has not been paid for his work aboard the Fu Tzu Chun.
When asked if the Indonesian government should stop fishermen from working in Taiwan – much like the Philippines recently did when they briefly banned workers from going to Kuwait after a caretaker died there – Sukhirin was unequivocal.
“No,” he says. “How else would we feed our families?”
Life with few choices
Back in Brebes, friends and relatives will often reach out to Wardino for advice. They, too, want to find work in Taiwan.
“I tell the truth,” he says. “I let them know about the difficult working conditions in Taiwan. I ask them, can you accept that? They tell me ‘Yes, because I need the work.’”
Brebes lies just west of Supriyanto’s hometown of Tegal on the northern coast of Java, an area which swarms with recruiters looking to sign Indonesian fishermen to work on foreign fishing vessels. Brokers visit villages and send employees called ‘sponsors’ door-to-door to collect the names of potential migrant workers, promising financial security and assuring them they will return home safe and happy.
Wardino does not think the recruiters are fooling his fellow fishermen. “They already know the real situation here in Taiwan,” he says. “I knew [before I came here]. My brother also worked here, and he told me. But I needed the money.”
Through her work with the YMFU labor union, Lee wants to end what she sees as an undercurrent of exploitation ingrained in economic migration. “My purpose, my goal, is that people will [stay] in their countries and develop their lives, and not go abroad anymore.” To Indonesian fishermen, “I would say, don’t come to Taiwan.”
She pauses as her face curled into a smile. “And if they do,” she laughs, “they should join the union.”
Lee, 53, has relentlessly advocated for the rights of migrant fishermen since co-founding YMFU in 2013, earning a Trafficking in Persons “Hero” award from the U.S. Department of State in 2017. When I visit her in Yilan, she hauls a large stack of papers out of her office and – with a preternatural ability to unearth the exact document she is searching for – shares more recent developments in her ever-growing caseload.
Lee has made several visits to Indonesia to speak with families of missing or deceased fishermen. In her last visit at the beginning of this month, she met with the mother of Dede Mostafa, who worked on the Taiwanese inshore vessel De Xing Yi No. 2. Mostafa was reported “missing” in March by his broker, who provided the family with no further information. While with Mostafa’s mother, Lee found that an Indonesian fisherman had died on the same vessel six years ago. “I showed her the news,” says Lee, “and she cried.”
Mostafa’s body was recently recovered, but many grieving families of missing fishermen never see their sons again. Contracts signed with Taiwanese manpower agencies reviewed by The News Lens contain vaguely worded clauses that give ship captains discretion to throw the body of the deceased out to sea.
Contracts signed with Taiwanese manpower agencies contain vaguely worded clauses that give ship captains discretion to throw the body of the deceased out to sea.
The practice continues today. On Feb. 14, 2018, a fisherman named Heri Setiawan died aboard the Lu Rong Yuang Yu after what was described only as a work accident. At the time the vessel was operating under a Chinese flag but it is owned by a Taiwanese citizen.
In photos obtained by Lee from his fellow crew members, the body of Setiawan is shown being wrapped in a bedsheet, placed atop a makeshift cardboard platform, and tossed overboard.
For the relatives of deceased fishermen, the disposal of a body signifies the loss of a final chance at closure. Furthermore, these contractual clauses, in cases of suspicious death such as Supriyanto’s, give abusive ship captains free reign to dump their secrets into the sea.
Lee often works alone, with the help of international supporters, generous domestic donors, and a supportive husband. She gets considerably less help from the FA and from local labor bureaus which, despite being purportedly responsible for enforcing Taiwan’s new fishery labor regulations, she described as accomplices in the propagation of an exploitative, lawless culture of abuse at sea.
Taiwan’s fishing boats nevertheless remain a beacon of financial hope for young men throughout Southeast Asia hoping to lift their families out of abject poverty, a reality Lee is reminded of every time she travels to Indonesia.
She shows me a photo from her visit in May of five children, aged 11 to 13, sitting on the docks of Java’s coastal city of Cirebon. Only one of them was in school, she said. The others had found work as deckhands on fishing boats.
“Can you guess which one?” Lee asks me. She pointed to a boy, shirtless, wearing a backwards cap. “He is in school,” she says, “because his father worked on a Taiwanese boat.”
Additional reporting by Courtney Donovan Smith
Editor: David Green