The coalition says the Taiwanese government has much more to do to truly eradicate human rights abuses and human trafficking in the Taiwan fishing industry, and some of its current policies may even pave the way for abuse.
The 2018 International Workshop on Strategies for Combating Human Trafficking, hosted by the Taiwan Immigration Agency, invited experts from around the world to discuss how to abolish human trafficking.
However, the coalition said Taiwan was not doing enough to combat exploitation and inhumane working and living conditions on Taiwanese vessels, especially in the distant water fishing fleet.
Root of the problem
Max Schmid, deputy director of the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF), a charity working to protect the environment and human rights, told FoodNavigator-Asia that there were two key factors fuelling the problem: the relationship between massive levels of overfishing and illegal fishing, and the exploitation of predominantly migrant workers.
Overfishing and illegal fishing results in vessels having to spend longer at sea and to travel further from port. This equates to rising operating costs and lower profits for owners, often already operating on slim margins.
In order to maintain profits by keeping labour costs low, many fleets rely almost entirely on migrant workers, who are more vulnerable to human trafficking and other forms of exploitation.
“Workers on board distant water fishing vessels are especially vulnerable to such abuse and the vast size of Taiwan’s distant water fishing fleet means it has a particularly great responsibility,” said Jodie Lee, Oceans project lead of Greenpeace.
The coalition highlighted the latest US Trafficking in Persons Report, which detailed cases such as that of 81 migrant fishers who were locked in a cramped basement while their vessel was in port, and Taiwanese company Giant Oceans, which trafficked Cambodian fishers without being sanctioned.
Furthermore, this July, the International Labour Organization (ILO) reported that a Taiwanese ship was the first to be detained (in South Africa) for violating basic standards of decent work in the fishing industry — its Work in Fishing Convention C188.
“Human rights violations still exist (in Taiwan’s fishery industry) and legal reforms and better enforcement are needed to deal with them,” said Schmid.
Taiwan has not yet ratified C188.
Current regulation not helping
The coalition said this highlights the lack of “fit-for-purpose legal regime” needed to eradicate these abuses.
“There is still a significant gap between Taiwan’s regulations and international standards. Currently, Taiwan’s systems cannot effectively protect migrant fishers from trafficking,” said Schmid.
“The Taiwan government must urgently ratify international conventions, including the Work in Fishing Convention, and robustly implement laws to address both human rights abuses and the related problem of illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing.”
Secretary General of the Taiwan International Workers Association Chen Hsiulien said, “The current regulations cannot stop the human rights abuse — in fact they might even drive it.
“For instance, migrant workers are not allowed to freely change jobs — legally they have to have permission from their current boss or the government. Some employers use this to threaten workers.”
Lennon Wong, director of Serve the People Association, said Taiwan’s Fishery Agency also allowed brokers to charge migrant fishers a fee before they start work. This, therefore, creates ideal conditions for debt bondage.
Schmid said the regulations also did not require employers to pay for the repatriation of crew who wanted to leave their contract — a prohibitive cost for many crew members who may otherwise choose to leave poor conditions.
“In addition, many migrant workers’ identity documents are held by the brokers or employers — they are powerless,” said Wong.
What more can be done
In terms the seafood industry and food firms, Schmid said international retailers and other parts of the seafood supply chain were becoming increasingly aware of the risk of human rights abuses.
“Bringing Taiwanese law into line with ILO Convention 188 will help give global industry confidence that product from Taiwanese vessels is caught ethically,” he said.
He said the Taiwan government should also improve transparency in fishery management, such as requiring the use of International Maritime Organization (IMO) numbers by distant water vessels and publishing a single, up-to-date register of all Taiwanese-owned and Taiwanese-flagged vessels.
Allison Lee, secretary general of Yilan Migrant Fishermen Union, aptly summed up the situation by highlighting that although the US report gave Taiwan a tier 1 ranking — the highest — for the last nine years, it has also emphasised the human rights abuse in Taiwan’s distant water fisheries in every single year’s report.
“It shows that the problem has always been there, but the government only tries to cover it up instead of really dealing with it,” she said.
Schmid told us the Taiwanese government has hosted several meetings with industry and the NGOs since May, and had committed to reply to the coalition’s recommendations.
“We await their response and look forward to working with them to improve the situation,” he said.
Previously, we reported that the EJF detailed the extent of illegal fishing and human trafficking by Taiwanese fisheries, and called the Taiwanese government, international seafood buyers and other governments to commit to greater transparency and traceability in the fisheries and supply chains.
A few months ago, Nestlé and Thai Union Group, together with non-profit research and advocacy group Verité, launched a demonstration boat to promote better labour and human rights in the Thai fishing industry that has been plagued by similar issues.