Taiwan: Enslaved Fishermen Beaten at Gunpoint

Exploitation and Lawlessness: The Dark Side of Taiwan's Fishing Fleet from Environmental Justice Foundation on Vimeo.

Published Mar 13, 2018 6:36 PM by The Maritime Executive

Beatings at gunpoint, slavery, dangerous working conditions and squalid living conditions. These are just a few of the findings from a new investigative film by the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) telling the harrowing stories of migrant fishermen working aboard Taiwanese-owned fishing vessels. 

EJF interviewed dozens of migrant fishermen who have worked aboard Taiwanese fishing vessels operating both in national waters and across the world. The fishermen, who hail mainly from Indonesia and the Philippines, reported violence, abuse and threats; squalid conditions and heavy financial deductions for food, travel, medical checks and accommodation; and working long hours, in unsafe and inhumane conditions, for little or no money. 

One man, who worked on a Taiwanese-owned vessel that frequently changed its name and flag, tells of seeing his friend being dragged to the boss’s office ashore and held at gunpoint while being beaten by three men. All for working too slowly.

“My friend was hit many times. They also beat him with a sword, not chopping, but hitting. He had a gun pointed at him. I wanted to say something, I took a step forward, but the sword was already there. The boss and his bodyguards wanted to attack me too, but I was pulled back by my captain, who said: ‘This one was not involved.’” 

The men also reported being underpaid or not paid at all, and having to work as slaves. “I worked [on the ships] to earn money, but I went home empty-handed,” says one fisherman despondently. “I asked for consul’s help [to get my wages]; they didn’t respond. That's all. It would take too long to tell you the whole story.”

EJF’s investigations have found that migrant fishermen regularly have significant deductions taken from their salaries by brokers, who apply fees upon recruitment. These generate substantial debts, creating a bonded labor workforce where individuals are deterred from leaving, even when captains are abusive or force them to work hours well in excess of international standards. Despite significant deductions being made for food and accommodation from salaries, it is common that workers sleep in squalid conditions onboard their vessels and do not have access to sufficient food or clean water, even when in the port.

Taiwan is a major supplier of seafood to the world, shipping annual exports worth around $2 billion to Europe, the U.S., Japan, and other major economies. A fleet of almost 1,800 distant water vessels with a Taiwanese flag operate across the world’s oceans, and hundreds more are owned by Taiwanese nationals but fly other flags. 

Many vessels in the Taiwanese distant water fleet do not return to port for months or even years at a time, transferring their catch to another boat out at sea. These long fishing periods allow vessels to exploit marine resources to the maximum, while the extreme isolation on the high seas means that crew are vulnerable to abuse, with no government measures in place to inspect their conditions. Prosecutions for human trafficking in the industry are almost non-existent.

Taiwan has been repeatedly criticized over its failure to protect human rights in the fishing industry in the last five Trafficking in Persons reports from the U.S. Department of State. According to data provided by the Fishery Agency5 and Ministry of Labour6, in 2016 there were about 26,000 migrant workers working in the Taiwanese fishing industry. However, the U.S. Department of State Trafficking in Persons Report 2014 cites estimates of up to 160,000 migrant workers in Taiwan’s DWF industry. The actual number is likely to be somewhere in between, says EJF. Uncertainty exists due to a lack of any legal requirement for vessel owners to report the identity, or even total number, of crew to authorities. Such a requirement would be a basic first step toward being able to monitor crew working conditions to prevent human trafficking.

EJF’s Director Steve Trent, says: “The human rights abuses on these vessels are appalling and completely unacceptable. What is more, they underpin illegal fishing that is rapidly destroying the fisheries which millions of people rely on. As one of the world’s most advanced economies, Taiwan has the means and technology to put a stop to these abuses in its fisheries. Taiwanese authorities must empower a single, well-resourced and properly trained agency responsible for protecting migrant crew from human trafficking, and all workers should be protected in line with key International Labor Organization conventions. Unmonitored transfers of catches at sea should also be banned, and maximum trip lengths set.” 

Taiwanese politician Lin Shufen also stressed that the Taiwanese government needs to do more to improve fishers’ conditions. “The Taiwanese government did improve some of the relevant laws,” she says, but she warns that they were mainly related to illegal fishing. For regulations on working conditions, labor rights and human rights, the improvement is very limited. “We should not only include [migrant fishers] in the protection, but also put ourselves in their shoes and help to eliminate the human trafficking problem.”


The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.