Taiwan’s lucrative fishing industry has come under fire for subjecting its migrant workforce to forced labor and other abuses, in contrast to the government’s promotion of the Democratic Island as a flagship regional human rights.
Taiwan operates the second largest longline fishing fleet in the world, with boats spending months – and sometimes years – crossing distant oceans to supply the seafood that ends up on our supermarket shelves.
But those who work on its ships – mostly poor migrants from the Philippines, Indonesia and Vietnam – paint a grim picture of grueling hours of work, moored wages, months without family contact, regular beatings. and even death at sea.
Last year, the United States for the first time added fish caught by Taiwan’s deep-sea fleets to its list of goods produced through forced labor.
It was an embarrassing moment for Taiwan, an island that rocked autocracy and bills itself as one of the region’s most progressive democracies.
Recent steps include becoming the first place in Asia to legalize same-sex marriage, President Tsai Ing-wen’s historic apology to indigenous communities on the island, and an ongoing campaign to tackle the abuses of the era. martial law.
But there has been little progress in tackling labor abuse, especially in the $ 3 billion fishing industry.
Migrant fishermen interviewed by AFP said they regularly had to work up to 9 p.m. a day, suffer verbal and physical abuse and lack of communication with the outside world.
When the pay finally arrived, it was often lower than the agencies had promised.
Supri, who like many Indonesians only uses one name, said he was still traumatized by being on a Taiwanese fishing boat.
The captain, he said, immediately took a dislike to him, scolding him frequently, locking him in a freezer and ordering a crew member to shock him with a stun gun used to kill fish.
“During all this time, I thought I wanted to go home,” he told AFP. “I didn’t want to die. I wanted to see my family again. “
– ‘Modern day slavery’ –
In a survey of Indonesian fishermen released last year, the Environmental Justice Foundation found that a quarter reported physical abuse on Taiwanese longliners, 82 percent worked excessive overtime and 92 percent had wages withheld. .
Mohamad Romdoni, an EJF activist in Indonesia, said working conditions are “still terrifying” on Taiwanese ships – although slightly better than the Chinese fleet, the world’s largest.
“If the crew can still chew and swallow their food, they still have to work, even if they are sick,” he told AFP.
Edwin Dela Cruz, president of the nonprofit International Seafarers Action Center in Manila, put it more cruelly: “The working conditions of fishermen on Taiwanese ships are like modern slavery. “
Filipino Marcial Gabutero returned home after a long stay at sea to find his wife gone and his recruiting agency refusing to hand over four-fifths of his monthly salary of $ 250.
The 27-year-old said he was often beaten with a broomstick but never dared to speak.
“We were helpless, so we endured until we finished the contract,” he said.
The Seafood Working Group, a coalition of NGOs that monitors abuse in global fishing fleets, estimates that around 23,000 people work on Taiwan’s deep-sea vessels.
Earlier this year, he recommended that Taiwan be downgraded in Washington’s annual human trafficking report, citing deductions from wages, forced labor, killings and disappearance at sea of migrant fishermen.
“Investigations have consistently revealed gross human rights violations in Taiwan’s fishing industry,” researchers wrote.
– Flags of convenience –
The worst practices are found on Taiwan’s deep-water fleets that operate outside the island’s waters and many use “flags of convenience”.
These ships are owned by Taiwanese, but fly the flags of countries with fewer regulations.
Although deep-sea vessels are expected to comply with Taiwanese hiring regulations, there is no official inspection regime or enforcement for those flying flags of convenience.
The Taiwan Fisheries Agency said it “does not allow forced labor or human trafficking” and strives to “amend relevant regulations in a timely manner.” The agency said it planned to submit an “action plan” to the government, but could not give a date.
Last week, the government’s own watchdog – known as Control Yuan – said the fisheries department and other ministries had taken no concrete steps to tackle fishing abuse, although ‘they were aware of it.
Allison Lee, of the Yilan Migrant Fishermen’s Union, said officials were reluctant to really address the abuses.
“The government is just stunning and dressing the issue,” she told AFP.
– Death at sea –
Migrant workers have died on boats, often under suspicious circumstances.
Indonesian fisherman Supriyanto in 2015 caused an international uproar.
He reportedly first succumbed to an illness until heartbreaking personal testimony and video was smuggled out by his teammates.
Lee, who has helped Supriyanto’s family since his death, said the 47-year-old was frequently beaten at the hands of the Taiwanese captain who “hit his head with a hook, cut his feet with a hook. knife and encouraged others to hit it. “.
No prosecution has yet been initiated in this case.
A similar death occurred in 2019 when a 19-year-old Indonesian fisherman died a day after crew members said he was struck by a Taiwanese officer.
“The captain wrapped the body of my dead friend with a blanket and then put it in the freezer,” an anonymous member of the crew said during testimony gathered by Greenpeace.
This vessel – the Da Wang – operates under a Vanuatu flag of convenience and the United States has since blacklisted it.
Last year, he landed in the city of Kaohsiung in Taiwan. Local prosecutors came to inquire about the case, but no departure ban was imposed on the boat and it fell back into international waters a month later.
Lee says cases like Da Wang’s sum up how Taiwanese authorities are turning a blind eye to the abuse.
“There are a lot of issues with their treatment on board, but there is no place to turn for help,” she said.
© 2021 AFP