The prowess of Taiwan’s fishing industry is well known. The island’s behemoth fishing industry is valued at $2 billion-dollar and operates roughly 2,000 vessels—or one-third of the world’s deep-sea fishing fleets. This scale was built on a massive and previously laxly regulated international labor pool. According to Taiwan’s Ministry of Labor (MOL) and Fisheries Agency (FA) data in 2016, the country’s distant-water fishing fleet (DWF) employs about 26,000 foreign crew while the US Department of State Trafficking in Persons Report 2014 and other NGOs estimate the number to be closer to 160,000. Taiwan hosts upwards of 700,000 foreign workers in total, most of them from Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam. Calls to ensure safe working conditions and practices domestically and internationally have grown and Taiwan’s fisheries governance reform in the last four years has been substantial. Yet, challenges concerning enforcement remain—particularly regarding the labor conditions of migrant workers in the DWF.
Human Rights of Migrant Workers
Human rights violations against migrant workers in Taiwan’s distant-water fleet have been well documented. Extensive information is available in Ian Urbina’s 2015 New York Times series, reports in 2016 and 2018 by Greenpeace East Asia, and a 2018 report and a documentary by London-based NGO the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF). Reported abuses range from non-payment, exorbitant fees, lack of clean water and food, long working hours, to verbal and physical abuse in the form of beatings—and even murder. NGOs such as the EJF and Greenpeace have urged Taiwan to continue upgrading enforcement and to abide by key international conventions such as the covenant on economic social and cultural rights. For example, Taiwan has yet to ratify the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) C188, Work in Fishing Convention, which outlines the occupational safety and health requirements for fishers.
In 2018, a Taiwanese vessel Fuh Sheng No. 11 was detained by the South African Maritime Safety Authority (SAMSA) upon request by the Indonesian Consulate. The Taiwanese vessel was the first in the world to be detained under the ILO Work in Fishing Convention. FA investigations found inaccurate catch reporting, shark finning, unauthorized employment of foreign crew, wage, overtime, and labor violations including poor living conditions on board. Fishermen on the Fuh Sheng told EJF they were sometimes only allowed to sleep for three hours, paid $50 a month due to fees, and beaten. Medical and safety supplies were also severely lacking aboard the vessel. The ship’s owner and captain were eventually fined, and the vessel’s license suspended, which was a step in the right direction, but significant issues remain. After the initial inspection in Cape Town, the vessel was allowed to leave port and continued operating illegally for almost three months before being detained in Kaohsiung.
Regulatory Turning Point
Prior to recent government reform efforts, Taiwan faced considerable challenges in effectively improving fisheries governance. A lax regulatory system to monitor, surveil, and regulate the far-reaching industry largely characterized the state of Taiwan’s fisheries governance. Taiwan’s DWF operates thousands of miles away from the coast and many for years at a time. In addition, crews are often forced to fish illegal stock involving endangered species. DWFs often purposefully turn off their transponders and engage in remote transshipments of crew and cargo to avoid detection by law enforcement.
One of the turning points came on October 1, 2015 when the European Commission (EC) issued Taiwan a yellow card for failing to comply with the EU’s “Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) Regulation” and was given six months to address the shortcomings before trade sanctions on fishery products exported to the EU would be considered. The shortcomings listed were a lack of laws, monitoring, surveillance, and compliance with the obligations in various Regional Fisheries Management Organizations (RFMO). Taiwan responded by strengthening vessel traceability and monitoring systems, launching RMFO-required electronic logbooks and observer coverage, creating an inspection and sanction scheme, implementing the UN FAO Port States Measures Agreement, and increasing financial and human resources on the regulation of fishing vessels.
Following Taiwan’s reforms, the EC finally lifted the yellow card this year in June 2019. Taiwan successfully averted sanctions by also enhancing the legal framework regarding distant-water fisheries in line with the International Law of the Sea through the enactment of major legislation and regulations such as the Act for Distant Fisheries. The IUU Regulation itself, however, does not address working conditions on board fishing vessels. Since the lifting of the yellow card, a Taiwan-EU working group was established to combat IUU fishing and labor violations on Taiwanese fishing vessels. The EC and the European External Action Service are now working with Taiwan to address existing labor conditions.
Taiwan’s unique status in the international arena presents its own set of challenges, especially when it comes to matters of mutual assistance and cooperation with other countries for addressing IUU globally. It is in Taiwan’s interest to proactively improve governance measures and safeguard the human rights of all parties involved, not just when awareness has been raised by watchdog NGOs and the media—especially when a majority of migrant workers concerned hail from countries targeted by the New Southbound Policy. Positive developments such as signing an Agreement Concerning the Facilitation of Cooperation on Law Enforcement in Fisheries Matters with the Philippines brings reputational benefits to Taiwan for adhering to norms in customary international law.
It is unwise for Taiwan to risk reputational damage by continuing to let human rights abuses go unchecked, when looking to represent itself as a regional exemplar for human rights amid increasing engagement with South and Southeast Asian countries. Taiwan also stands to gain considerably from cooperating with these countries on fisheries matters. Taiwan should be even more motivated to fully address the gaps in governance, now that the international media and NGOs have already put a spotlight on working conditions in Taiwan’s DWFs. Despite significant progress, a number of enforcement and systematic issues persist regarding the governance of Taiwan’s fisheries.
More Work to be Done: The Hiring Process
According to the US Department of State Country Reports on Human Rights Practices: Taiwan, foreign workers hired through brokerage firms are often exploited and subjected to debt bondage through excessive fees charged for accommodation, travel, and training. In 2017, penalties were imposed on illegal brokerage companies, yet the fines imposed were negligible in amount; criminal charges weren’t filed; and those ordered to terminate their brokerage business weren’t legally prohibited from reopening under a new company register. The US Department of State 2019 Trafficking in Persons Report: Taiwan revealed FA inspections found 120 cases of contract, overtime, and wage violations although only referring one wage violation for prosecution while issuing administrative warnings for the rest. Moreover, the MOL ran a Direct Hire Service Center for Foreign Workers to avoid the brokerage system but exploitative brokerage continued, which hindered its broad implementation. Despite the government amending regulations on the employment of overseas foreign crew members, conditions on the ground have yet to see significant improvement. The amended cabinet-level Council of Agriculture regulation does not offer the same protections afforded by the Labor Standards Act and guarantees a minimum wage of USD $450, which is significantly lower than the national minimum.
It is important that Taiwan’s government continues to fund programs to train and staff the FA and consider establishing a fishing industry agency or committee separate from the FA to remediate the internal conflict of interest. The industry’s growth and development should not be a key concern in conversations about ensuring good labor conditions. Whether a separate committee is established under the Ministry of Economic Affairs or another branch of the government is created should not matter, as long as each respective department is adequately staffed and funded to meet the demand for regulatory inspections which may help solve the staffing problems in comprehensively tracking Taiwan’s global fleet. Expanding the coordination of these agencies and clearly defining their roles and responsibilities is vital.
Legal Protections for Foreign Workers
Taiwan could also consider extending the MOL’s jurisdiction to cover DWFs, defined by a vessel’s originating port rather than the area of operation so that fishermen can be incorporated into labor law protections stipulated by the Labor Standards Act. Lawmakers are typically hesitant to extend labor protections to non-voting migrant populations. Nonetheless, extending protections to persons regardless of whether they are able to vote or not is the right thing to do based on the principle of universal human rights. A step forward in this area could greatly benefit and extend itself to prevent the abuses of migrant workers in household care and domestic industries. Efforts should also be made to increase funding and awareness of the 24/7 complaint and assistance hotline as well as shelter services and compensation schemes run by the National Immigration Agency (NIA).
Other Areas to Reform
The US Department of State 2019 Trafficking in Persons Report: Taiwan makes the following additional recommendations: increasing inspections, prosecutions, screening of migrant fishermen for forced labor with an interpreter, train inspection officials on victim identification, referral and enforcement notification processes, eliminating all recruitment and service fees on workers, cooperating on direct hiring with sending countries, requiring DWF vessels to use standard international maritime call signs, and centralizing information (vessel names, licenses, authorized areas, crew manifests) in a single database.
Taiwan’s administration must remain focused on addressing labor violations and IUU fishing practices such as shark finning. In addition to protecting marine ecosystems, effective IUU and labor oversight will allow Taiwan to minimize disputes with other nations. Enhancing monitoring and surveillance measures to ensure adequate response and inquiry from governmental agencies are crucial in this regard. Previous incidences concerning fishing vessels operating in the disputed territorial waters of Japan, the Philippines, and China could benefit from increased monitoring and management from Taiwan.
The main point: Taiwan has made significant strides towards addressing IUU fishing by strengthening its legal framework and regulatory capabilities. Efforts to enhance the effectiveness of DWF governance should continue in order to ensure safe working conditions and practices in accordance with international norms.