by Brian Hioe

Photo Credit: Taiwankengo/WikiCommons/CC BY-SA 4.0

THE BRUTAL CONDITIONS facing migrant workers in Taiwan are visible from the deaths of ten Vietnamese nationals whose bodies were found after having washed ashore last month. Fourteen bodies of Taiwanese were also found dead after having washed ashore this month and last month.

It was originally suspected that the Vietnamese nationals were human trafficked, particularly since they were part of a group of fourteen Vietnamese who were deported from Taiwan after having been found to be working illegally on farms.

Human trafficking has increasingly been honed in on as an issue after cases of Taiwanese being human trafficked in Cambodia. It was suspected at the time that potentially thousands of Taiwanese could have fallen victim to human trafficking, most of which were young people who were lured to Cambodia with promises of high-paying jobs, at a time in which young people work long hours for low-pay in Taiwan. Such individuals were made to work in casinos, as phone scammers, and subject to physical violence, with some enduring injuries while trying to escape, and some deaths.

That being said, the reason why there was such focus on the cases in Cambodia was because they involved Taiwanese. Cases of human trafficking in Taiwan involving other nationalities in past years have not become as focused in on by news reporting and public discourse. This includes a number of cases in which students from Southeast Asian, Latin American, and African countries were made to work in factories after being lured to Taiwan with the promise of scholarships, as well as pertaining to Taiwan’s deep-water fishing fleet.

Taiwan operates one of the largest deep-water fishing fleets in the world, with vessels primarily staffed by migrant workers. Nevertheless, beatings and even killings at sea and instances in which fishermen are made to work around the clock for little pay have led Taiwanese seafood to be labeled a product of forced labor and modern slavery in past years, leading to being listed on the list of products produced through forced labor by the US Department of Labor and being issued a Yellow Card by the European Union. As such, one would expect less focus on Vietnamese being human trafficked in Taiwan unless this were to affect Taiwan’s international reputation, not only affecting Taiwan’s ability to attract migrant workers to fulfill labor needs, but in terms of international human rights.

Photo credit: KevinAction/WikiCommons/CC BY-SA 3.0

Following the discovery of the dead bodies, an investigation was launched by Taiwanese authorities, with the International Criminal Affairs Division of the Criminal Investigation Bureau working with the Vietnamese Ministry of Public Security and Taiwan’s representative office in Vietnam. Using the cell phones of victims and conducting an investigation on the ground, the Taiwanese government currently believes that the deaths did not occur as a result of human trafficking. Instead, the victims were shipwrecked and died at sea, including an individual who managed to swim to an offshore wind turbine, but died of dehydration and exposure to the elements.

The fourteen Vietnamese are thought to have sought to re-enter Taiwan from China, based on photographs and other records, in order to get around their previous deportation. As four are still missing, they could still be alive, or may also be deceased.

It proves ironic that the fourteen Vietnamese that tried to re-enter Taiwan were agricultural workers. Namely, Taiwan’s agricultural industry, as with other “dirty, dangerous, and demeaning” industries including factory work and deep-sea fishing, has become reliant on migrant labor to make up for labor shortfalls in past years. The labor shortfall in the agricultural industry is significant, seeing as 100,000 temporary workers are required each year, but the current quota for agricultural migrant workers in Taiwan is 6,000. With 548,000 individuals in the agricultural sector in 2010 or 4.8% of the total workforce, 50% of farmers that work with crops or animals are over 50 years old, while 30% were over 70 years old.

Elderly farmers, then, are a contributing factor to the need for migrant workers in the agricultural industry. But given the limited quotas for agricultural migrant workers and because many farms are too small to apply for hiring migrant workers, this has led the agricultural industry to be reliant on a floating population of “runaway” workers that originally entered Taiwan for other work categories but ran away from their original jobs, and became undocumented. The Control Yuan has called for reform of the system in order to deal with this issue.

Either way, as seen with the deaths of the ten Vietnamese that tried to re-enter by sea, Taiwan’s draconian system of deporting migrant workers that work undocumented has very real consequences that can lead to a loss of life. It is to be seen if any public outcry leads to a call for action.

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