Danger on the high seas - Taipei Times
Sat, Aug 11, 2018 - Page 13 News List

Danger on the high seas

Human rights activists say there is a lack of protection for migrant workers in Taiwan’s deep sea fleet, a group considered vulnerable to trafficking and other forms of exploitation

By Joe Henley  /  Contributing reporter

Members of NGO coalition Human Rights for Migrant Fishers protest last month outside the International Workshop on Strategies for Combating Human Trafficking, held by the Immigration Agency in Taipei.

Photo Courtesy of the Environmental Justice Foundation

Last month, Taiwan’s Immigration Agency hosted this year’s International Workshop on Strategies for Combating Human Trafficking. At the same time, Human Rights for Migrant Fishers staged a protest outside the workshop, calling attention to what they say is a lack of commitment on the government’s part when it comes to protecting migrant fishermen working in Taiwan’s deep sea fleet, a group considered vulnerable to trafficking and other forms of exploitation.

From the conference and protest, some new resolutions have come forth which may or may not spark change in what has been called a deeply flawed system by long-term observers and advocates for migrant worker rights.

FUNDAMENTAL FLAWS

According to a report issued in March by the Fisheries Agency, there are currently 19,000 migrant workers involved in Taiwan’s fishing industry. These workers predominantly hail from Southeast Asian nations such as the Philippines and Indonesia. However, according to a 2014 report issued by the US Department of State, that number could be as high as 160,000.

The reason for the discrepancy lies in illegal practices such as transfer of crewmen from vessel to vessel at sea. Such practices can lead to migrant fishermen falling through the cracks of a system that already sees them indebted to brokers who arrange their work overseas.

Once they fall through those cracks, says Lennon Wong (汪英達), director of the Serve the People Association, indebted workers who are financially abused or otherwise exploited have little recourse but to flee their employers, a virtual impossibility if they are at sea.

“The Fishery Agency allows brokers to charge migrant fishermen a fee before they start work — creating the ideal conditions for debt bondage,” he said at the conference. “In addition, many migrant workers’ identity documents are held by the brokers or employers. They are powerless.”

Allison Lee (李麗華), Yilan Migrant Fishermen Union secretary-general, says that although the US Trafficking in Persons Report gave Taiwan a tier 1 ranking, the highest there is, for the last nine years, it has also emphasized the human rights abuse in Taiwan’s distant water fisheries in every single year’s report.

“It shows that the problem has always been there, but the government only tries to cover it up instead of really dealing with it,” Lee said.

ONGOING PROBLEM

Taiwan International Workers Association secretary-general Chen Hsiu-lien (陳秀蓮) says current labor laws dealing with Taiwan’s long-distance migrant fishermen are inadequate for their protection.

“The current regulations cannot stop human rights abuses — in fact they might even drive them,” Chen said.

Chen says migrant workers are not allowed to freely change jobs because, legally, they must receive permission from their current employer or the government.

“Some employers use this to threaten workers,” Chen said.

The power employers wield over employees in Taiwan’s fishing fleet was yet again recently brought under the international spotlight. The International Labor Organization (ILO) reported in June that the first vessel to be seized for being in violation of the Work in Fishing Convention C188 — a series of measures of protection for the world’s 38 million workers in the fishing sector that came into force in November of 2017 — was a Taiwanese ship detained in South Africa.

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