As the absurd debate about whether eating Taiwanese seafood is a “luxury” dies down, a far more serious problem regarding the industry lingers: On Wednesday last week, the nation’s seafood products were for the third straight year placed on the List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor, published by the US Department of Labor. The victims are an estimated 35,000 migrant workers who toil on the world’s second-largest fishing fleet.
Taiwan’s reputation as a maritime slave driver remains a persistent blight, despite widespread international reporting and purported government measures to curb the abuse.
Of course, not all employers are bad actors: For instance, the crew members of a vessel that had been adrift for several weeks after its captain died have told reporters that he had been “very kind” to them.
However, the details of the US report suggest that not much has changed in general. Employment agencies continue to deceive workers, and require them to pay exorbitant fees that send them into debt to work on fishing vessels. The mariners remain at sea for months at a time, where they are often brutally overworked and underpaid, while not having enough to eat or drink, and are subject to physical and verbal abuse.
The allegations are not new and fresh cases continue to be uncovered. The question is: What is being done?
As Greenpeace reported on Thursday: “The Taiwanese government has taken incremental steps to address the issue, which have so far failed to disrupt the practice.”
The Council of Agriculture in late 2020 began working with experts on a comprehensive action plan after Taiwan was put on the forced labor list for the first time, but the plan was approved only in May and the changes are still being implemented. The goals include increasing government oversight, boosting salaries, requiring health insurance for crew members, improving labor conditions and managing brokers more effectively.
A formal mechanism for reporting abuses has also been established.
Hopefully, the changes will be strictly implemented and the government will be fully transparent about the results.
However, there is only so much that regulations can do, especially when workers are held hostage by debt and contracts. The problem is systemic, and brokers and employers know how to get around the regulations.
The Greenpeace report called on the seafood industry to be vigilant, saying that companies that source their products from Taiwanese fleets should “do more to ensure that their products are not tainted with forced labor.”
In August, for example, the organization found that canned tuna sold by Taiwanese-owned, US-based Bumble Bee was partly sourced by forced labor on Taiwanese boats.
Civic groups have said that migrant worker abuse is not the only problem plaguing the Taiwanese fishing industry. Illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing is also a serious issue, and both matters should be tackled and inspected concurrently.
Full transparency of the supply chains involved in the seafood industry is crucial, including the flow of resources, and records of offending vessels and companies, so that consumers can rest assured that their meal is not sourced by inhumane or ecologically destructive practices.
While it is important to require each boat owner to undergo human rights education, consumers should also be made aware of what they are eating.
Only when these egregious violations start seriously affecting the livelihood of offending employers will things truly change.
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