SNA (Taipei) — Activists have long called attention to the abusive working conditions that fishermen from Southeast Asia are subjected to aboard Taiwanese-owned fishing boats. Their campaign to improve life for the migrant workers has been boosted by recent moves by the United States to classify fish from Taiwan as a product of forced labor.
Campaigners also say it is now time for Japan–the biggest market for Taiwan-caught tuna and other seafood products–to pressure the Taiwanese government to clean up its fishing industry.
Labor abuses have been rife in the global fishing industry for years. Taiwan has the world’s second-largest fishing fleet after China. Its more than 1,100 vessels fish in the major oceans, and supply much of the tuna and other seafood that ends up in homes and restaurants in Asia, North America, and Europe. Taiwan’s fishing industry employs more than 30,000 migrant workers.
Once arriving in Taiwan, the fishermen, who hail mostly from Indonesia, the Philippines, and Vietnam, can find themselves in debt bondage, forced to pay off broker fees before they receive their wages. On board, they can face verbal abuse and physical violence, and long work days that can exceed twenty hours. Some are forced to live in cramped, cockroach-infested quarters, and survive on rotten food such as the fish that is too bad to sell.
In September, the US Department of Labor added China and Taiwan fish to its list of goods that it has reason to believe are produced by forced labor. This is the first time it has added any country for using forced labor on the high seas, or outside its territorial waters. The list, which started in 2009, can influence the decisions of US companies on where to source products.
Activists say the abuse on fishing boats has been exacerbated by overfishing. As fishing stocks near Taiwan are depleted, crews under pressure to catch more fish have to travel further away from shore. This increases fuel and other operational costs.
“There is this vicious circle between overfishing and labor exploitation,” said Pei-yu Chen, Greenpeace East Asia ocean campaigner. “While there are fewer and fewer fish in the seas, fishing vessels will have to travel further into the seas to fish… Some unscrupulous fishing vessels choose to drive down the cost by fishing illegally and exploiting the vulnerable migrant fishers to cut down personnel costs.”
According to Taiwan government statistics, there are around 11,500 migrant fishermen working on boats in the near waters, and more than 22,000 migrant fishermen in distant waters. Those on vessels in distant waters can spend months trapped at sea without coming into port.
Pressure has been mounting on the Taiwanese authorities to address abuses in the industry from the United States, which is Taiwan’s most important unofficial ally. In August, the United States stopped seafood caught by a Taiwanese-owned and Vanuatu-flagged fishing vessel, the Da Wang, entering US ports. The US Customs and Border Protection agency said the ban was based on information “that reasonably indicates the use of forced labor, including physical violence, debt bondage, withholding of wages, and abusive living and working conditions” in catching the fish. Greenpeace had previously reported that fishermen on the vessel had told them they were forced to work up to 22 hours a day, beaten by the crew, and given little food. One Indonesian fisherman who was beaten was later found dead.
In May, the same US agency issued a similar order against a Taiwanese-flagged vessel, the Yu Long No. 2.
Greater quantities of Taiwan-caught fish end up in Japan.
In late 2018, Japan amended its seventy-year-old Fishery Act, aiming to boost its fishing industry and improve the future sustainability of fish stocks. The law had failed to protect marine resources as developments in fishing methods have allowed more and more fish to be caught more easily.
Lennon Ying-Dah Wong, an activist who advocates for migrant workers’ rights, said that while the reform was “momentous,” they “didn’t include anything about labor rights.”
“Japan is a very important end country of fish products” and should require that all fish sold to Japan has been caught legally and without “human trafficking or slavery,” he said. “If they do that I think that will give bigger pressure to Taiwan.”
The Taiwan Fisheries Agency, which comes under the government’s Council of Agriculture, said that reports by NGOs were giving a false impression that abuses were common in the Taiwanese fishing industry. The agency said that in the three years up to September, it had conducted a total of 544 inspections on 49% of Taiwan’s distant-water fishing vessels. “There are a small number of fishing boat owners who have violated relevant laws and have received administrative punishments, or had their cases transferred to the prosecutors’ office for investigation in relation to human trafficking,” it said in a statement.
“However,” the statement continued, “the NGOs interview fishermen and one-sidedly accuse vessel owners, without first carrying out a proper investigation. If such unverified cases are reported… it gives the impression that abuses are common and is unfair to the majority of law-abiding Taiwanese distant water fishing crews and vessel owners, and harms the international image of Taiwan’s fishing industry.”
The Fisheries Agency added that “protecting the rights and interests of foreign crew members has always been our consistent position,” and that it will handle cases where there is “clear-cut evidence of violations.”
The agency is piloting a project to install wifi on fishing vessels so fishermen will be less isolated, and they can be in contact with their family members and friends during long months at sea. The project, which the agency said is “going well,” is taking place on one fishing vessel and is expected to finish next month.
Chen of Greenpeace, said that there was simply not enough monitoring of fishing vessels on the high seas, and that they were pushing for observers on all fishing vessels, rather than 10% at present, and limiting the time vessels can spend out at sea before having to call at a port for inspections. “While there are allegations of exploitation, the government often can’t verify what really happens on the fishing vessels due to lack of monitoring, controlling, and surveillance,” she said.
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