Human trafficking, illegal fishing allegations tarnish Taiwan’s distance fishing sector

Taiwan’s large distant-water fishing fleet is a major supplier of tuna to global markets, but it has been accused of misconduct on the high seas, including engaging in illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing. 

In 2015, Taiwan was issued a “yellow card” warning by the European Commission, and in 2016, it was threatened with a red card, which would have resulted in a ban on imports to the European Union of fish products caught by vessels flying the Taiwanese flag. In May 2018, Greenpeace released a report, Misery at Sea, detailing poor labor standards, dire working conditions, and harmful fishing techniques in Taiwan’s distant-water fishing fleet. That was followed by an investigative film, "Exploitation and Lawlessness: The Dark Side of Taiwan’s Fishing Fleet," released by the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) a United Kingdom-based NGO that told harrowing stories of migrant fishermen (mainly from Indonesia and the Philippines) working aboard Taiwanese-owned fishing vessels and highlighted practises like under-payment and non-payment of salaries and heavy financial deductions for food, travel, medical checks, and accommodation.

EJF Deputy Director Max Schmid spoke to SeafoodSource about the efforts EJF is making to bring change to Taiwan’s seafood industry.

SeafoodSource: What has EJF been focusing on in its work on Taiwan?

Schmid: Taiwan’s fishery sector faced negative publicity earlier this year when the Fuh Sheng No. 11 became the first fishing vessel to be detained for contravening the International Labor Organization’s (ILO) Work in Fishing Convention. South African authorities reported unsafe conditions as well as insufficient food and the absence of crew lists on board the vessel.

The EJF wants Taiwan to stamp out a practice of non-regulated brokers prevalent in the fishing sector. It also wants all countries to implement legislation to prosecute national citizens engaged in human trafficking. Likewise, it wants more global efforts (through greater transparency) to reduce access to markets for seafood from fisheries where labor abuse (and illegal fishing) are proven.

Taiwanese government data shows in 2016 there were about 26,000 migrant workers working in the Taiwanese fishing industry, though there are an estimated 160,000 migrant workers in Taiwan’s deep-water fishing industry, according to the U.S. Department of State Trafficking in Persons Report 2014. This while 1,800 distant water Taiwanese-flagged (and hundreds more Taiwanese owned vessels operated under so-called flags of convenience) vessels annually ship exports worth around USD 2 billion (EUR 1.7 billion) worth of seafood to key markets like Europe, the U.S.A., and Japan. 

SeafoodSource: What has been the reaction to your film and has it prompted action by Taiwan?

Schmid: Recommendations have not put in place yet in Taiwan. But the film has made people more aware – we know the government in Taiwan is looking at our recommendations. Taiwan has yet to sign on to ratify and implement the International Labour Organization’s Convention 188 [Work in Fishing, which aims at protect the rights of workers within the fishing sector] into its laws. The ILO sets out clear standards in line with those. Industry should be looking at those and checking their supply chains for compliance with the convention.

SeafoodSource: Isn’t there a complication because Taiwan isn’t a United Nations member and thus not part of the ILO?

Schmid: That’s a technicality. Taiwan can still apply ILO into their laws. In 2017, we produced a code of practice. This could be used through the supply chain to reduce trafficking and IUU fishing.

SeafoodSource: Have you been engaging with Taiwanese fishing companies or have they sought engagement in the way Thai Union has been working with Greenpeace?

Schmid: There has been no direct engagement with Taiwanese companies. We reached out to them but there has been no engagement yet. However, we stress that there are systemic problems as opposed to problems relating to specific companies. 

SeafoodSource: You have done much work in highlighting labor abuses and people trafficking in the Thai fishing sector. Are there lessons from Thailand which can be applied in Taiwan?

Schmid: The Thai and Taiwanese fisheries are very different. In Thailand, most of the issues happened in coastal areas. Taiwan has fewer vessels [and] is a more advanced economy. However, some of the recommendations have already been applied. [For example], Thailand has applied ILO Convention 188 recommendations [and] has taken measures to track migrant workers and to ensure they’re getting paid, [while] some of the key protections are missing in Taiwanese law, for example preventing brokers from taking fees from salaries. 

SeafoodSource: Is the very nature of Taiwan’s long-distance fleet a challenge for enforcement by Taiwanese authorities? 

Schmid: Distance is a challenge for enforcement, but there are ways to compensate. More transparency and more information on vessels can be shared with other countries which could take action. For instance, South Africa arrested a vessel from Taiwan. It’s a signatory to the ILO convention. [Sharing of information] would be easier to get to the bottom in these case of non-compliance. That would help Taiwan, stakeholders globally could help Taiwan with enforcement.  

SeafoodSource: How important are retailers in forcing change?

Schmid: If you look back a decade, you saw an industry that wasn’t transparent but this has changed. Now across the world retailers demand more transparency. There is a trend towards more transparency but we need to see that happen quickly. Across our work in Taiwan and Thailand, we have had good engagement with retailers who want to know the risks [of worker mistreatment in the fishing sector]. Retailers are paying more attention to the risks in the supply chain.

SeafoodSource: Are Western retailers the key buyers of the product from Taiwanese vessels?

Schmid: Tuna is the key industry. Taiwan ships a lot of it to Japan but a significant portion goes to Thailand and from there to the E.U. and U.S. [Editor’s note: Exports to Japan totalled USD 475 million (EUR 407 million) in 2016 compared to about USD 150 million (EUR 129 million) to the USA and USD 17 million (EUR 14.6 million) to the E.U.] 

SeafoodSource: Is there a similar concern among the global seafood firms about stamping out these practises? 

Schmid: As progressive companies invest in better practices, they will want a level playing field. Along with NGOs, they are becoming key players. Good operators want everyone to be on a level playing field. They’re obviously opposed to other players with lower standards.

SeafoodSource: How interconnected is the labor issue with illegal fishing? 

Schmid: The same factors are driving both situations and the solutions are similar. FAO data shows a large number of fish stocks have collapsed or reached maximum yield. Therefore, vessels are operating more and more offshore. And their costs are rising. So one of the ways of reducing costs is by fishing illegally, or mistreating or underpaying workers. The same drivers and lack of oversight by fishing authorities. The solutions are more scrutiny through more transparency. 

SeafoodSource: Is there an important fishing lobby in Taiwan that’s holding up the kind of progress you want to see?

Schmid: Fishing is a significant part of the economy, as much cultural as economic. It’s part of Taiwanese life. In post-war Taiwan, the fishing companies were among the first to go out and to earn foreign currency and to employ large numbers. Now the employees are migrants.

SeafoodSource: What’s next for EJF and its work on this issue?

Schmid: We recently held a press event in Taipei to show the need for action. We have published a gap analysis showing the difference between Taiwan and ILO codes and this will hopefully push Taiwan to action.

As people become more aware we are hopeful their responsible will want to put right. Taiwan has some of the best laws and human rights in the Asia-Pacific region. They’re very proud of this and this glaring omission we hope is something they’ll want to rectify. 

SeafoodSource: Are you happy with the progress that has been made in Thailand since you started highlighting the human trafficking problems there?

Thailand has been progress in terms of protections on vessels. Also in tracking of vessels is much better. But it’s a huge sector. Government now requires VMS [vessel monitoring systems] on vessels over 30 tons. But a huge part of the fleet is under 30 tons. Thailand has ratified the ILO118. Reforms are now being entrenched in the local legal system, but there is the danger that the problem will return if they stop this process. 

Photo courtesy of EJF


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