Taiwan Pushed to Confront Work Abuse in High Seas Fishing Fleet

The Taiwanese government is starting to listen to its critics as it works to improve monitoring of conditions for foreign workers on its large long-distance tuna fishing fleet. But local and international labor advocates say reforms aren’t happening quickly enough.

Written by Nick Aspinwall Published on Read time Approx. 7 minutes
Fishing boats berthed in a harbor in northern Taiwan, part of its estimated $2 billion fishing industry.Craig Ferguson/LightRocket via Getty Images

On high seas fishing vessels that operate far from land and regulatory oversight, labor complaints are not a new phenomenon.

But Taiwan’s tuna fishing industry, part of the nation’s estimated $2 billion seafood economy, is under growing pressure from international watchdog organizations to confront mistreatment of foreign workers. Taiwan is one of the world’s largest high seas fishing nations, operating over a third of the longline vessels in the Western and Central Pacific Ocean. The government estimates that its distant water fleets employ 19,000 foreign crew members, many from Indonesia, though outside groups say this number may be higher.

In reports published earlier this year, the London-based Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) and Greenpeace, following up on a 2016 report, pinpointed Taiwan’s distant water vessels as hotbeds of forced labor and underpayment of migrant fishers. As in previous years, these issues were also called out as concerns in the U.S. State Department Trafficking in Persons latest annual report released in June, although Taiwan still retained its “Tier 1” status. That designation means a government is making a minimum amount of progress each year in addressing human trafficking issues.

Tuna at Donggang, Pingtung, one of Taiwan’s busiest ports. (Craig Ferguson/LightRocket via Getty Images)

There is some evidence that Taiwan’s government is starting to listen to its critics as it works to improve monitoring of both illegal fishing and human rights, but labor reforms are still in their infancy, according to these groups.

One major problem lies in the industry’s tradition of relying on third-party recruitment agencies. These brokers may charge workers themselves exorbitant recruitment fees to be placed on vessels, putting them in debt and leaving them vulnerable to forced labor conditions, such as working for low or no wages or being subject to poor conditions and unable to leave – a practice the U.S. State Department equated to “debt bondage.” In addition, migrant workers on vessels usually never set foot in Taiwan, providing little possibility for governmental oversight.

“They join the ship overseas. They work overseas,” said Max Schmid, deputy director of the Environmental Justice Foundation. “Nobody would accept this in any other industry.”

Advocacy groups want Taiwan to follow in the footsteps of Thailand, another seafood titan that has faced international criticism in recent years, on a path to improving labor monitoring and standards on ships.

A series of nonprofit and media reports exposed a permissive culture of human trafficking on board Thai vessels that has spurred some policy, management and supply chain reforms. These include a collaborative agreement between Greenpeace and one company, tuna processing giant Thai Union, and current moves by the Thai government to ratify and comply with International Labor Organization (ILO) Convention C188, which among other provisions bans the payment of recruitment fees by workers in the fishing industry. The government now also requires the installation of cameras on all vessels, according to Dominic Thomson, a researcher at the Environmental Justice Foundation in Thailand.

In Taiwan, a newly formed coalition of international and domestic organizations, Human Rights for Migrant Fishers, shared its concerns with government officials in May. The meeting was productive, Cheng You-hua, public relations director for the Fisheries Agency, said in an email, noting that discussions are continuing. In statements this year in response to the Greenpeace and EJF reports, Taiwan’s Fisheries Agency cited its recent progress in improving conditions for foreign crew members on its distant water fleets, including 2017 rules that improve rights with guarantees such as a minimum wage.

An Indonesian fisher who was living on a Taiwanese-registered fishing boat and, according to a 2013 Agence France-Presse story, was made to work with no pay. (RODGER BOSCH/AFP/Getty Images)

Allison Lee, the head of Taiwan’s only migrant fishers’ union and an attendee at the meeting, said, however, there are still big schisms between advocates and policymakers. She and others are calling for a higher minimum wage, caps on working hours and more thorough monitoring of labor abuses at sea than the 2017 law put in place. They are also urging Taiwan to adopt the ILO convention and eliminate recruitment fees paid by workers. One problem, however, is that while C188 subjects compliant countries to independent investigations, Taiwan does not hold a seat in the United Nations, so ILO investigators would not inspect its fleet.

In fact, Taiwan’s government faces a gargantuan task in monitoring the safety of its distant water fishers – more than Thailand, where the fishing fleet generally stays closer to shore.

“They’re a unique case in terms of the size and stretch of their fleet,” said Schmid.

And while Thailand has made partnerships between its labor and fisheries bureaus a centerpiece of its reform, Taiwan’s labor ministry is not responsible for distant water fishers. Instead, the task falls to its Fisheries Agency, whose officials have little labor experience and may be more influenced by fishing industry interests, according to both the U.S. State Department and Greenpeace reports.

Liuhuang Li-chuan, an assistant professor at the National Chung Cheng University’s Department of Labor Relations and a prominent researcher of Taiwan’s fishing industry, said that no Taiwanese government agency has the expertise to monitor the country’s massive global fleet.

Instead of banning third-party brokerage fees, Liuhuang proposed a technocratic solution for countries such as Indonesia that supply most migrant workers: “a TripAdvisor for recruitment, where you can review and rate your recruitment companies,” which she said would lend transparency to a secretive system.

But Lee believes problems in the home countries of migrants are no excuse. “We have a responsibility, she said. We shouldn’t kick them back to their own government. If migrant workers don’t come, who will work on Taiwanese ships?”

All of these issues are inextricably linked to illegal fishing, over which Taiwan is also under pressure to improve its governance, particularly from the European Union, which issued a “yellow card” in 2015 until adequate reforms are made. (A “red card” could shut Taiwan out of the lucrative European market.)

Taiwan’s Distant Water Fisheries Act requires the installation of vessel monitoring systems aboard each fishing vessel, which track location, but fines for disabling them are light and onboard cameras remain rare. For workers, Taiwan typically relies on more cost-effective port questionnaires, but Schmid said EJF’s investigation, based on interviews with migrant workers, found “no evidence” of these checks happening regularly.

His colleague, Thomson, said, “If you don’t have eyes on the sea, it’s almost impossible to keep tabs on workers on these boats.” But installing and maintaining monitoring technologies, such as cameras and internet communication systems so that crew members can talk to the outside world, is also difficult. Cameras can be expensive for vessels that already operate on slim profit margins in Thailand, he said, although he says it’s feasible for vessels catching high-value fish in Taiwan. Also for its contract fleet, Thai Union has been testing such technologies.

Seafood retailers and suppliers are starting to pay more attention to labor issues. Valentina Gurney, associate program director at the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility, said in an email that companies such as Walmart, Target and Costco are establishing policies that prohibit the charging of recruitment fees. Gurney helped establish the No Fees Initiative, a set of principles for corporate recruitment policy, and she is engaging companies that source seafood from the Thai and Taiwanese seafood sectors.

A new set of labor criteria is also being developed by the Marine Stewardship Council, which sets seafood sustainability standards and certifies tuna products sold by brands and suppliers such as Chicken of the Sea, StarKist and FCF, the latter a major Taiwan-based seafood trader accused by Greenpeace of doing business with human traffickers convicted by Cambodian authorities. (FCF did not respond to requests for comment, but in a statement on the company’s website, company president Max Chou said it was unfair and deceptive that Greenpeace was “implicating FCF in old incidents.”)

Experts hope that retailers’ further involvement could produce better results. “Retailers are aware that their customers will be concerned,” Schmid said. “Its a reputational issue.”

Correction: This piece was corrected to note that Dominic Thomson was referring specifically to Thailand when he said it can be expensive for vessels to install monitoring technologies, because they operate on slim profit margins. In Taiwan, these technologies are more feasible. 

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