Taiwan responds to NGO reports on forced labor within its fishing fleet

Published on
April 2, 2021

Taiwan’s fisheries regulator has answered NGO claims of forced labor in its fishing fleet through a statement issued to SeafoodSource.

Noting the attention NGOs have brought to the abuse of foreign workers aboard Taiwanese fishing vessels, the Taiwan Fisheries Agency said in its statement it has “endeavored to improve the protection of the rights and benefits of the crew members through institutional guarantees.”

In its statement, the agency also said it has amended its Standard Operation Procedures for Reporting and Processing Cases of Foreign Crew Members Employed Overseas Onboard Distant-Water Fishing Vessels Suspected of Violating Human Trafficking Prevention Act. Likewise, it said it is “strengthening the inspection and crew interviews in domestic and foreign ports.” 

The agency provided no additional details to SeafoodSource on the scale of these inspections, but it said it is drafting an “Action Plan for Fisheries and Human Rights,” which it said will ensure wages are paid on time and time sheets kept. It said it will also work to strengthen the management of the foreign worker hiring process throughout the Taiwanese fishing industry. Yet the agency also stated elsewhere that its actions are limited because recruiting agents are often based in other countries that do not provide adequate oversight of the practice.

In the same statement, the Taiwan Fisheries Agency said the country’s labor laws had been amended in line with the standards set out in the International Labor Organization’s Work in Fishing Convention (C-188). In separate laws passed in 2016 and 2017, the Taiwanese government created regulations on management of foreign crew members using C-188 “as a reference.”

“Thus, hours of rest and the use of the standardized contract to guarantee the minimum wage, insurance cover and other basic rights and benefits were included,” the statement said.

Furthermore, Taiwan now requires recruitment agents to be subject to an annual review, and for them to record contract signings with workers and keep all contracts – which must use a government template – for five years. Moreover, agents are no longer allowed to deduct fees from foreign crews’ salaries.

Last year, Taiwan was placed the U.S. Department of Labor blacklist of countries tainted by forced labor, following a string of exposés revealing incidents of forced labor within the Taiwanese fishing fleet. And earlier this year, the Yu Long 2 was the subject of a withhold release order from the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, effectively barring the vessel’s catches from entering the country. And in March 2020, a fisheries observer from Kiribati died violently aboard another Taiwanese vessel, the Win Far 536, owned by Kuo Hsiong Fishery.

Environmental Justice Foundation Executive Director Steve Trent said he welcomed the reforms initiated by the Taiwan Fisheries Agency, but said more needs to be done.

“It is encouraging to see the Taiwan Fisheries Agency is taking steps to improve legal measures to protect the human rights of migrant fishers. However, there are still significant gaps between the well-intended legal reforms and the reality at sea,” Trent told SeafoodSource. “EJF's investigations continue to uncover allegations of bonded labor, excessive working hours, verbal threats, physical abuse, and illegal fishing. Taiwanese distant-water vessels are able to use 32 overseas ports around the world, but only eight have a designated Taiwanese official to conduct inspections. Even at these eight ports, the officials have very little training in detecting human rights abuses.”

Trent said the Taiwanese government must “urgently ensure” that vessels are properly inspected by trained officials.

“It should also accelerate the introduction of mandatory electronic monitoring and targets brokers who trap workers in conditions of bonded labor,” he said. “This should be accompanied by the full adoption of EJF's Charter for Transparency and an end to the two-tier system whereby some fish workers are the responsibility of the Ministry of Labor and others the Fisheries Agency."

EJF's investigations into Taiwanese and South Korean distant-water fleets found similar types and levels of human rights abuses, Trent said.

“However, allegations of illegal fishing were higher on Taiwanese vessels. The Korean government has been slower to announce regulations to address human rights abuses, and like Taiwan, insufficient efforts are being made to enforce rules through victim-centered inspections,” he said. “Both countries should pursue a fundamental shift to greater transparency and the use of cameras and inspectors to enforce regulations.”

Greenpeace U.S.A. Senior Oceans Adviser Andy Shen told SeafoodSource he hoped his organization is included in ongoing efforts by the Taiwanese government to shape its fisheries and human rights action plan. Like EJF, Greenpeace has also found persistent labor abuse issues within Taiwan’s fleet.

“However, the reason for Taiwan's inclusion on the U.S. Department of Labor list is the insufficient incremental approach the government has taken,” Shen told SeafoodSource. “Such minimal steps, and the inadequate implementation of some new policies that look promising on paper, are not enough to end forced labor and secure removal from the DOL List. We expect the ‘Action Plan for Fisheries and Human Rights’ drafted by the Fisheries Agency to be discussed with us and other civil society groups as soon as possible to ensure the planned reforms are structural and can fundamentally change the way Taiwanese fishing companies and traders operate, thus ensuring a significant reduction of forced labor in the industry.”

In a statement issued Thursday, 1 April, the Seafood Working Group, a group of 27 labor, human rights, and environmental NGOs, convened by Global Labor Justice-International Labor Rights Forum, called for Taiwan be downgraded to a Tier 2 Ranking in the U.S. Department of State’s 2021 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report.

"The recommendation is based on SWG’s research and analysis that determined Taiwan is yet to meet the minimum standards set forth in the U.S. Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000," the group, which includes Greenpeace, said in its report.

The Taiwan Fisheries Agency, in its statement to SeafoodSource, refuted certain NGO claims – like one on the availability of food on board; Interviews with crew and ship owners suggest it’s a “disagreeable taste and lack of fresh vegetables on board,” rather than shortages or food contravening religious dietary practices, that is the source of the fishermen’s complaints.

It also said it wants some credit given by NGOs for the efforts it has thus far made to improve working conditions on board its flagged fishing vessels.

“This agency does not wish to see that [false] information and cases being cited repeatedly and the efforts made by the government and industry in protecting the rights and benefits or foreign crew members being ignored,” the agency said in its statement.

Photo courtesy of Shi Yali/Shutterstock

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