The exploitation of foreign migrant workers in Taiwan is not a new phenomenon: from fishermen who work on Taiwanese boats to domestic helpers in Taiwanese homes, many are denied access to legal services and have little support from the Taiwanese government or the brokerage firms that recruit them. Foreign workers in the fishing industry are especially vulnerable to exploitation due to the prolonged periods they spend at sea, as well as their lack of visibility in Taiwanese society. Nonetheless, the Distant Water Fisheries Act, ratified in July and expected to take effect on January 15, 2017, aims to protect migrant crew members of fishing boats. In addition to protecting foreign fishermen, the new law also seeks to bring Taiwan’s fishing industry into compliance with international fishing laws, in particular because Taiwan was given a “yellow card” by the EU last year.
Today, there are over 160,000 foreign fishermen working on Taiwanese fishing vessels. Commercial fishing is a huge industry for Taiwan, as they are one of the world’s largest seafood exporters; thus, it is surprising that stricter regulations governing the treatment of migrant fishermen are only being issued now. This can be attributed to the accepted practice of exploiting foreign migrant workers in Taiwan that not only permeates the fishing industry but also the domestic worker industry, where bullying and racism is widespread, as well as the underpayment of wages. Migrant workers in Taiwan are not covered by Taiwan’s Labor Standards Act, and thus, are easily exploited by employers who do not have to follow minimum wage regulations or requirements for days off. Furthermore, language is a barrier for these migrant workers as most of them are Southeast Asian, hailing from countries such as Vietnam, the Philippines, Thailand, and Indonesia. Among documented fishermen, Indonesians and Vietnamese men account for the biggest groups of foreign workers. Without the ability to communicate or understand the contracts they sign, these foreign fishermen are easily exploited.
Violence against migrant fishermen while at sea is a recurring problem, because of the limited ability to regulate the behavior of the captain and his crew members against foreign fishermen once the ship is out at sea. There are numerous accounts of tensions on board Taiwanese fishing ships which escalated into violence. Last summer, a ship called the Fu Tsu Chun sailed from Taiwan with nine Indonesian crew members, and returned with seven. The circumstances surrounding the deaths of the two men who perished at sea remain unknown. Both men had signed a contract with a manpower agency in Indonesia that took a significant portion of their paychecks each month. However, what stood out in this contract with the recruitment agency were two specific clauses: one stated that a crewman could be fined an unstipulated amount or fired for making mistakes or misbehaving, and the other stated that if, for any reason, a crewman were to die at sea, the captain was allowed to dispose of the body by dumping it overboard. Not only are these migrant workers exploited by their employers once they get to Taiwan, they are being taken advantage of even before they leave their home countries: almost every migrant worker working in Taiwan pays an exorbitant placement fee ranging from $2000 to $3000 USD to a recruitment agency. Because these fees are so high, most workers need to take out loans to pay for them. Once they do so, they are essentially trapped in the brokerage system because they have to repay their loans and their best shot is to go overseas where wages are higher.
Due to the terrible exploitation that these foreign fishermen face on Taiwanese ships, the Act Governing Distant Water Fisheries is vital to their protection and is a step towards ending the cycle of exploitation these fishermen experience. The Act Governing Distant Water Fisheries stipulates new protections for migrant workers which include insurance, healthcare, wages, limited working hours, and human rights. This Act also requires foreign fishermen to be hired through legitimate brokerage agencies and that their contracts specifically detail the workers’ rights. These protections will hopefully change the treatment of foreign fishermen aboard Taiwanese ships; even though regulating the behavior of captains at sea will still be difficult, the possibility of judicial sanction could deter abuse. Furthermore, because this new law requires more stringent requirements for brokerage agencies, this could herald a crackdown on the unethical practices that many recruitment agencies engage in, such as requiring interest payments beyond Taiwan’s legal cap or the use of Taiwanese organized crime to intimidate foreign workers. Overall, the passing of this law creates valuable protection for foreign fishermen in Taiwan.
Ho-Min Lai is a second-year J.D. student at Columbia Law School and a staff member of the Journal of Transnational Law. She grew up in Taiwan and graduated from UCLA with a B.A. in International Development and Psychology and a minor in Education Studies.