Taiwan’s exploitation of its migrant workers has been a serious blight on its human rights record for years — a national shame that is garnering increasing international attention.
The treatment of migrant fishers on long-haul vessels is particularly egregious due to a lack of regulation or difficulties in enforcement, and has been the subject of numerous news and human rights reports, as well as last year’s short documentary Exploitation and Lawlessness: The Dark Side of Taiwan’s Fishing Fleet by the Environmental Justice Foundation.
Withheld wages, meager rations, long working hours, squalid living conditions and physical abuse appear to be standard, and have been well-covered by the media in the past few years.
However, such callousness and outright disregard for human life continues. On Thursday last week, labor rights groups protested outside the Ministry of Labor after 13 migrant fishers were reported missing last month in fishing accidents.
The groups said that some employers ban migrant fishers from wearing life jackets, as they allegedly slow them down, affecting their yield.
That is inexcusable. There is no place in today’s society for a business to prioritize production over employee safety, but it is even more disturbing to hear that the problem could be easily solved by providing lightweight inflatable life jackets instead of plastic foam ones.
Many employers are simply unwilling to pay the extra cost, just as they balked at improving living conditions for factory workers following protests and new government regulations last year — even after eight workers and six firefighters were killed in factory fires between December 2017 and April last year.
How many more people have to die before this toxic culture changes?
Last month, the Wu Tsun Hsien Foundation donated 40 inflatable life jackets to the Yilan Migrant Fishermen Union, whose 126 members will have to draw lots to see who gets the jackets. This perfectly illustrates the ridiculousness of the situation — it should be the government and employers who ensure worker safety, not civic groups. Even worse, their safety is left to the luck of the draw due to limited resources.
Companies are already saving a lot of money by hiring migrant workers who work much longer hours at much lower wages than Taiwanese. The government can make all the regulations it wants, but if employers continue to have no respect for human rights, they will find ways to skirt the issue. For example, a boat can have life jackets on board to pass inspections when they are docked, but when they are at sea, there is no way to check if the fishers are wearing them.
The government last year inspected 150 boats, but only handed out five fines totaling NT$150,000, three of which were for failing to make workers wear life jackets. This raises the question of inspection efficacy, but also seems like too light a punishment for endangering human life.
It is up to workers to report the abuses, which involves even more complications, as they first need to have communications access while at sea, even as the environment is strictly controlled by their employer. Many have to pay excessive brokerage fees, guarantee deposits and cannot risk losing their jobs, and brokers are usually less than sympathetic to their plights.
If employers are fined too lightly, they will not change, and will continue to endanger workers who are already in vulnerable positions.
The entire system is broken and major overhauls are needed, or it will further tarnish the nation’s international reputation — something Taiwan cannot afford.
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