When the Nanfangao Bridge (南方澳橋) at the Nanfangao Fishing Port (南方澳漁港) in Yilan County’s Suao Township (蘇澳) collapsed at about 9:30am on Oct. 1, it not only devastated the fishing community there, but also sent shock waves through the rest of Taiwan as the spotlight turned on the working and living conditions for migrant fishers.
Six fishermen — three Indonesians and three Filipinos — were killed when the bridge came crashing down on boats below, while 10 people were injured, most of whom were also migrant fishermen.
In the aftermath of the disaster, while questions arose about the general safety of port bridges in Taiwan, human rights and church groups turned their focus on the dangerous and harsh conditions under which migrant fishers work in the nation.
Yilan Migrant Fishermen’s Union secretary-general Allison Lee (李麗華) said the fishers’ jobs are dangerous because of the high risk of accidents.
One of the Indonesian fishermen who died in the bridge collapse, 32-year-old Ersona, was injured last year on the job when machinery on a boat fell on him, Lee said.
“It took three months for Ersona to recover from that accident,” Lee said. “I never imagined that one year later he would die in another accident. They [union members] are leaving one by one.”
In 2017, two Indonesian members of the union drowned when they fell overboard far out at sea, she said.
They were not wearing life jackets, Lee said, adding that a majority of migrant fishers in the Nanfangao area are not encouraged by their employers to wear life jackets because it slows down their work and affects catch sizes.
Five migrant fishermen based in Yilan had died in the three years prior to the bridge disaster as a result of occupational hazards, according to statistics from the Ministry of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
Four of the deaths were by drowning and the fifth was as a result of a fire onboard a fishing boat, the statistics showed.
Another issue facing migrant fishers is the long hours they are expected to work, said Father Gioan Tran Van Thiet of St Christopher’s Church in Taipei, who visits the fishers in Nanfangao every week.
“Taiwan’s labor laws stipulate a workday of no more than eight hours, but many migrant fishermen are working much longer hours because no one is checking” their work conditions, Thiet said.
Some fishers have said that they work up to 20 hours a day, but due to language barriers, they do not know how to file a formal complaint, he said.
A Vietnamese fisherman, who declined to be named, said that during tuna season from March to June, he often works 14 or 15 hours a day for six days straight, as the boat stays out at sea near Japan for a week at a time.
Toto Bula, a Philippine priest who worked at Nanfangao for 20 years until March, said fishers are often asked to perform tasks such as untangling ropes or fixing nets when they return from a long day at sea.
“I would like to see a separation of duties in the near future, so that those who are working at sea do not also have to mend nets when they return to port, and they can therefore have a proper rest,” Bula said.
While hardly any migrant fishers are paid overtime for working more than eight hours a day, some receive small bonuses from sales of the catch, the Yilan Migrant Fishermen’s Union said.
When the bridge collapsed, Philippine John Vincente Royo, 37, not only sustained injuries, but also lost all of his belongings, including his passport, wedding ring and bout NT$10,000 in cash.
Royo’s possessions were all on the boat because it was his only accommodation.
“Even though I lost all my possessions, I thank God I’m still alive, because I have three children, aged 10 to 15 years, back home in the Philippines,” he said.
The practice of housing migrant fishers on boats is all too common in Taiwan, Thiet said.
“It’s terrible,” the priest said. “I have seen many of them sleeping in spaces so cramped they can hardly move.”
Migrant fishers should not live on boats, because fishing boats are a place of work, not a home, said Joy Tajonera, another Philippine priest.
However, labor laws do not stipulate that employers have to provide onshore accommodation for migrant fishers.
Human rights and church groups that advocate for the welfare of migrant fishers said that little has changed in Nanfangao over the years.
“I have not seen any improvement,” said Thiet, who has been serving in the area since 2017. “The conditions remain the same. The only difference is that some employers are providing a bit more food for their fishermen.”
It is important for the government to check on the working conditions migrant fishers face and penalize employers who violate the law, he said.
“This is something that needs to be taken seriously,” Thiet said.
If the government carries out inspections at the port, they must be unannounced, he said. “Otherwise, there will be cover-ups, and the labor inspectors will not be able to find the facts.”
Chen Jhih-ci (陳志祺), a section chief in the ministry’s Occupational Safety Division, said that occupational health and safety laws require fishers to wear life jackets whenever there is a risk of falling overboard, which includes while working on deck.
“Employers cannot use excuses to prohibit employees from wearing life jackets,” Chen said. “Doing so carries a fine of between NT$30,000 and NT$300,000, and if an occupational injury occurs under those circumstances, the maximum penalty against the employer is three years in prison.”
Chen said that his division last year coordinated 150 investigative checks and issued five fines, including three against employers for failing to observe life jacket regulations.
The five fines added up to NT$150,000, he said.
Lee Fang-ching (李芳菁), deputy director of the Yilan Department of Labor, said it has been sending staff to fishery associations’ meetings to advise employers regarding the laws and regulations.
While the department does not carry out labor inspections on fishing boats, it conducts checks and investigations whenever it receives a complaint from a fisher about working conditions or mistreatment, she said.
On the accommodation issue, she said that while there is no law requiring employers to provide onshore lodging for fishers, it is planning to build facilities at Nanfangao for that purpose.
The project is to be conducted in three phases, with about 300 beds to be provided in the first phase, which would take two years, she said, adding that the number of beds would be increased in phases two and three.
“The ultimate goal is to provide onshore accommodation for all Nanfangao’s migrant fishermen,” she said.
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