Unseen Crisis at Sea: Analyzing the Forced Labor Inequality in Taiwan’s Distant Fishery
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).
- 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.
- 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.
https://www.greenpeace.org/taiwan/press/10090/%E5%BB%A2%E9%99%A4 %E5%A2%83%E5%A4%96%E8%81%98%E5%83%B1%E5%88%B6%E5% BA%A6-%E5%8A%A0%E9%80%9Filo
C029 – Forced Labour Convention, 1930 (No. 29).
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