Tue, Oct 11, 2016 - Page 3 News List

New law aims to protect migrant fishermen

‘YELLOW CARD’:Greenpeace and the International Labour Organization have often raised concerns about working conditions for foreign crews in the nation’s fishing fleet

By Ralph Jennings  /  AP, NEW TAIPEI CITY

Commercial fishing boat owners in Taiwan, one of the world’s biggest seafood exporters, face strict rules and potential fines under a new law aimed at preventing overfishing and protecting migrant crew members who work at sea with little oversight.

The Act Governing Distant Water Fisheries (遠洋漁業條例), which takes effect on Jan. 15 next year, comes amid growing pressure on the nation’s seafood industry to crack down on modern-day slavery and other abuses of the more than 20,000 migrants working on the nation’s fleet of fishing vessels.

Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Frances Lee (李宗芬) said new requirements for migrant workers include insurance, healthcare, wages, working hours and human rights.

Last year, the EU gave Taiwan a “yellow card” for failing to control illegal fishing on its commercial vessels, which sail around the world and catch about US$2 billion of tuna and other seafood every year.

Without improvements, the nation’s US$14 million of seafood exports to the EU could face sanctions.

The US Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons report this year said that while Taiwan has cracked down on forced labor and sex trafficking, fishing vessels need more attention.

The report said fishermen mostly from Indonesia, Cambodia and Vietnam have been fraudulently recruited to work on Taiwan-flagged vessels, where they can face abuses including violence, limited food supplies and withheld wages.

The issues extend well beyond Taiwan.

Commercial fishing boat owners around the world, including in the US, recruit foreign crews for the dangerous and exhausting work of hauling in the catch. The migrant fishermen are vulnerable to human trafficking and other exploitation because the work takes place so remotely, far from police or labor officials, and they can remain offshore for years as their catch is shuttled in to port.

Several nonprofit advocacy groups, including Greenpeace and the International Labour Organization, have repeatedly raised concerns about working conditions for foreign crews in Taiwan’s fishing fleet.

Yilan Migrant Fishermen Union secretary-general Lee Li-hua (李麗華) said men have been beaten, overworked and denied pay.

“The captain or first officers will use violence, like hitting their heads, kicking or punching their stomachs,” she said.

Migrant workers hired for Taiwanese vessels often report working all but one or two of every 24 hours at a time, Service Center and Shelter for Migrant Workers in Taiwan director Wong Ying-dah (汪英達) said.

They might also sleep in crowded quarters with other migrants and eat just one meal a day, despite paying up front for three, he said.

“Some don’t even have a bed,” Wong said.

Some workers sign multiple contracts, sometimes without knowing what is in them, and inadvertently agree to reductions in wages, activists said.

London-based Environmental Justice Foundation executive director Steve Trent said Taiwan’s domestic and distant-water fleets already circumvent the existing labor laws and that more needs to be done.

“Taiwan needs to develop a far deeper, more rigorous, victim-centered inspection regime on its domestic and distant-water fleet if it is to have any serious intention of bringing working conditions up to basic international standards,” Trent said.

Phil Robertson at Human Rights Watch in Bangkok said passing the law is an important first step in providing protections, but resources would be needed to give it teeth.

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