by Andi Kao
Photo Credit: Xiaoyang 2018/WikiCommons/CC
ON SEPTEMBER 20TH, the training ship Yu Shiun No. 2 departed Ch’ien-chen Harbor in Kaohsiung, carrying an eclectic crew of passengers, including officials with the Fisheries Agency (FA), employees of the Overseas Fisheries Development Council of the Republic of China (OFDC), and members of the Serve the People Association (SPA), the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) and the Yilan Migrant Fishermen Union (YMFU). The FA organized the excursion as an opportunity for groups connected with the Taiwanese fishing industry and unaccustomed to maritime travel to observe and participate in life aboard a fishing vessel. While the Yu Shiun No. 2 plied the waters off the southwestern coast of Taiwan for three days and two nights, passengers battling seasickness learned about common fishing techniques, toured the cockpit and engine room, and tried their hand at catching squid in the twilight hours.
The expedition occurred at a buoyant time for Taiwanese capital invested in the commercial fishing sector. Just three months earlier, the European Union (EU) lifted the yellow card issued against Taiwan in October 2015 for failing to address illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing. The EU sanction against Taiwan garnered significant public attention at a time of heightened international scrutiny of the environmental impacts and labor practices of global seafood production. Prior to the EU sanction, reports published by Human Rights Watch (HRW), the International Labour Organization (ILO), and the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF), among others, detailed gruesome human rights violations and brutal working conditions in the Thai shrimping industry. In the wake of the public outcry sparked by these scathing exposés, Taiwan appeared regularly in mounting evidence of ‘seafood slavery’ within global commercial fishing. One after another, major corporate media outlets such as the BBC and New York Times published articles and series highlighting the vicious labor practices underlying the lucrative Taiwanese commercial fishing industry.
According to James X. Morris, the intense media spotlight on the Taiwanese fishing industry may be attributable to Taiwan’s relative media freedom, the tremendous size of its fishing fleet, or the glaring contradiction of systematic human rights violations occurring within a celebrated democratic state. In a similar vein, the EU’s decision to sanction Taiwan may have been made easier by the overwhelming prevalence of detailed documentation of IUU fishing practices involving Taiwanese-owned vessels scattered across the globe.
Organizations such as the YMFU, the first migrant fishermen union established in Taiwan in 2013, have worked tirelessly to shed light on the deplorable conditions of commercial seafood production. Moreover, the EU may also have perceived Taiwan as a low-hanging fruit for implementing reforms as a consequence of the Taiwanese state’s sensitivity to its international reputation stemming from the precarious political status of the island nation. In addition, the EU’s sanctioning of Taiwan occurred during the administration of President Ma Ying-jeou, who gained few friends in the West for his pursuit of economic ties with China through mechanisms such as the Cross-strait Services Trade Agreement (CSSTA). The carding of Taiwan by the EU may, therefore, have equally served as a geopolitical tool to punish the Ma administration for its close exchanges with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), an inexcusable foreign policy orientation for Western imperialists at a time when the U.S. was engaged in a ‘pivot to Asia.’
Regardless of the intent of the EU sanction, the Taiwanese commercial fishing industry suffered following Taiwan’s designation as uncooperative in combating IUU fishing, with a number of international trading companies balking at purchasing seafood from Taiwanese-owned ships. As a consequence, Taiwanese capital invested in commercial fishing exerted political pressure on the state to work towards lifting the EU sanction. These efforts were effective in encouraging the state to commit resources towards this end, as the tremendous size of Taiwan’s fishing fleet is matched by the terrific economic value produced through the Taiwanese fishing industry. According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), Taiwan ranked 20th in 2015 in terms of capture production. Taiwan’s expansive fishing sector is a ‘fishing powerhouse’ and principal supplier of tuna to global consumers.
The efforts of the Taiwanese state and capital bore fruit with the rescinding of the yellow card on Taiwan in July 2019. Karmenu Vella, Commissioner for Environment, Maritime Affairs, and Fisheries stated that “I welcome the considerable efforts undertaken by Taiwan to reform its fisheries legal framework, implement new control tools and improve the traceability of marine fisheries products. The EU’s dialogue with Taiwan has shown again that international cooperation is a key driver towards healthier ocean management.”
— 蘇貞昌 (@eballgogogo) June 27, 2019
Premier Su Tseng-chang celebrated Taiwan’s emergence from under the shadow of the EU’s yellow card by posting an image to his Twitter account showing President Tsai Ing-wen and himself sitting at a table receiving news of the EU’s decision with the caption: “It’s OK! No big deal. Taiwan’s NT$40 billion [US$1.29 billion] offshore fishing industry is off the hook from the EU’s yellow card warning!” Premier Su’s knee-jerk triumphalism drew criticism from various quarters for turning a blind eye to ongoing exploitative and abusive practices undergirding the extraction of marine resources by Taiwanese capital. While welcoming the reforms initiated by the Taiwanese government to address IUU fishing, the EJF emphasized that the EU’s decision-making process fails to take into account human rights abuses in commercial fishing.
Despite these caveats, a festive atmosphere characterized the recent voyage of the Yu Shiun No. 2. Official discourse promoting the training expedition presents a sanitized image of the Taiwanese fishing industry in line with unequivocal state support for commercial fishing interests. The Fisheries Agency billed the experience as a means of familiarizing public, private, and civil actors with the sea and the working conditions confronting fishermen. The notion that the campy three-day, two-night excursion provided a glimpse into the experience of life as a fisherman in Taiwan, however, is belied by the material conditions aboard the Yu Shiun No. 2. Whereas Taiwan’s massive fishing fleet is composed primarily of a swarm of small- and medium-sized vessels, the Yu Shiun No. 2 is a class CT8 ship weighing over 1,000 tons equipped with automatic identification system (AIS) technology, two life rafts, and two life vessels, toilets, showers, and washing machines. Participants on the voyage were treated to three-course meals prepared by a skilled chef and delivered from the kitchen to the common area below deck via a dummy waiter. Despite the FA’s claims, then, the experience of the voyagers aboard the Yu Shiun No. 2 stands in stark contrast with the material conditions of labor in marine resource extraction in Taiwan.
More importantly, the dissimulation of the FA’s assertion that passengers could ‘experience what it’s like’ to be a fisherman in Taiwan extends beyond simply the disparity between the creature comforts provided on the Yu Shiun No. 2 and the paraphernalia of the majority of Taiwanese-owed fishing boats. To see why this is so requires delving into Marx’s hidden abode of the social relations of production. Passengers on the Yu Shiun No. 2 were encouraged to wear life jackets on deck at all times and told that, on the ocean, “A life jacket is your best friend. If you know nothing else about a fishing boat, you should know where your life jacket is and how to use it.” This most basic impulse of human existence–taking steps to prevent bodily harm and precautions against death–meanwhile, is denied for the vast majority of migrant workers employed in the Taiwanese commercial fishing industry. José, (a pseudonym), a Flipino migrant fisherman, explained that boat captains prohibit workers from using life jackets, often through the use of gendered language that belittles the use of safety equipment as a sign of weakness and femininity. The use of gendered discourse to dismiss migrant workers’ concerns is a tactic masking the reality that, from the perspective of boat owners and captains, the demand to wear life jackets is unreasonable because it interferes with the extraction of surplus value.
Whereas the logic of capital privileges the profit motive no matter the price in human suffering, the logic of the state denies migrant workers equal rights and protection under the law through ethnic/racial and national discrimination. Indonesian and Filipino migrant workers perform much of the backbreaking labor responsible for generating tremendous wealth for Taiwanese capitalists in the commercial fishing industry. Treated as disposable because of their alien status, migrant workers struggle under various conditions of unfreedom. Migrant workers in Taiwan lack what is often considered to be the most basic freedom under capitalist social relations–the freedom to change employers. Through the institutionalization of a guest worker program developed in the late 1980s, the Taiwanese state actively works to devalue and discipline Southeast Asia migrants. Denied the right to apply for residency, excluded from a wide range of social welfare benefits, and prohibited from working for more than twelve years in Taiwan, migrant workers are confined to jobs in low-wage positions in manufacturing, domestic care work, construction, and fishing/agriculture.
A common refrain in defense of guest worker programs is that migrant workers have chosen to leave their countries in pursuit of improved earning power in destination countries. According to this argument, migrant workers should be grateful for the economic opportunities made available to them in developed countries. While it is important to resist treating migrant workers as absolute victims–which often leads to a patronizing savior mentality–and understand the ways in which migrant workers exert agency, it is a curious belief system that justifies exploitation through the poverty of the exploited. This neoliberal rationale aligns with suggestions that migrant workers choose not to wear life jackets, sign legal documents and are therefore resigned to tolerate injustice, and are free at any time to return home. This, despite the fact that employers routinely withhold wages and confiscate passports, brokers defraud workers of wages through arbitrary deductions, and migrant workers often arrive at the worksite saddled with debt that may take years to pay off. What this perspective misses, most fundamentally, is the ways in which Taiwanese capital is complicit in creating the conditions that make migrating to Taiwan an attractive option despite the risks involved.
It is important, finally, to recognize how these perspectives conceptualize responsibility and accountability for the social misery experienced by migrant workers. Racialization processes are central to normalizing the violence to which Southeast Asian and African migrant workers are subjected. Narratives depicting migrant workers as uneducated, carriers of disease, and pathologically disposed to crime are commonly heard in public discourse. By defining and dehumanizing social groupings, racialized ideologies legitimize institutionalized exploitation and abuse. The consequence is that migrant workers are seen as cheap, undeserving of rights, and infantile and therefore best kept under strict control.
The recent lifting of the EU’s yellow card elicited howls of glee from the Taiwanese state and marine capital. In addition to celebratory Twitter and Facebook posts, the Taiwanese government set to work arranging forums and events putting forward its ideological spin on the political implications of the decision. Much of this activity has sought to set the terms of debate regarding the commercial fishing industry firmly within the parameters of the IUU complaint. According to this reading, key industry challenges are narrowly conceived as questions of environmental sustainability. Crewmembers of the Yu Shiun No. 2, for instance, were quick to raise environmental awareness as a significant change from decades past.
Although the yellow card placed on Taiwan for IUU fishing certainly caused consternation among state actors, the state and capital are comfortable addressing reforms on this terrain. Nevertheless, the concentration of migrant labor and increased visibility of exploitation in the fishing industry have made it difficult to avoid issues of discrimination. In more candid moments, the crew of the Yu Shiun No. 2 readily discussed the working habits and conditions of Southeast Asian migrant workers. When pressed, the first mate echoed more critical voices by suggesting that abusive relations in the fishing industry are exceptional cases, limited to human rights violations and unlawful labor practices. Reducing the nature of the problems associated with commercial fishing to marine resource extraction, human rights violations, and unlawful labor practices, however, risks glossing over institutionalized exploitation embedded within the legal architecture and social practices of Taiwan’s guest worker program.