The US Department of Labor’s inclusion of Taiwan in this year’s list of goods produced by child labor or forced labor might kick-start some changes, as Taiwan has never been included in this dishonoring list and the issue of forced labor in distant-water fishing fleets has never been a reason for a listing.
Taiwan’s inclusion is both surprising and expected, depending on how you look at it. It is surprising because Taiwan is seen as a progressive force in the region. Taiwan was, for example, the first nation in Asia to legalize same-sex marriage, showed strong leadership in its response to COVID-19, making it one of the world leaders in battling the disease, and is proud of its warm hospitality and friendly attitude toward visitors.
On the other hand, it is far less surprising because poor working conditions and disrespect for environmental boundaries of Taiwan’s distant-water fishing fleet, known for its supply of the world’s tuna, has been notorious for decades.
The US labor department put Taiwan on the “list of shame” due to the numerous incidents of forced labor that have been reported on Taiwanese-flagged fishing vessels, and it is a situation that is not improving quickly enough.
Incidents range from confiscation of personal documents, working days of 18 to 22 hours and two to three hours of sleep per night, physical and verbal abuse, and unpaid labor. Many workers regularly face hunger and dehydration while living in degrading and unhygienic conditions.
Most of the vessels stay out at sea without any visit to a port for many months, sometimes more than a year. During this time, it is impossible for crew members to leave the vessels or communicate with their family. They are fully dependent on the mood of the captain and his officers. Even when the vessels are in port, there are many examples of crew members who were not allowed to leave the ship.
Taiwan’s distant-water fishing fleet is the second-largest in the world. It comprises more than 1,100 vessels that employ an estimated 35,000 migrant workers, mostly from Indonesia and the Philippines. The fleet fishes on the high seas as well as in the waters of more than 30 different coastal states.
Taiwan has a big responsibility to ensure that its industry is acting responsibly. It is therefore remarkable to read the first responses of government officials to this news.
Council of Agriculture Deputy Minister Chen Tien-shou (陳添壽) said that the agency is launching a trial project to install wireless Internet on ships so that crew members can stay in contact with friends and family.
Fisheries Agency Director-General Chang Chih-sheng (張致盛) said that the government has established facilities for rest and recreation in major fishing ports, such as Pingtung County’s Donggang (東港) and Yilan County’s Suao (蘇澳), and that the government is also collaborating with local welfare and religious groups to provide services for migrant workers.
While these initiatives are certainly welcome and necessary, why is the government not demanding that fishing operators who are responsible for the mistreatment of workers implement them? After all, they are also responsible for harming Taiwan’s reputation.
Yes, wireless Internet at sea is important, but more important is limiting fishing vessels to a maximum time at sea of three months so that labor inspections at port and at sea can be conducted frequently, and violators be punished to deter abuse. Yes, religious services and rest centers are important, but more important is dealing with the labor rights abuses in recruitment and work aboard the vessels.
One of the world’s largest tuna traders is Kaohsiung-based Fong Chun Formosa Fishery Co (FCF). In its almost 50 years of existence, this Taiwanese family business has grown to — as it says itself — handle more raw materials for canned tuna than any company in the world. Although it does not own any fishing vessels, the company dominates the industry and works with more than 600 Taiwanese and foreign-flagged vessels. Its subsidiaries, fishing bases and shipping agents can be found in the farthest corners of the world.
Besides trading tuna, FCF provides a plethora of services to the distant-water fishing industry including providing fuel, cold storage, logistics, processing of tuna and supplying provisions to fishing vessels, and it also acts as a shipping agent. When a vessel wants to fish in the waters off a remote island somewhere in the world’s oceans, FCF has the contacts that can arrange the necessary permits.
The company also provides transshipments — the transfer of fish from a fishing vessel to a large transport vessel. It can happen at sea, which might under certain circumstances be illegal, and makes it easier to launder illegally caught fish with legally caught fish. It enables fishing vessels to stay out at sea for extreme periods of time, which affects the possibility of crew members to disembark or even get in contact with their loved ones.
In its research into malpractices of the Taiwanese fishing industry, Greenpeace has in the past few years regularly come across FCF. As recently as in March, an observer — this is an independent monitor who keeps an eye on the operations aboard a fishing vessel — was found dead on a Taiwanese-flagged ship. The vessel was a supplier to FCF, and local authorities are investigating this death as a homicide.
Given the importance of FCF in the global tuna trade, it is essential that such an important corporation is committed to strong sustainability and human rights standards. Greenpeace has reached out to FCF to discuss how the company can improve its performance in terms of sustainability and labor rights.
Based on our experience and information received from migrant fishers, Greenpeace provided a list of realistic and achievable steps for improvement to make the tuna sector more fair and sustainable.
This is important because the company’s publicly shared commitments are weak and vague. Our recommendations are also in the interest of FCF — if it truly wishes to eliminate forced labor from its supply chain. At the time of writing, we are still waiting for the company’s response.
It is essential that the government understands that the only way to be removed from the list is to share the responsibility with the Taiwanese fishing and trading companies that are related to the misbehavior of fishing vessels that has led to the reputational damage. Whereas the government needs to make sure that its laws and regulations meet the highest standards, it should also enforce them toward the companies that make a lot of money at the expense of their workers, the environment and the standing of Taiwan in the world.
Let us be very clear about one thing: It is not difficult to offer a fair salary to your workers who are working long hours under difficult conditions to increase your profits. It is not a luxury to offer clean drinking water and appropriate food to your fishers who are “locked” to a fishing vessel far out at sea with no opportunity to buy supplies at a shop around the corner.
It is only humane to offer your crew an option to communicate with their families when they are isolated for months at a time.
It has been too long that companies have been allowed to look the other way or claim that these are issues from the past instead of addressing the cries for help that continue to come from within their distant-water fishing branches.
Pavel Klinckhamers is the global project leader for Pan-Asian Fisheries of Greenpeace.
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