Recent reports that the Indonesian crewmembers of the Te Hung Hsing No. 368, registered in Suao (蘇澳), Yilan County, are suspected of having thrown the Taiwanese skipper and chief engineer overboard during a voyage in the eastern Pacific Ocean have once again brought the problem of a severe shortage of workers in Taiwan’s fishing industry into the spotlight. The fisheries agencies cannot hide behind the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Coast Guard Administration and allow these tragedies to continue.
Because of the long hours, low pay, poor living conditions onboard and the danger involved, very few Taiwanese are willing to work as fishermen. Although the government allocates high salaries each year to encourage young graduates to go out to sea and work, it has not done anything else and the effect of its action has been limited.
This is especially evident when it comes to university graduates from fishing-related faculties who do not take up jobs in the industry. This is a waste of labor and training, not to mention money. Despite this, the Ministry of Education has yet to come up with any solution to the problem.
Because of the current harsh economic realities, Taiwanese ship owners mainly employ, except for the senior onboard management roles, foreign fishermen who come from different backgrounds and have varying skills.
Managing a foreign crew is hard as most Taiwanese captains have limited knowledge of the background and character of their foreign crewmembers and the language barrier makes communication difficult. Often, the slightest oversight on the part of the Taiwanese management can result in violent conflict.
Since they are often outnumbered by the foreign crewmembers, they usually find themselves at a disadvantage when conflict arises. This has made Taiwanese even more cautious about going into fishing, and the whole thing has turned into a vicious cycle.
The fisheries agencies are fully aware of these issues, but they have never pro-actively sought a solution to the problems. Not surprisingly, the agencies have come under criticism from academics who say they are the real reason behind the bloodshed that often takes place at sea.
Due to labor demand and costs, most of the foreign crew working on Taiwanese ships come from China and Southeast Asia. Taiwanese bosses and Chinese crewmembers share a common language and cultural similarities. However, as China’s economy has grown and employment opportunities on land and salaries have increased, fewer Chinese fishermen are willing to work on Taiwanese ships and many are demanding higher pay.
With fuel prices increasing and the size of catches decreasing, Taiwanese ship owners have started to employ fishermen from Southeast Asia, notably Indonesia. However, because of language and cultural differences, coupled with Indonesian fishermen not being accustomed to the hard working conditions at sea and the Taiwanese management style, arguments usually arise, many of which have ended in tragedy. This has made fishing a high-risk industry.
As a bare minimum, the government needs to amend laws and increase the ratio of Taiwanese to foreign workers aboard ships, as well as increasing security presence. In addition, the government should enhance protection measures by tightening the selection and approval procedures for fishermen or make use of other fishery cooperation mechanisms to ask their Southeast Asian counterparts to strengthen training.