What you need to know
The market could force reluctant Taiwanese seafood traders to address concerns over complicity in human rights abuses.
A shocking Greenpeace report released last week details forced labor and physical abuse at sea, including the death of Indonesian fisherman Supriyanto. It also makes disturbing connections between human trafficking operations and Taiwan’s largest seafood trader.
The report, “Misery at Sea,” casts Taiwan’s deep-sea fishing industry as operating in a state of perpetual anarchy, enabled by regulatory apathy, corporate culpability, and a stunning lack of transparency.
Greenpeace highlighted the role of Taiwan’s Fong Chun Formosa (FCF), Taiwan's dominant seafood trader and a major provider of seafood to the American, European, and Japanese markets. "What you have been eating in your tuna can in the U.S. market, from Chicken of the Sea and Bumble Bee – they are all being provided their tuna by FCF,” investigation leader Yi Chiao Lee (李宜蕎) told The News Lens.
The report says that FCF continues to trade with vessels implicated in the Giant Ocean human trafficking case, in which Cambodian authorities found six Taiwanese nationals guilty of “unlawful removal with purpose” of local fisherman, and sentenced each to 10 years imprisonment.
In the report, Greenpeace investigators say that its demonstration of FCF involvement exposes “the fundamental need for major companies to move away from a business model which relies on human exploitation.”
In a statement responding to the report, FCF President Max Chou said the company was “disappointed that [Greenpeace is] implicating us in old incidents and cases,” and said the matters in question have been addressed with Taiwan’s Fisheries Agency (FA).
The report also reiterated previous concerns about widespread illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing, which has put Taiwan in hot water with the European Commission – it currently operates under a ‘yellow card’ warning. A ‘red card’ would result in a full ban on exports to the European Union, which Taiwan’s Council of Agriculture (COA) has estimated would bring annual losses of NT$7 billion (US$243.6 million) to the seafood sector.
NGO representatives and industry consultants told The News Lens that Taiwan’s industry, as it stands, risks an even greater financial hit if it fails to clean up its act.
Other countries such as Thailand are quickly adopting to stricter international labor standards, but Taiwan lags behind, said Max Schmid of the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF). “If I was a big Taiwanese company, I would be concerned if people will start asking… is our fish being caught by a [compliant] vessel?” he said.
Taiwan’s fishing industry “is facing a lot of economic pressure and a lot of competition as well,” said Andy Shen of the International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF). He urged Taiwan to improve labor conditions aboard its vessels before it is left behind.
Behind the curtain: Giant Ocean and Fong Chun Formosa
In 2012, Cambodian authorities began investigating Giant Ocean International, a fisherman recruitment agency operated by Taiwanese nationals in Cambodia, in response to forced labor complaints by workers recruited onto its vessels. A 2014 report by the International Organization for Migration, a Switzerland-headquartered intergovernmental organization that promotes humane and orderly migration, and the NEXUS Institute, a human rights policy center, says that over 1,000 Cambodian men were promised work in varying locations, including Singapore, but “ended up exploited on fishing vessels in Fiji and Mauritius” without prior knowledge.
Cambodian prosecutors arrested Lin Yu-shin (林玉欣) and charged five other Giant Ocean directors and shareholders in absentia. All were convicted of violating human trafficking laws in Cambodia, but authorities have not been able to locate and apprehend the five remaining convicted traffickers, all of whom are Taiwanese nationals.
“Misery at Sea” revealed that all five men are currently living openly in Taiwan. Two of them, Lu Tien-te (盧天德) and Chen Chun-mu (陳春木), are registered with the FA as recruiters and remain actively involved in overseas hiring, the report said.
When reached for comment, the FA referred The News Lens to a statement published in response to the report. In the statement, the FA says that while its own investigation showed that Giant Ocean was suspected of human trafficking, it “could not rely solely on outside accusations to determine that the suspects were guilty.”
The Greenpeace report says Taiwanese authorities failed to consider evidence and victim statements presented to them by Cambodian NGOs Legal Support for Children and Women (LSCW) and Winrock International, and worries that convicted human traffickers continue to operate as overseas recruiters in Taiwan.
“Misery at Sea” also found evidence that the Giant Ocean vessel Wei Ching (威慶) sold fish to Japan via Fong Chun Formosa and its subsidiary FCN International in 2016 and 2017. The report did not detail current conditions aboard Wei Ching, but it noted that many victims in the Giant Ocean case have not yet been located and may remain out at sea against their will.
In his Friday statement, Chou said that “despite considerable challenges related to our supply chains and eclectic providers, FCF is on the forefront of ensuring we meet relevant social responsibility and sustainability standards,” citing the company’s code of conduct. (FCF did not respond to requests by The News Lens for comment.)
Lee told The News Lens that she doubts whether FCF vets the labor conditions aboard the vessels it does business with. Traders do business in bulk, buying a boat’s entire catch and asking few questions. She said FCF should take responsibility in tracing the products it purchases.
“Traders should be responsible about where their fish come from, because they are the first line, right in front of everybody,” she said. “They collect the fish. They know which vessels the fish come from. So they should also be responsible for labor conditions aboard the vessels.”
Lee said that traders make it difficult for large tuna buyers, such as Chicken of the Sea and Bumble Bee, to show the source of their products. Both companies have online traceability trackers which often provide lists of up to 10 “primary source” vessels for one can of tuna.
“I doubt that these companies really know which vessel supplies which fish to which company,” said Lee. “But I think that’s possible to do. FCF are the traders. FCF has records of each vessel.”
Potential problems for Taiwanese traders
If FCF is not pressured into public change by NGOs, they may be pushed towards reform by market forces, said Shen.
In separate interviews with The News Lens, he and and the EJF's Schmid both mentioned the work of Thai Union – a massive seafood producer and a major purchaser of FCF products – in becoming compliant with the standards set by the International Labor Organization (ILO) Convention C188, which would regulate third-party hiring and end salary deductions often equated by critics, including the U.S. Department of State’s Human Rights Report for Taiwan, to debt bondage. The government of Thailand has also taken steps in recent months to become C188 compliant, said Schmid.
“The risk is that Taiwan finds itself looking forward two or three years, as [C188] takes time to implement, and seeing that its major competitors all have it in place,” said Schmid. “It’s going to become a norm that retailers and fish processors look for in markets like the U.S. and Europe.”
Shen noted that Thai Union’s own improved standards could shift pressure onto FCF and other Taiwanese traders. “Linking Thai Union with FCF is important to bring all the key supply chain actors in one place,” he said.
The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), which certifies seafood products by a list of sustainability criteria, is in the process of drafting a set of labor guidelines. Schmid and Shen both said their respective organizations had been approached for advice.
FCF began selling some MSC certified tuna products in 2015 and has touted its commitment to expanding its range of MSC compliant product offerings. But the MSC is considering implementing more stringent requirements on forced and child labor. These "will result in increased public scrutiny of FCF's human rights performance and could potentially lead to de-certification of non-compliant companies," said Shen.
These new guidelines would require FCF to explain its relationships with vessels like the Wei Ching in greater detail, with a level of transparency Greenpeace believes they are far from achieving.
“These are the big players,” said Lee, “but ... they don’t have a brand. So it’s hard to bring them up and look into them.”
Editor: David Green