Call for Taiwan to End Abuse of Migrant Fishermen

By The Maritime Executive 05-19-2018 08:32:10

The NGO coalition Human Rights for Migrant Fishers has called on the Taiwanese government to improve conditions for migrant workers on fishing vessels, who currently face human rights abuses that risk undermining the New South-Bound Policy.

The Taiwanese government has heavily promoted its New South-Bound Policy which aims to strengthen cultural and economic relationships with Southeast Asia. However, migrant fishers – who hail mainly from Indonesia and the Philippines – continue to endure abuse on Taiwanese vessels because of the lack of appropriate laws, transparency and labor inspection measures, says a joint statement issued by a group of seven NGOs.

May 20 is Taiwanese President Tsai’s two-year anniversary, and over her term in office her flagship New South-Bound Policy has been a focus for the government. To be true to its aims, however, the government must strengthen protection for migrant fishers and their basic human rights, argues the coalition of Taiwanese and international NGOs.

Taiwan has one of the largest deep water fishing industries in the world. According to the Taiwanese Fishery Agency, in 2016 it caught more than 820,000 tons. The export value of the industry over recent years has ranged between US$1.6 billion to US$2 billion. These products usually land in foreign countries, such as Thailand and Mauritius, and are then transported to local factories for processing before being re-exported to the final consumer markets.

Taiwan produces seafood exports worth about $150 million to the U.S. and $17 million to the EU. Exports to Japan, a major market for the country, reach up to $475 million. According to data provided by the Fishery Agency and Ministry of Labor, in 2016 there were about 26,000 migrant workers working in the Taiwanese fishing industry. However, the U.S. Department of State Trafficking in Persons Report 2014 cites estimates of up to 160,000 migrant workers in Taiwan’s deep water fishing industry.

Because of the remote nature of fishing and the pressures arising from collapsing fish stocks, workers are vulnerable to abuse, and migrant fishers are especially at risk. With a lack of transparency in the fishing sector and no appropriate government measures in place to ensure their rights and inspect conditions, migrant fishers on Taiwanese vessels can and do fall victim to debt-bondage, forced labor, human trafficking and other serious human rights abuses.

The Human Rights for Migrant Fishers coalition strongly recommends the government should:

1.     Ratify the International Labour Organization’s Work in Fishing Convention 188.
2.     Apply the Labour Standards Act to all the fishers and for the Ministry of Labour to oversee workers in both Taiwanese waters and on distant water fishing vessels.
3.     Invest sufficient resources to ensure labour inspections are timely and accurately conducted.
4.     Provide training for prosecutors and judges to increase the prosecution and conviction of human traffickers or human right abusers.
5.     Develop a complaint channel so fishers can receive help while at sea.
6.     Develop a delivery plan with clear timelines to address the above measures.
7.     Work with NGOs to review the process regularly.

The most recent U.S. Trafficking in Persons Report raises concerns over protections for overseas fishers, specifically including problems in coordination between the Fisheries Agency and the Ministry of Labour. The Human Rights Report highlighted similar issues.  

The Fisheries Agency is responsible for overseeing the recruitment of migrant fishers. However, it has been criticized for lacking the relevant knowledge and experience to deal with the issues. The NGO coalition recommends that the Ministry of Labour should be the authority responsible for all labor affairs, working closely with the Fisheries Agency to ensure it has regular access to vessels in Taiwan and across the world. 

Members of the NGO coalition are the Environmental Justice Foundation, Greenpeace, the Presbyterian Church in Taiwan Seamen and Fishermen’s Service Center, Serve the People Association, the Taiwan International Workers' Association, Taiwan Association for Human Rights and the Yilan Migrant Fishermen Union.