[By Nick Aspinwall]
On February 20, the Taiwan-flaggedÂ Wen PengÂ became the site of an alleged double murder at sea. According to Taiwanâ€™s Fisheries Agency, a conflict broke out about 900 nautical miles off the south coast of Sri Lanka between fishermen and the boatâ€™s chief officer, who allegedly killed one Filipino and one Indonesian. Six other foreign crew members wereÂ reportedlyÂ forced to jump into the sea and were never found.
The incident happened just days after five Filipino fishermenÂ went missingÂ after the Taiwan-flaggedÂ Jung RonÂ caught fire off the Falkland Islands. Despite Taiwanâ€™s 2017 introduction of theÂ Act for Distant Water FisheriesÂ â€“ a response to high-profile incidents of illegal fishing and murder at sea â€“ the nationâ€™s roughly 2,000 deep sea vessels (some acknowledged to operate under flags of convenience), this instances only only underscored the shocking dangers aboard a Taiwanese high seas fishing vessel.
Taiwanâ€™s estimated $2 billion fishing industry operatesÂ over a thirdÂ of the worldâ€™s longline tuna vessels. Taiwan says its deep sea vessels employ about 26,000 foreign crew members, although NGOs and US agencies put the number closer to 160,000. These fishermenÂ frequently reportÂ non-payment, long work hours, and verbal and physical abuse, often at the hands of Taiwanese captains.
In January, Kuomintang (KMT) legislator Jason HsuÂ lambastedÂ the â€śembarrassingâ€ť state of Taiwanâ€™s fishing industry. â€śThis could be Taiwanâ€™s next major international scandal,â€ť said Hsu ahead of a scheduled European investigation in March.
Taiwan currently operates under an EU â€śyellow card,â€ť or warning, for illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing; a â€śred cardâ€ť ban on exports to the European Union could result in US$250 million in annual losses, according to Taiwanâ€™s Council of Agriculture.
Taiwan need not look far for a case study in comprehensive reform. Thailand, scrutinized by NGOs and media reports for illegal fishing and labor abuse within its own fleet, saw its own â€śyellow cardâ€ťÂ liftedÂ in January. Thailand normalized vessel monitoring, committed to inter-agency cooperation between its fisheries and labor bureaus, and adopted the International Labor Organizationâ€™sÂ Work in Fishing Convention, enacted in November 2017, which mandates work and safety standards at sea.
Taiwan has so far refused to adopt the Work in Fishing Convention, despite the demands of a coalition of local and international NGOs. Its labor ministry does not oversee deep sea fishing fleets that operate outside of its jurisdiction within Taiwan; this responsibility is delegated to the Fisheries Agency, an agency of Taiwanâ€™s cabinet-level Council of Agriculture. The NGO GreenpeaceÂ has allegedÂ the Fisheries Agency faces a conflict of interest as it is responsible for overseeing both industry and labor concerns on Taiwanâ€™s distant water fleet.
Unlike Thailand, whose vessels fish primarily close to shore, Taiwanâ€™s fleet operates all over the world. While the Fisheries Agency has implemented mandatory vessel monitoring systems and daily catch reports, the lightly staffed agency often struggles to comprehensively track Taiwanâ€™s global fleet.
In June last year, the Taiwan-flaggedÂ Fuh Sheng 11Â became the first vessel detained forÂ violatingÂ the Work in Fishing Convention during a port check in Cape Town. Initially, Taiwanâ€™s Fisheries Agency rebuked the findings of South African investigators, saying no violations had been found. The London-based NGO Environmental Justice Foundation subsequentlyÂ released a videoÂ in which fishermen said they had been beaten, forced to work 22-hour days, and asked to fin sharks.
The Fisheries Agency laterÂ fined the vesselÂ after saying its initial investigation was hindered by translation difficulties. Taiwanese authorities declined to prosecute the ship for shark finning, although the shipâ€™s proprietor had earlierÂ admittedÂ to theÂ Financial TimesÂ the vessel had caught and finned sharks.
In November, fishery workersÂ staged a protestÂ in Taipei against theÂ Fuh Sheng 11Â fines, saying tough penalties would harm the industry amid shrinking catches. Weeks later, Environmental Justice FoundationÂ accusedÂ five Taiwanese vessels of engaging in illegal shark finning and killing endangered dolphins, whales and turtles. It also found potential human rights abuses on four of the five vessels, including physical abuse, long working hours and salary deductions.
Also at issue is the longstanding mistreatment of Taiwanâ€™s 700,000 migrant workers, mostly from Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines. The 2018 US State Departmentâ€™sÂ Country Report on Human Rights Practices for TaiwanÂ flagged the practices of recruitment and brokerage agencies, which facilitate the hiring of fishermen and other migrant workers, as leaving workers â€śvulnerable to debt bondage.â€ť Foreign workers are often charged excessive fees and subjected to poor working conditions, according to the report. Taiwanâ€™s labor ministry offers a multilingual hotline for migrant workers on the island to report mistreatment, but fishermen on the high seas are left with no way of seeking help.
President Tsai Ing-wenâ€™s signature New Southbound Policy pledges toÂ increase engagement with South and Southeast Asian countries, including an influx of foreign workers to replenish the nationâ€™s shrinking labor force. But Taiwanâ€™s quest to stand as a regional exemplar of human rights and participate in safeguarding Southeast Asiaâ€™s environmental future continues to be handicapped by rampant environmental and labor violations within its massive high seas fishing industry.
Nick Aspinwall is a journalist based in Taipei and an editor-at-large for The News Lens. He reports on migration, the environment, labor rights, and the human consequences of regional geopolitics in East and Southeast Asia.
This article appears courtesy of The Lowy Interpreter and may be found in its original form here.Â
The opinions expressed herein are the author’s and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.