Common Human Rights Issues: Physical and Psychological Abuse, Human Trafficking
Egregious acts of physical violence inflicted upon workers, lack of worker safety, forced labor, and human trafficking have been documented on Taiwanese fishing vessels. Similar to the Thai fishing workforce, the majority of fishers aboard Taiwanese vessels are migrant workers who are afforded fewer human rights protections than Taiwanese nationals. According to the Taiwanese Fisheries Agency, in 2019, more than 21,000 documented fishers were migrants, with the majority coming from Indonesia and the Philippines.
The Taiwanese fisher recruitment process places workers into two tiers: an “official” tier and a “letter guaranteed placement” tier. The majority of Indonesian fishers are assigned to the second tier, which places them with private agencies on vessels operating outside Taiwanese waters. Migrant fishers operating outside of Tawainese waters are afforded fewer protections than those within national waters and thus are at greater risk of abuse and exploitation.
Despite efforts by authorities to combat human trafficking, the U.S. Department of State 2020 Trafficking in Persons Report found that Taiwan has “insufficient staffing and inspection protocols [that] impede efforts to combat forced labor on Taiwan-flagged and -owned fishing vessels in the highly vulnerable Distant Water Fleet (DWF).” The lack of prosecution and disproportionate punishment for traffickers allows this serious issue to persist. For example, Greenpeace has found that traffickers accused in the Giant Ocean human trafficking case are still openly involved in the recruitment of migrant fishers for Taiwan’s DWF fleet. Authorities sometimes treat trafficking cases as labor disputes and fail to convict traffickers who exploited migrant fishers on Taiwan-flagged vessels. Although authorities have made efforts to track instances of human trafficking, there have been few to no legal repercussions for traffickers.
In their 2018 report, Misery at Sea, Greenpeace revealed some of the most severe accounts of physical abuse and exploitation aboard Taiwanese fishing vessels. Interviews with fishers disclosed instances of starvation, beating, verbal abuse, threats of violence, and withholding of medicine. Fishers were forced to work under the threat of punishment, often without adequate nutrition or rest. In one case, a captain refused to stop the vessel and forced his crew to continue working after one of their members fell overboard. Human Rights at Sea’s baseline study on Taiwan’s fishing industry found that, even when not at sea, over 90% of migrant fishers lived onboard the vessels—without proper sanitation or adequate living space—because captains required them to “guard” the vessel while docked.
Despite evidence in the form of testimonials, photos, and radio transcriptions, Taiwan’s Fisheries Agency, the regulator responsible for all domestic and international fishing matters, has yet to eliminate these human rights abuses in a manner that aligns with ILO standards.