Almost 11 months after the government celebrated the European Commission removing Taiwan from its illegal fishery watch list, several sobering reminders this week highlight how much more needs to be done to improve the fisheries industry.
On June 27 last year, the commission lifted its “yellow card” against Taiwan, a crucial decision given that Taiwan’s long-distance fleet is the second-largest in the world and being sanctioned by the commission would have hurt the nation’s ability to market its fisheries products abroad.
While a major focus of the government’s reforms to get the yellow card lifted were aimed at ensuring the legitimacy and traceability of the fleet’s catches, there was also an effort to improve the working conditions and protect the rights of those employed on Taiwanese boats, with the Act For Distant Water Fisheries (遠洋漁業條例) being passed in 2016.
The act, which took effect on Jan. 15, 2017, was aimed at ending the abuse of the more than 20,000 migrant fishers working for the deep-sea fleet, too many of whom have labored under conditions that can only be called modern-day slavery.
Yet, in the past seven days there has been a damaging report from the Indonesian National Board for the Placement and Protection of Indonesian Overseas Workers (BP2MI), a mealymouthed response from Fisheries Agency Deputy Director-General Lin Kuo-ping (林國平) and strong criticism from the Control Yuan of the agency and the Ministry of Labor over their treatment of migrant fishers.
BP2MI head Benny Rhamdani on Saturday last week said that nearly one-third of the complaints his agency has received from Indonesian fishers have come from those employed on Taiwanese ships.
Of the 389 complaints received from 2018 to Wednesday last week, 120 had come from men working on Taiwanese ships, followed by South Korea (42), Peru (30), China (23) and South Africa (16), he said, adding that the vast majority (164) were about unpaid wages, followed by deaths (47) and injuries (46).
Lin said that most of the complaints his agency received were about underpaid wages and that if the complaints are valid, it fines the employer and tells them to pay their workers, but it cannot do anything about salaries withheld by labor brokers in fishers’ home nations, because that does not concern Taiwanese employers or brokers.
The agency only handles complaints from fishers on the long-distance fleet, while those from people employed by the inshore fleet are under the jurisdiction of the ministry, he added.
On Wednesday, the Control Yuan said that the agency and the ministry must conduct more frequent inspections to push employers to improve the living and working conditions of migrant fishers.
It also told the ministry that it must ensure that the owners of Taiwan-registered vessels enroll their migrant workers in the labor insurance system, as required by law.
The passing of the buck between the agency and the ministry has long been criticized by labor rights advocates, who have said that the tangled net of oversight responsibilities between the two creates confusion and allows boat owners and captains to ignore the law.
The agency has for too long been more concerned about the effects of laws and regulations on the owners and operators of boats than the fishers who do the actual work. Its focus on paperwork and home port inspections instead of at sea and foreign ports has allowed the abuse of migrant fishers to continue.
The Control Yuan’s action on labor insurance is good news for the nearly 10,000 migrant fishers working on the inshore fleet, but it leaves those on the deep-sea fleet unprotected. The government and the Legislative Yuan clearly have much work left to improve the lot of migrant fishers and salvage the reputation of Taiwan’s deep-sea fleet.
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