The Ministry of Labor should crack down on unreasonable deductions from the paypackets of migrant fishermen and address the lack of regulations overseeing wages taken for room and board, advocates and protesters said yesterday.
More than 30 foreign workers protested outside the Ministry of Labor in Taipei, shouting that the ministry’s negligence had led to “sweatshop seafood” and “slavery on the high seas,” with some protesters holding a banner accusing the ministry of “counting pennies” while allowing a “bank robbery.”
“The ministry insists on handling this issue only on a case-by-case basis — but for every worker who steps forward, there are many more who do not dare to complain,” Taiwan International Workers’ Association researcher Wu Ching-ju (吳靜如) said, adding that virtually all migrant fisherman face opaque deductions from agencies and employers, who often use the deductions to take advantage of the workers and get around minimum wage laws.
“Because the ministry does not issue fines if agencies and employers return illegal deductions, there is no deterrent — agencies and employers keep taking the deductions because they know they can just return them if caught,” she said, adding that the ministry had also shown itself unwilling to fully investigate cases filed by advocates last year.
While the ministry found that NT$5,000 room and board deductions by employers per month for a number of workers were unmerited, it has refused to look into opaque NT$4,000 monthly deductions by agencies, who often dock salaries before funneling funds to workers, she said.
The group in August last year filed complaints involving 10 individuals with the ministry, with plans to make six new filings and appeal the ministry’s handling of prior cases, she said.
While migrant fisherman are covered by the minimum wage rules in the Labor Standards Act (勞動基準法), employers are allowed to pay part of their wages “in kind,” creating a loophole for them to pay wages below the minimum wage by inflating room and board expenses, activists said, calling for the ministry to ban such deductions.
“The law allows for employers to deduct room and board from paypackets, but these laws do not stipulate the standard of what must be provided,” Taiwan International Workers’ Association member Hsu Wei-tung (許惟棟) said, adding that such deductions can make up more than half of workers’ salaries.
“When workers sign their contracts before coming to Taiwan, they know the amount that is to be deducted, but often have no clue of the actual conditions they are to face,” Hsu said.
A Philippine fisherman named Rey said that despite the “room and board” deduction from his wages, he has been forced to accept poor food and living conditions.
There have been cases reported of fisherman being forced to sleep on ship decks and subsist on thin rice congee, advocates said.
Maintaining flexibility over issuing fines for unmerited deductions is necessary to encourage employers to admit violations and allow leeway for addressing minor cases, ministry international labor management specialist Chen Chang-pang (陳昌邦) said, adding that allowing for “in kind” payment of wages was explicitly permitted by the Labor Standards Act.
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