The Executive Yuan on Monday released the nation’s third report on its progress on human rights issues: Milestones reached over the past four years are plenty, including the legalization of same-sex marriage and the decriminalization of adultery, and show its commitment to UN human rights covenants.
However, there is one issue that continues to blight the nation’s reputation: the mistreatment of migrant workers — especially the 22,000 or so toiling on long-haul fishing boats — with new and more damning reports surfacing on a regular basis.
Taiwan was listed last month as the No. 1 focus of complaints by Indonesian migrant fishers, and the Environmental Justice Foundation on Wednesday last week reported that not only do migrant fishers face violence, exploitation and trafficking, they are also forced to conduct illegal activities such as catching dolphins and using their blood to attract sharks.
The revelations are not surprising, but it is a problem that the government should be more worried about, especially since Taiwan was just last year removed from the EU’s list of uncooperative nations in the fight against illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing.
The issue was mentioned in Monday’s human rights presentation, with Executive Yuan Human Rights Protection and Promotion Committee convener Lo Ping-cheng (羅秉成) saying that migrant fishers now have “enhanced protection” under the Regulations on the Authorization and Management of Overseas Employment of Foreign Crew Members (境外僱用非我國籍船員許可及管理辦法).
The regulations were promulgated in 2017 and updated last year. On paper, they do safeguard the fishers’ rights, but enforcement is difficult given the months they spend at sea, and reports have shown that inspectors are often not proficient in the migrants’ languages, meaning they only speak to the Taiwanese employers or crew.
While the offenders who are caught are fined, it is clear that the system is not working, as countless more fall through the cracks — so hardly a human rights achievement.
The migrant worker system as a whole needs to be overhauled for real change to be seen, but the government is reluctant to do so, preferring to roll out solutions that look good on paper, but are ineffective.
A silver lining is the increased attention that the issue has been receiving. Not only do the reports of mistreatment keep coming, the plight of migrant workers is also being featured in mainstream media. While the government can certainly do more, public perception also needs to change.
A feature film released in January, Boluomi (菠蘿蜜), touched upon the subject, and the drama The Rootless (無主之子), which premiered on Sunday on Formosa TV, is told through the eyes of a young Vietnamese man who comes to Taiwan to work on a fishing boat.
The abuse the worker faces from the boat’s Taiwanese captain and engineer is clearly portrayed, with the Taiwan International Workers’ Association saying that “the drama is the most accurate work in the past 20 years” regarding the issues that migrant workers face.
The show has garnered much media attention and discussion, and it continues the trend of TV stations rolling out productions addressing social issues.
Art and cultural efforts are often the most effective way to bring more attention to societal problems, and Formosa TV should be praised for tackling the issue head-on from migrants’ perspectives.
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