by Andi Kao

Photo Credit: Lord Koxinga/WikiCommons/CC

A WORKING GROUP formed under the auspices of the Fisheries Agency (FA) has been meeting to discuss the labor rights of migrant workers employed aboard Taiwan’s distant water fleet. The FA established the working group in response to intense political pressure to crack down on human rights violations and improve working conditions in Taiwan’s US$2 billion commercial fishing industry. Participants include academics, representatives from a range of government ministries, and members of civil society organizations. Among the reforms discussed by the working group are culturally sensitive and legible know-your-rights training, transparent and accessible means of communicating complaints, increased inspection capacity, and more clearly delineating governance authority over marine ecologies.

Photo credit: Lord Koxinga/WikiCommons/CC

The tenor of discussion has reflected growing public consciousness regarding the brutal practices of global commercial fishing. Public scrutiny of Taiwan’s fishing sector grew in the wake of exposés detailing “seafood slavery” in the Thai shrimping industry. Investigative journalists documented numerous cases of human trafficking, forced labor, and deplorable conditions aboard Taiwanese-owned ships. Meanwhile, international organizations targeted Taiwan for its lax monitoring and enforcement of environmental, human rights, and labor codes in the fishing industry. The European Union (EU) placed a yellow card on Taiwan in 2015 for illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing. Groups such as the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) and Greenpeace have demanded comprehensive reforms in highlighting a direct connection between IUU fishing and human rights violations. In 2018, the Fu Sheng No. 11 became the first ship detained under the International Labor Organization’s (ILO’s) Work in Fishing Convention adopted in 2007.

Under mounting public pressure, the FA enacted the Regulation on the Approval and Management of Fishing Labors Other than Nationals Employed Outside the Country (境外僱用非我國籍船員許可及管理辦法) in 2017 to clarify its responsibilities regarding labor conditions in global seafood production. The formation of the working group represents a further step toward this goal. There are serious doubts, however, concerning the FA’s political will and capacity to take substantive action to redress the repressive conditions of marine resource extraction. 

The FA was created in 1998 through the merger of the Department of Fisheries with the Taiwan Fisheries Bureau of the Department of Agriculture and Forestry of the former Taiwan Provincial Government. The merger was part of a streamlining of the Taiwan Provincial Government, a redundant martial law era administrative structure made up primarily of sinecure positions. At the time, the Department of Fisheries employed 56 personnel, whereas the Taiwan Fisheries Bureau employed 141 personnel. Although the FA headquarters was officially relocated to the Public Service Center in Kaohsiung in 2007, policymaking continues to be heavily shaped by the Northern Taiwan Office in Taipei.

A 2017 press release promoting a free clinic event in Donggang, a harbor notorious for abusive practices, captures the conservative orientation of the FA. After announcing that co-organizers were “generously offering headlamps to enhance the safety of foreign fishermen’s activities at portside and to thank them for all their hard work for Taiwan,” the FA explained that “migrant fishermen and boat owners are important partners in the work at sea and took the opportunity to announce to boat owners that migrant fishermen should be given care so that a harmonious employment atmosphere can be created.” The FA finished by urging that “migrant fishermen participate in keeping the harbor clean, protect the marine environment, calmly work on boats, and not be influenced by “serpent groups”’ (蛇集團) temptations to engage in illegal work.”

In portraying migrant fishermen as “partners” engaged in the common pursuit of national wealth, the FA erased fundamental power differentials characterizing the capital-labor relationship. The FA further positioned itself as, on the one hand, a charitable benefactor, for which migrant fishermen should be grateful to receive any form of protection, and, on the other hand, a supplicant to boat owners requesting human treatment of migrant fishermen. The FA concluded by drawing from a grab-bag of racialized ideologies in depicting migrant workers as dirty, uncivilized, and easily led astray. “Running away” is not a legitimate form of resistance against violence and domination, according to this narrative, but rather an illegal activity that endangers migrant fishermen.

The Fisheries Agency is located under the Council of Agriculture. Photo credit: Solomon203/WikiCommons/CC

Even if the FA were dutifully committed to transforming the social relations of production, there are other profit-oriented state and capital interests with competing claims to governance over ocean territory. There is substantial overlap between the FA’s mandate and that of the Overseas Fisheries Development Council of the Republic of China (OFDC). Whereas the FA is responsible for “issues related to the fishing environment both at home and abroad… [and] the future development of fisheries,” the Council of Agriculture (COA) established the OFDC in 1989 as a quasi-public organization tasked with “reaching fisheries cooperation agreement and reducing the cases of detention of fishing vessels by foreign authorities.” Partly as a consequence of thorny issues regarding Taiwan’s national sovereignty, the OFDC is registered as a private, nonprofit organization in order to facilitate Taiwan’s participation in international forums regarding global fisheries. As such, the OFDC has come under scathing criticism for its unequivocal support of Taiwanese capital, such as the colossal marine trading group Fong Chun Formosa Fishery Company, Ltd. (FCF), while representing the nation-state in international forums.

In addition to the strength of market-oriented actors, there are also significant challenges to mobilizing across socio-spatial boundaries imposed by the legal architecture governing commercial fishing. The 1994 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) institutionalized a framework of maritime sovereignty distinguishing EEZ fisheries, extending 200 nautical miles from a nation’s shorelines, from the “high seas.” Although Taiwan is not a party to the UNCLOS, the state has borrowed its categories to distinguish between domestic (境內) and extraterritorial (境外) waters. Taiwanese law stipulates that the Ministry of Labor (MoL) exercises jurisdiction over labor conditions in coastal waters, while the FA is responsible for labor conditions “outside the borders” of Taiwan’s EEZ. As a consequence, migrant fishermen employed in Taiwan’s distant water fleet are denied basic labor rights and protections under the Labor Standards Law concerning salary, working hours, and safety precautions. Complicating matters even further, oil tankers and cargo ships come under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Transportation and Communications (MOTC). The Employment of Foreign Crew Counseling Committee (中華民國雇用外國籍船員輔導委員會) acts as a migrant labor broker, and migrant workers are nominally represented by the National Chinese Seamen’s Union (NCSU). These entities are reportedly characterized by a nativist orientation, with the latter blithely stating that it was “very happy to help foreign crew secure their rights in the future” in response to criticisms of exclusionary practices.

The Taiwanese commercial fishing industry has increasingly come to rely on the labor of migrant fishermen, primarily from Indonesia and the Philippines, employed through a guest worker program that denies basic political, social, and economic rights and protections to predominantly Southeast Asian low-waged workers. Migrant workers from Myanmar have reportedly been recruited in increasing numbers to work in the commercial fishing industry as a means of cheapening and disciplining labor. These changes in the structure of the labor force in commercial fishing shape, and have been shaped by, racial, class, and gender hierarchies.

Acting as the public-facing side of the state’s marine policies, FA representatives have recently evinced genuine compassion for migrant fishermen enduring in the face of abuse and exploitation. Although this concern is ultimately tethered to nationalist and capitalist logics, this discourse might suggest a positive shift in public consciousness. Nevertheless, as Corey Robin argues,

“We need to recover that sense, from the black freedom struggle, that the institutions of racial domination in this country have been created through politics – not through neuropsychology or culture, not through personal or private attitudes, but through political institutions and political movements and political leadership. We need to recover the sense that if all the accumulation of racial domination was made by politics, then it can be unmade by politics. Our task is to find the tools of the making in order to do the work of the unmaking.”

Photo credit: Lord Koxinga/WikiCommons/CC

Allison Lee, Secretary-General of the Yilan Migrant Fishermen Union (YMFU), argues that government agencies have universally utilized the concept of extraterritoriality and the crisscrossing of jurisdictional boundaries to avoid responsibility for changing the conditions of marine resource extraction. As a consequence, jurisdictional confusion regarding the regulation, monitoring, and enforcement of relevant legal codes has not so much hampered social change, as been part and parcel of it. Tellingly, the FA has refused to entertain demands to abolish the legal structures undergirding discriminatory governance of domestic and extraterritorial waters, and foreign and domestic labor. It will therefore not be enough to simply delineate more clearly the rights and responsibilities of government agencies as proposed by the FA in the absence of more fundamental change. Instead, taking a cue from Robin, transforming the social relations of production in Taiwan’s commercial fishing industry will require politicized struggle focused on the unmaking of intersecting forms of exploitation, discrimination, and oppression, and the making of relations of freedom and justice.

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