Film highlights abuses of migrant fishermen

‘Exploitation and Lawlessness’ explores the human costs of Taiwan’s fishing industry

By Joe Henley  /  Contributing reporter

Mon, Apr 16, 2018 - Page 8

The life of a migrant fisherman employed in Taiwan’s long-distance fishing fleet is fraught with danger and uncertainty. The job means months spent at sea, sometimes working shifts of up to 24 hours straight without rest. When rest is afforded, it comes in cramped, squalid living quarters below deck. On deck, workers could be subjected to all manner of verbal and physical abuse, including that doled out with weapons such as swords or firearms.

Such are the revelations brought to light in a recent short film released by the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF), Exploitation and Lawlessness: The Dark Side of Taiwan’s Fishing Fleet.

The film highlights an 18-month investigation conducted by the London non-governmental organization. The NGO’s findings paint a grim picture of life aboard vessels flying the Taiwanese flag.

Most migrant fishermen who were interviewed for the film, the majority from countries such as the Philippines and Indonesia, reported either witnessing physical abuse carried out by senior Taiwanese crew members, or being victims of abuse themselves.

All interviewees, according to the film, said they were either underpaid for their time at sea or not paid at all.

Currently there are more than 1,800 Taiwanese distant water vessels operating in waters around the globe. Hundreds more are owned by Taiwanese but fly flags of convenience.

ILLEGAL PRACTICES

Ships changing flags or names while out at sea, operating without a proper license, engaging in illegal transshipment of crew or catch between vessels at sea or employing outlawed practices such as shark finning are common, according to those interviewed in the film.

The film’s main focus, however, is the way in which these illegal practices employed by Taiwanese vessels go hand in hand with human rights abuses.

When it comes to the latter, the heart of the problem is the fact that in 2013 the Taiwanese government ruled that distant water fishery workers recruited abroad do not fall under the jurisdiction of Taiwan law, leaving them in what amounts to legal limbo.

Nevertheless, the responsibility for the protection of migrant fishermen in the long distance fleet has been placed on the Fisheries Agency, a branch of the government with its offices in Kaohsiung which has a limited mandate to shield migrant workers from abuse and exploitation.

In the film attention is drawn to the allegation that on the whole the Fisheries Agency is not familiar with the few laws that are in place for the protection of migrant fishermen.

“They don’t have experience in this area and there is no appropriate training provided to them,” Max Schmid, Deputy Director of the EJF, tells the Taipei Times.

“At higher levels, we have been told there is an eagerness to tackle the issue,” Schmid adds. “They have developed a questionnaire for fishermen to respond to, but responses to these have not resulted in any sanctions or further action as far as we are aware.”

Lennon Wong (汪英達), international coordinator with the Serve the People Association (SPA, 桃園縣群眾服務協會), an NGO that provides shelter and assistance to migrant workers that have fallen victim to abuse in Taiwan, is less forgiving in his assessment of the efforts of the Fisheries Agency to make progress on the issue thus far, chalking up the lack of forward momentum to willful ignorance.

“More than willful, it’s intentional,” he says via e-mail from one of his organization’s shelters in Taoyuan.

“In a modern bureaucracy like the Fisheries Agency, it is hard to believe there is no legal department which knows, or at least has the capacity to understand, the relevant labor laws or even international core labor standards. It’s just because they are mainly concerned with the profits in the fishing industry.”

Daniel Lin (林耀明) agrees that progress when it comes to enacting laws that would protect migrant fishermen has been staid. Lin, Acting Director of The Presbyterian Church in Taiwan Seamen and Fishermen’s Service Center, an NGO in Kaohsiung that provides aid to migrant fishermen who have been abused, serves as a mediator in labor disputes involving migrant fishermen, and offers emergency services to migrant fishermen and their families.

“The current laws and regulations are not enough for protecting migrant fishermen,” says Lin via e-mail. “There is lack of complementary measures or supporting programs, and thus relevant laws and regulations are not able to be implemented.”

PROTECTING MIGRANT WORKERS

As for what needs to be done to bring migrant fishermen under adequate legal protection from abuse or exploitation, the list is daunting, says Wong.

Among things he and the SPA would like to see done include changing the government branch overseeing migrant fishermen from the Fisheries Agency back to the organization that was in charge before, the Ministry of Labor — an office better suited to dealing with workers’ rights, Wong says.

Furthermore, the SPA advocates covering all offshore fishermen under the Labor Standards Act, the blanket system of labor laws for workers in Taiwan which does not yet include migrant fishermen recruited abroad who work in the long-distance fleet.

By Wong’s estimation, enacting these and other measures will take a “very, very long” time.

“The whole legal and administrative system on migrant workers is fascist and racist,” he says.

“Migrant workers are not really taken as human beings. Their needs are ignored. Their labor rights are severely oppressed and controlled. We need to work with the migrants to organize and let them be heard until the whole society knows that they can’t be ignored.”

As for Schmid, he would like to see Taiwan ratify the stipulations outlined in the International Labor Organization’s Convention No. 188 (C188), a long and comprehensive document that details the myriad ways in which conditions for migrant fishermen employed around the world must be improved.

“C188 would raise protections for workers in terms of safety and conditions on vessels and security and conditions in their contracts,” Schmid says.

“The measures of C188 and other Taiwanese laws must be rigorously applied, with regular inspections of vessels, rapid follow-up of any complaints raised by workers and the prosecution of human traffickers in a timely manner, with punishments befitting the seriousness of the crime.”

At present, only longtime activists and Democratic Progressive Party legislators Lin Shu-Fen (林淑芬) and Chen Man-Li (陳曼麗) are actively working on protecting migrant fishermen, Lin says. In order for more progress to be made, he maintains, a greater sector of the population at large will have to lend their support and give voice to the issue.

“We hope that more Taiwanese friends will support and attend various activities to care for migrant fishermen,” says Lin. “Love will create a friendly environment and give them strength.”

Exploitation and Lawlessness: The Dark Side of Taiwan’s Fishing Fleet, can be viewed at: vimeo.com/258117796/94fbd48276.