by Jay Chen
Photo Credit: Pxhere/CC
THAT MIGRANT FISHERMEN face appalling work conditions for low pay is not a new issue in Taiwan. Migrant fishermen are routinely called upon to work twenty-hour days, meagerly fed on fishing vessels, and forced to sleep in poor sleeping environments, many not having beds, and only a wooden box or blanket. But, as with migrant worker issues as a whole, there has generally failed to be systematic discussion of migrant worker issues in Taiwan. After all, migrant workers cannot vote, as a result of which many politicians have been happy to ignore the issue.
There has been increased focus on the issue in the past month, however, as a result of a Control Yuan probe into a 2019 report by Greenpeace. Two members of the Control Yuan, Wang Mei-yu and Wang Yu-ling, held a press conference on the issue earlier this month.
The report in question, Seabound: The Journey to Modern Slavery on the High Seas, detailed migrant worker abuses on the high seas. The report found that migrant fishermen’s identification documents are regularly withheld from them by their employers and that they are charged exorbitant fees by broker agencies in order to obtain their employment, with deductions made for lodging and board by broker agencies.
As such, the working conditions of many migrant fishermen in Taiwan are frequently referred to as a form of modern-day slavery. As with other migrant workers, the Labor Standards Act does not apply to migrant fishermen, which is part of what allows for such poor labor conditions for migrant fishermen working on Taiwanese vessels.
Likewise, in June, a new report issued by the Environmental Justice Foundation interviewing Indonesian migrant fishermen found that workers on 92% of vessels had been denied for months, while 82% reported having to work for up to twenty hours a day, and fishermen on 24% of vessels reported physical abuse. Consequently, the slavery comparison proves an apt one.
It is probable that increased scrutiny on human rights abuses in Taiwan’s fishing industry will have effects on the market going forward. Earlier this month, US Customs and Border Protection blocked all shipments from a Taiwanese fishing vessel, the Da Wang, after the ship was linked to reports of forced labor. This is the second such action by US Customs and Border Protection against Taiwanese ships since May.
Taiwan is a major player in the international fishing industry. Taiwan has over 20,000 migrant workers that work on deepwater fishing vessels and one-third of tuna catches in the world come from Taiwanese vessels. At the same time, there have been frequent reports in past years that Taiwanese fishing vessels engage in illegal fishing practices, such as catching and killing dolphins and false killer whales.
It proves difficult to regulate illegal practices that take place on fishing vessels that go unregulated. Deep-sea fishing leads vessels to spend weeks, months, or even half a year at sea without returning to Taiwan, sometimes stopping at ports outside of Taiwan to recruit more workers. But at the same time, there have been many reports on illegal fishing practices in Taiwan’s fishing industry over the past years. Greenpeace has, for example, issued reports on Taiwan’s migrant fishermen industry each since 2018, while the Environmental Justice Foundation has been researching migrant fishing conditions since 2016.
The Tsai administration has, in past years, touted efforts to build stronger ties between Taiwan and Southeast Asian countries as part of the New Southbound Policy. This would be with the aim of developing stronger political and economic ties, in order to decrease Taiwan’s economic dependency on China. However, the New Southbound Policy sometimes simply serves as a justification for the economic exploitation of smaller, southeast Asian countries by Taiwanese companies, whether this takes the form of Taiwanese factories in southeast Asia or in the form of Taiwan-owned migrant fishing vessels operating in the waters off of Taiwan.
To this extent, the Taiwanese government has sometimes been reluctant to curb human rights abuses of such employers—such actions are sometimes permitted by the ruling governments of the countries that migrant workers are drawn from, because of kickbacks that the politicians of such countries receive, or for the sake of economic development.
It is unlikely that there will be action taken to curb the labor abuses that routinely take place in Taiwan’s migrant fishing agency unless this comes to be seen as something that will significantly affect international views of Taiwan, particularly given the Tsai administration’s emphasis on expanding Taiwan’s space in the international world. Again, the ability of migrant workers to make their voices heard in Taiwanese society is limited due to their inability to affect electoral outcomes as non-citizens, and Taiwanese employers are unlikely to improve the conditions of migrant workers of their own free will.