Taiwan’s lucrative deep-water fishing industry has found itself under immense pressure – as detailed in a Greenpeace investigation and a report by The News Lens last week – for its permissive attitude towards the abusive treatment of its largely migrant workforce.

Yesterday, a newly formed NGO coalition called Human Rights for Migrant Fishers (外籍漁工人權保障聯盟) met with representatives from Taiwan’s embattled Fisheries Agency (FA) and the Council of Agriculture (CoA) to demand regulatory changes and increased transparency. Coalition representatives told The News Lens they left cautiously optimistic but hoped the government would participate in sustained dialogue and cooperation.

“I think it’s a positive stance from the government,” said Lennon Ying-dah Wong (汪英達) of Taoyuan’s Serve the People Association, a labor rights organization. “We can accept that it’s hard to fulfill all international standards and NGO’s demands, but we need the sincerity and a schedule to do so from the government.”

Taiwan lags far behind its regional peers in implementing internationally recognized labor standards. If it fails to catch up to fellow fishery heavyweights like Thailand, Taiwan could suffer economic consequences, said Andy Shen of the International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF). But he is optimistic that Taiwan can change its regulatory course before it finds itself stranded in a sea of more progressive competitors.

First Steps: Labor Standards Act for distant water fishermen?

Taiwan can start with “covering distant water fishermen under the Labor Standards Act” (LSA), said Shen. This would ensure workers labor protections including a minimum monthly wage of NT$22,000 (US$740) and mandatory rest hours, all of which are missing on the high seas.

“It’s clear that the government is cutting out distant water migrant fishermen from the rest of the migrant workers so they can put a lower standard on them, and help the fishing employers save some money,” said Wong.

Distant water vessels are not considered Taiwanese territory by the government of Taiwan. Labor abuses and contractual violations at sea thus fall under the jurisdiction of the FA, which relies on industry interest groups called Fishermen’s Associations to help regulate hiring practices and oversee working conditions.

This creates a natural conflict of interest, said Allison Lee (李麗華) of the Yilan Migrant Fishermen Union, adding that as a union leader, it is hard for her to communicate with these trade groups.

Shen joined others, including the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF), in calling this “a simple step” to begin reform within Taiwan’s fishery industry.

Ratifying international labor standards

NGO representatives have long called for Taiwan to voluntarily ratify the International Labour Organization (ILO) Convention C188, which would eliminate the role of third-party brokers who deduct fees from the salaries of workers, a practice equated by critics to debt bondage.

Shen said Taiwan should look to Thailand, which responded assertively after a 2015 series of Pulitzer-winning Associated Press reports unveiled widespread labor abuses in its own seafood industry.

The government of Thailand is also in the process of enacting C188 nationwide, EJF deputy director Max Schmid told The News Lens.

Shen said that Taiwan, because of its diplomatic status, would not be subjected to the required international monitoring that normally comes with C188 enaction. But this is even more reason for Taiwan to voluntarily ratify C188, he said.

Taiwan “can create a market for itself by having and upholding higher standards,” said Shen. “It can be a consumer facing country, with companies that are consumer facing. It will create a lot of revenue for its fishing industry.”

Unveiling distant water secrets

The 2015 case of Indonesian fisherman Supriyanto, who died at sea amid allegations of beatings by his captain and crew mates on the Fu Tzu Chun, continues to haunt the FA. Less is known about Urip Muslikhin, a fellow fisherman who the FA maintains was washed away during a storm while holding a net.


Photo Credit: Courtesy of Greenpeace

In evidence provided by local Taiwanese labor rights group, Yilan Migrant Fishermen Union, shocking new photo and video material was uncovered relating to the death of Indonesian fisherman Supriyanto. A healthy and relatively young man, Supriyanto, died in agony just four months after starting work on the Taiwanese vessel, Fu Tsz Chiun.

Sukhirin, an Indonesian fisherman aboard the Fu Tzu Chun, told The News Lens that the ship only spent about two hours looking for Urip, and the crew was told to lie to investigators upon reaching port in Taiwan. (The Fisheries Agency mandates vessels to spend 72 hours searching for missing crew.) His account was corroborated by satellite data released by Greenpeace on Thursday, May 24, which shows that the Fu Tzu Chun continued its normal fishing activities hours after Urip’s disappearance.

Shen said Taiwan’s distant water fleet clearly needs to be monitored. “Without visibility and connectivity to the crew, the conditions they face are completely hidden,” he said.

The MOL provides a 1955 help hotline for migrant workers, but it is far out of reach for distant water fishermen, who have nowhere to turn when they face abuse at sea.

“I’ve never met a distant water fisherman who’s aware of 1955,” said Schmid.

Greenpeace has called for third-party monitoring of labor conditions since the release of its 2016 report “Made in Taiwan.” Shen said that major industry players, including retailers in Western markets, are expressing interest in coordinated supply chain monitoring programs.

Shen recently co-authored a new ILRF report, “Taking Stock,” which provides industry recommendations for improving onboard satellite monitoring to ensure the fair treatment of workers.

The report details a pilot vessel monitoring program called IM@Sea. Trialed in Thailand, the initiative let six Burmese fishermen complete real-time surveys, report labor violations, and communicate with the Migrant Worker Rights Network, a Thailand-based workers' organization, via a relatively low cost onboard satellite configuration.

“The crew appreciated it,” Shen said. “They said it was a helpful project, and they want to see more of these projects.” He cautioned that any such program must work in conjunction with comprehensive evaluations of working conditions at shore, but he said the pilot program showed promise.

The system works in conjunction with existing catch tracking and vessel monitoring systems (VMS), said Shen.

“We were piggybacking on the increasing trend and requirement for vessel owners to document the traceability of their catch,” he said. “If there is this requirement for traceability for fishing practices, traceability of labor practices can easily be tacked on. It's the same technology.”

In “Taking Stock,” ILRF and its partner, U.S.-based Integrated Monitoring Inc., estimate that an efficient monitoring system functional on distant water ships would carry a cost of about US$40,000 (about NT$1.2 million) per vessel over five years, including installation, maintenance, and upgrades.

Shen acknowledged the upfront costs may be prohibitive to vessel owners in an increasingly cutthroat industry. “The challenges are not going to be with the large business, it'll be with the small/medium enterprises,” he said. “If we want to scale the system across a whole fleet industry wide, that requires international brands to step up and take responsibility for enabling their suppliers to adopt these systems.”

But first, baby steps…

Such comprehensive reforms may be years away, but for now, the NGO coalition is happy to have the support of COA Vice Minister Dr. Chen Jizhong (陳吉仲), who Wong characterized as “more friendly and open than the Fisheries Agency” in yesterday’s meeting.

“He said they are willing to take all of our demands and suggestions seriously, and can take a more open stance on the issues,” said Wong. “He even said, ‘If the fishing industry continues to abuse the workers like that, I would rather not have it.’”

The meeting was a first step that revealed a fractured understanding between NGOs and government interests. Another source told The News Lens that a professor present at the meeting criticized Greenpeace for boarding Taiwanese vessels to investigate labor conditions, which enraged members of the NGO coalition.

“If Chen's command can really push through, there might be some minor changes, but I can't be too optimistic,” said Wong.

However, Wong left the meeting confident that government officials “know they can't let the fishing industry survive by exploiting and abusing migrant fishermen.”

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Editor: David Green