Hundreds of Chinese fishermen are crammed like sardines in the dark, smelly cabin of the Sea Dragon anchored off Taiwan's northeast coast, resting for the night before their next fishing trips.
For Yu Changjin, a 40-year-old native of Fujian province, the "floating hotel" off Suao Harbor has been his second home for almost 10 years.
He eats, sleeps, and relaxes in the shabby boat house converted from an old, 300-tonne fishing vessel, where the air is constantly filled with the smells of salty sea, dead fish and urine.
He and the thousands of others who underpin Taiwan's fishing industry are at the center of a brewing diplomatic spat, as Beijing accuses Taipei of violating the men's human rights.
"For people like us who work for somebody else, what right do we have to complain?" Yu said of his life on boat.
"I have a heavy burden on my shoulder. A family of six all depend on me," Yu said as he lit a cigarette. Beside his bed, four were playing cards while others were staring at a small television screen showing a Taiwanese drama.
Yu had hoped to return to his Pingtan hometown for a rare Lunar New Year reunion with his mother, wife and four children, only to be disappointed after Beijing slapped a ban on Chinese seamen working in Taiwan on Feb. 1.
"The captain tells us if we go home we can't come back again," Yu said.
China's labor ban could cripple Taiwan's fishing industry, which has long depended upon Chinese seamen. Taiwan employs about 30,000 Chinese, more than half the industry's work force.
"It will devastate Taiwan's fishing industry," said Hu Shih-kuan, owner of the Sea Dragon.
The floating hotels appeared in the early 1990s when the illegal business of employing Chinese on Taiwan's fishing boats flourished following a political thaw between Taipei and Beijing.
Taiwanese employers visit agents across the Strait to hire seamen to work on their fishing boats. The boats drop the crew back at their hotels at the end of a trip before docking in port.
Once located over 22km off the Taiwan coast, the boat houses were later allowed to dock in anchorage zones after scores of fishermen were drowned during typhoons.
Fishermen from China are paid an average US$150 per month, less than half their local peers, who are protected by Taiwan's labor laws.
China blames Taiwan for numerous disputes between Chinese fishermen and Taiwanese owners. It also accuses Taiwan of human rights violations, saying conditions aboard the floating hotels are inhumane.
Under pressure, Taiwan has agreed to build placement centers for Chinese fishermen. The one in Suao is scheduled to be completed by the end of this year.
To help the industry, the Cabinet's Council of Agriculture has offered a temporary subsidy to local fishing boats and cut red tape on hiring foreign fishermen to cope with the crisis.
Since Feb. 1, a total of 534 fishing boats have applied to hire an additional 1,182 foreign fishermen under the temporary measures, James Sha, deputy administrator of the Fishery Administration, told reporters.
"We have showed our goodwill and try to be as humane as possible, but we also need to keep national security in mind," Sha said.
Chen Chien-chung (