Unseen Crisis at Sea: Analyzing the Forced Labor Inequality in Taiwan’s Distant Fishery

  1. Foreword 

1.1 The Kingdom of Distant Fishing 

Taiwan, an oceanic island located in the Pacific Ocean, only accounts for only 0.36%  of the world’s population (Zheng & Chen, 2016). However, the island has long been  known as “The kingdom of distant fishing”, possessing one of the top three tuna  trading companies in the world. Based on the data of the Western and Central Pacific  Fisheries Commission (WCPFC), in 2016, Taiwan had the largest deep-sea fishing  fleet in the world, with 1658 vessels compared to the second, Japan, with 827 (Zheng  & Chen, 2016). However, behind the prosperity of the kingdom of distant fishing, it  was foreign fishermen, which account for more than 90% of the fishing industry that  has long been sacrificed as the victims of forced labor.  

1.2 Forced Labor in Taiwan 

In 2015, Supriyanto, a fisherman from Indonesia was abused by the captain of a  Taiwanese fishing boat, Fuciqun. His eyes were swollen, and he had wounds on his  head, face, knees, and legs. After three months passed, Supriyanto was seriously  malnourished when he was found dead (Jiang, 2018). In 2018, reported by The Storm  Media (2021), a fisherman from Vietnam was reported “missing”. He was arranged to  a seafood enterprise and continued to work over ten hours every day without taking  the day off, but was offered a meager salary of 19,000 TWD (equal to 633.16 USD) a  month. In 2013, Visa (pseudonym), one of the Indonesian fishermen on Tehongxing  No. 368 fishing boat was beaten by the captain. Visa, together with other crews, took  revenge on the captain and chief engineer and threw them into the water (Jiang,  2016).

These are the dark side of the good harvest. Poor sanitary conditions, lack of fresh  water, food shortage, medical insufficiency, and long working hours (over 16 hours  and more during the harvest). Captains and senior crews in lots of cases verbally and  physically violent towards foreign fishermen, confiscate their passports or deduct  salaries for various reasons. Overall, it is harsh living conditions plus abuse that push  foreign fishermen over the physical and psychological brink. But that’s just the tip of  the iceberg. 

1.3 What Is Forced Labor 

The Convention Concerning Forced or Compulsory Labor, 1930 (No.29), announced  by the International Labor Organization (ILO), defines forced labor as “all work or  service which is exacted from any person under the menace of any penalty and for  which the said person has not offered himself voluntarily (“C029 – Forced Labour  Convention, 1930 (No. 29),”)”. Later, to particularly target at protecting the human  right of fishermen, C188 – Work in Fishing Convention, (No. 188), have taken effect  in 2017, aiming to guarantee the working and living condition of fishing vessels (“C188 – Work in Fishing Convention, 2007 (No. 188),”). The examples above  mention physical (or sexual) violence, abusive living and working conditions,  intimidation and threats, withholding wages, and excessive overtime. Additionally,  Forced labor can also be determined by indicators such as deception, restriction of  movement, isolation, retention of identity documents, and debt bondage (SAP-FL,  2012). 

  1. Deconstruction: How Did Forced Labor Happen on Distant Fishing 2.1 The Origin

In the 1980s, along with the increase in wages for work on the land, fishermen  returned to shore and caused a bad demand in ocean-going fishing recruitment. Even  worse, in 2002, China declared a prohibition to stop exporting fishermen to Taiwan  for no other reason: low pay, loose regulation, and needy labor conditions (Jiang,  2016). The government then decided to allow cheaper foreign labor from other  countries and reward ship owners and agencies to do so in order to meet the demand  for labor. That was when the “Overseas Employment Method” started. 

In the following paragraphs, I will analyze 4 reasons that make forced labor a  complex problem, which are the Overseas Employment Method, multi-layered supply  chain, advanced salary culture, and FOC vessel, respectively. 

2.2 Factor 1: Overseas Employment Method 

The laws of hiring a fisherman have been separated into two tracks. “Overseas  Employment Method” is only applicable to “foreign employment” hiring on oversea  fishing vessels, on the other hand, “domestic employment” is for coastal fishermen.  First, the domestic fishing vessel in the inshore fishing zone is guarded by the “Labor  Standards Law” of the Ministry of Labor; however, foreign employment is under the  jurisdiction of the Fisheries Agency, which means the Labor Standards Law doesn’t  protect foreign fishermen under the Overseas Employment Method (Jiang, 2016).  Secondly, Labor Standards Law ensure domestic employment that they can get basic  monthly salaries of 28,000 TWD (equal to 933.24 USD) as same as the land worker.  On the contrary, foreign fishermen hired overseas earn only 16,500 TWD (550 USD).  Chances are high that a new fisherman will get less than 4,500 TWD (150 USD) in  the first few months since the captain and the agency may deduct their salary for 

documents, the deposit, and unreasonable fees, ending up less than 9,000 TWD (300  USD) a year and can only recover after completing the contract. Additionally, since  ocean-going fishermen are not guarded by Labor Standards Law, they do not have  labor health insurance, only left to the market. 

2.3 Factor 2: The Multi-layered Supply Chain 

Reducing the labor cost and maximizing the profit are the driving forces of forced  labor, especially in the pelagic fishery. The supply chain of employment undergoes at  least four hands. First, the ocean-going shipowner in Taiwan gets into contact with the second, i.e., the Taiwanese agency. Next, the Taiwanese agency goes aboard and  cooperates with a local brokerage company; and finally, a broker from the brokerage  companies goes deep into the poorest area and recruits men who are eager to make  money. This multi-handed supply chain can be tricky. The contract can be tampered  by the Taiwanese agency since they should download the contract on their own from  the Fisheries Agency website. Ironically, the Fisheries Agency has no control over  these secret, unequal contracts and thinks it should not be the responsibility of the  government. Fishermen, in many cases, are poor-educated and illiterate, they sign the  contract without knowing the contents. Even if they can read, they often don’t have  enough time to understand the whole contract but rush to the boat. On top of that,  fishermen are often not legally registered or are unregistered in the management  system of both government and fisherman’s association, and this is what we called  Ghost Fishermen. It is information asymmetry that sends foreign fishermen into an  uncertain, risky future and is most likely to “be smuggled” into human trafficking. 

2.4 Factor 3: Advanced Salary Culture

“Advanced salary culture”, another trick hidden in the recruitment food chain, often  results in a pay cut for fishermen. The tendency of high-risk and high cost makes ship  owners feel reluctant to pay agencies and manufacturers until the catches are sold.  Agency usually has to pay advanced on behalf of the owner. Later, when the agency receives the payment (recruitment cost and fishermen’s salary) from the owner, they  will transfer to the local agency, and then the local agency pays the fishermen or their  families (Jiang & Li, 2018). Once any part of the flow of funds goes wrong, risk will  shift to the fishermen, and end in the seizures or reduction of salary. Simply because  fishermen are the bottom of a long supply chain, and obviously, the most  underprivileged. 

2.5 Factor 4: Flag-of-Convenience (FOC) Vessel 

A “flag-of-convenience” (FOC) vessel is a fishing vessel changing its flag, also its  nationalities, to countries either with poor execution capability or loose management  regulation so as to get out of strict measures of catches, labor, and tax laws in its  origin nation. In the other words, a country has no jurisdiction over the fishing vessel  with the flag of other countries. So, it is much more difficult for competent authority,  in Taiwan’s case, the Fisheries Agency, to track the accurate number of fishermen,  which leads to Ghost Fishmen. Ghost fishermen, have no idea who is the ship owner,  where the boat comes from. There are no regular laws that can protect them.  Fishermen are likely to be sent to countries that are not mentioned in the contract and  turn out to be the victim of human trafficking or unregulated exploitation in particular  on FOC vessels. Based on the data from Fisheries Agency’s website, by the end of  2018, in Taiwan, there were 276 FOC vessels in 14 countries, including Vanuatu,  Panama, and Belize (Li, 2018). The Giant Ocean Case, for example, was one of the 

most significant human trafficking events in Taiwan, causing nearly a thousand (still  unsure) victims in 4 years. Even worse, since accountability becomes difficult on  FOC vessels, IUU Fishing occurs. Indulgence by laws and specific regulations,  illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing activities is now still a major threat to  marine ecosystem. 

2.6 The Plight Away from the Land 

In 2022 July, Taiwan once again remained Tier 1 status in 2022 Trafficking in  Persons Report released by the U.S. Department of State, which means Taiwanese  authorities fully met the minimum standards for the elimination of human trafficking  (2022 Trafficking in Persons Report, 2022). And it is ironic that Taiwan has been  listed on Tier I status continuously for the past 13 years while exploitation, injuries,  and death kept happening. The government, however, is still powerless to carry out  sufficient inspections and tracking systems. And labor-related cases could be defined  as general labor disputes. In that way, those cases won’t be counted in human  trafficking cases, which creates the illusion of improvement (Taiwan Human Rights  Promotion Association, 2022). In terms of the ocean-going fishing industry, it’s more  challenging to fundamentally rescue the victims and solve the structured problem  since exploitation takes place at a distance of thousands of kilometers from the  shoreline. The plight of the fishermen cannot be seen immediately, and it is hard to  know what exactly happened on the board. 

  1. Suggestions and Conclusion 

Greenpeace, one of the civil organizations fighting for justice on the fishing vessel,  suggested that ILO-C188 should be domestically legalized as soon as possible, and 

the Ministry of Labor should become the competent authority (Alliance for the  Protection of Human Rights of Foreign Fishermen, 2019). Also, the Foreign  Fishermen’s Rights Protection Alliance, consisting of 7 NGOs, states that the  “Overseas Employment Method” should be abolished. Ocean-going fishermen should  share the same right as inshore fishermen and native workers, which means they  shouldn’t be excluded by the Labor Standards Law (Taiwan Human Rights Promotion  Association, 2020). Besides, it is necessary to develop a complaint channel and let  more fishermen speak up by themselves. Only if more facts come to the table, justice  can be done. Furthermore, the government should strengthen labor inspections on not  only ports and fishing vessels in Taiwan but also on foreign bases (Taiwan Human  Rights Promotion Association, 2021). In addition, a more transparent, stable administration process to avoid Ghost Fishmen and fight against IUU fishing is  needed, as well as a traceable, comprehensive information integrated system. 

Even though we believe that there are still legal and kind senior crew and some  foreign fishermen have succeeded in earning enough money to help their families out  of poverty, exploitation and human trafficking still exist in the modern day. And  although the Taiwanese government has been making an improvement in fighting  against forced labor, such as Electronic Punch Card, to avoid overtime work, holding  2018 International Workshop on Combating Human Trafficking, encouraging  practitioners to rebuild the ship to improve the living condition, increasing salary  from 450 USD to 550 USD, it is still not enough. The improper Overseas  Employment Method, multi-layered supply chain, advanced salary culture, and issue  of FOC vessel are still there. 


2022 Trafficking in Persons Report. (2022). U. S. D. o. State.  

https://www.state.gov/reports/2022-trafficking-in-persons-report/ Alliance for the Protection of Human Rights of Foreign Fishermen. (2019, 22  October). The abolition of the overseas employment system to accelerate the  implementation of ILO Convention No. 188. Greenpeace.  

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188%E8%99%9F%E5%85%AC%E7%B4%84%E6%96%BD%E8%A1%8C %E6%B3%95-2/ 

C029 – Forced Labour Convention, 1930 (No. 29).  

https://www.ilo.org/dyn/normlex/en/f?p=1000:12100:0::NO::P12100_ILO_C ODE:C029 

C188 – Work in Fishing Convention, 2007 (No. 188).  

https://www.ilo.org/dyn/normlex/en/f?p=NORMLEXPUB:12100:0::NO::P12 100_ILO_CODE:C188 

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