EDITORIAL: Fisheries deserve no exemptions

Sat, Mar 16, 2019 - Page 8

It appears that too many people in government cannot see the forest for the trees, or in the case of the nation’s fisheries industry, the ocean for the fish.

On Wednesday, about 100 people protested outside the Ministry of Labor against a proposal to exempt migrant fishers from the standard limit of 12 work hours per day, five days per week, and a limit of 46 hours of overtime per month. The protest came in response to Premier Su Tseng-chang’s (蘇貞昌) announcement on Feb. 27 that the special nature of crewing fishing vessels requires that working hours be counted differently and fishers should work with their employers to schedule working times and days off to meet the needs of the job.

Ironically, on the same day, Council of Agriculture Minister Chen Chi-chung (陳吉仲) told a legislative hearing that the government would take measures to ensure better oversight of the fisheries industry as part of efforts to get the EU to lift a yellow card it placed on Taiwan in October 2015 for involvement in illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing (IUU).

Part of the EU’s concern about Taiwan’s fisheries is due to abuse of migrant workers, which was highlighted in Greenpeace East Asia’s report Misery at Sea, released on May 18 last year. The industry’s low-cost business model and chronic flaws in Taiwan’s regulatory framework help create an environment where IUU fishing, human rights violations and labor abuses have become all too common, the report said.

That same month, the Fuh Sheng No. 11 became the first ship in the world to be detained under the International Labour Organization’s Work in Fishing Convention C188, after South Africa cited it for a lack of work agreements and a crew list, poor health and safety conditions, and other violations.

The Fisheries Agency on Oct. 4 last year said that it would fine the ship’s management NT$3.75 million (US$121,406 at the current exchange rate) for abusing foreign crew and catching protected sharks, and the labor agent responsible for hiring the migrants NT$2 million for not signing contracts with them. It tried to make a big splash with the fines to cover up its failure to take action months earlier, when it claimed that the ship had only been held because its documentation and rescue equipment did not meet standards, but no human rights abuses were involved.

The British-based Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) performed the kind of follow-up on the Fu Sheng No. 11 that the agency should have done in May, and documented rights violations and serious illegal fishing offenses, which it reported on Sept. 13 last year, including complaints of beatings by the captain and 22-hour working days.

Hours after Wednesday’s protest, the US Department of State released its Country Reports on Human Rights Practices 2018. Its section on worker rights in Taiwan said: “Foreign workers were most susceptible to forced labor, especially when serving as crew members on Taiwan-flagged fishing vessels.” It added that legal penalties have been “inadequate to serve as an effective deterrent.”

Despite changes to laws and regulations over the past two years, illegal fishing and abusive labor practices appear to remain standard practice on deep-sea and long-line fishing boats. Despite the Greenpeace and EJF reports, the government still thinks it is a good idea to make it legal for unscrupulous ship owners and captains to subject migrant fishers to abusive working hours.

Su and other officials’ reasoning that fishers could work with their employers on “appropriate working times and days off” not only flies in the face of reality, but ignores the biased power structure that puts migrants at the mercy of duplicitous labor brokerages and employers.

There should not be any consideration of an exemption for the fisheries industry. Neither it nor the Fisheries Agency has shown itself able to enforce the laws and regulations already in place.