Tue, Oct 22, 2019 - Page 3 News List

FEATURE: New rules urged after Nanfangao disaster

WORKER ABUSE?Migrant fishers are forced to work up to 20 hours a day and sleep on cramped boats, as they have nowhere else to live, advocates and priests said

By William Yen  /  CNA

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.

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