Rampant abuse in Taiwan's fishing industry mars island's rights record

Ms Allison Lee from the Yilan Migrant Fishermen Union with a photo of a missing Indonesian fisherman last December. Taiwan operates the world's second-largest longline fishing fleet, and those who work on its vessels - mostly poor migrants from South
Ms Allison Lee from the Yilan Migrant Fishermen Union with a photo of a missing Indonesian fisherman last December. Taiwan operates the world's second-largest longline fishing fleet, and those who work on its vessels - mostly poor migrants from South-east Asian countries - paint a grim picture of working conditions.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

TAIPEI • Taiwan's lucrative fishing industry has come under fire for subjecting its migrant workforce to forced labour and other abuses, contrasting with the government's promotion of the island as a regional human rights beacon.

Taiwan operates the second-largest longline fishing fleet in the world, with boats spending months - and sometimes years - crossing remote parts of the oceans to supply the seafood that ends up on our supermarket shelves.

But those who work on its vessels - mostly poor migrants from the Philippines, Indonesia and Vietnam - paint a grim picture of punishing work hours, docked pay, 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 water fleets to its list of goods produced by forced labour. It was an embarrassing moment for Taiwan, an island that markets itself as one of the region's most progressive democracies.

Recent steps include becoming the first place in Asia to legalise gay marriage, a historic apology by President Tsai Ing-wen to the island's indigenous communities, and an ongoing campaign to address abuses of the martial law era.

But there has been little headway in tackling labour abuses, especially within the US$3 billion (S$4 billion) fishing sector.

Migrant fishermen interviewed said they routinely had to work up to 21 hours a day, enduring verbal and physical abuse as well as zero communication with the outside world. When pay finally arrived, it was often lower than the agencies promised.

Supri, who like many Indonesians uses just one name, said he was still traumatised by a stint on a Taiwanese fishing boat. The captain, he said, took an instant dislike to him, scolding him often, locking him in a freezer and ordering a crew member to shock him with a stun gun used to kill fish.

"All the while I kept thinking I wanted to go home," he said. "I didn't want to die. I wanted to see my family again."

In a survey of Indonesian fishermen published last year, the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) found that a quarter reported physical abuse on Taiwanese longline vessels, 82 per cent worked excessive overtime hours and 92 per cent had wages withheld.

Mr Mohamad Romdoni, an EJF campaigner in Indonesia, said working conditions are "terrifying" on Taiwanese boats. "If the crew can still chew and swallow their food then they still have to work, even if they are sick."

Ms Allison Lee, from the Yilan Migrant Fishermen Union, said officials have been reluctant to really solve abuses. "The government is only sugarcoating and window-dressing the issue," she said.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 14, 2021, with the headline 'Rampant abuse in Taiwan's fishing industry mars island's rights record'. Subscribe