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Watershed for Human Rights in Taiwan’s Fishery Sector

Photo credit: David Hammond

On May 6, 2021, Taiwan’s top ombudsperson institution, the Control Yuan, released a set of wide-ranging recommendations for the government to address the forced labor onboard Taiwan’s distant water fishing (DWF) fleets. This is an issue of increasing international notoriety since the United States Department of Labor listed Taiwan-caught fish in its List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor in September 2020. For labor and human rights scholars and activists keeping a close watch on the litany of abuses in Taiwan’s fishing sector, this development is long awaited and much welcomed.

Read in its entirety, the recommendations (to date only available in Chinese) reveal thoughtful engagement by Control Yuan members Wang Yu-ling (王幼玲, also a member of the newly established National Human Rights Commission), Wang Mei-yu (王美玉) and Tsai Chung-yi (蔡崇義). The willingness by the three Control Yuan members not to shy away from foundational issues structural faults in the system of labor migration and inspection for migrant fishers in Taiwan’s DWF should be taken as a clear indication that this is meant to be a first step in a substantial process of monitoring and reforms. Pending the question of effective implementation in the long term of recommended policy changes, we may well be witnessing a transformation.

Better Understanding on Forced Labor

Three of the seven recommendations point to the lack of knowledge by relevant authorities in Taiwan on what constitutes “forced labor.” For this reason, the first recommendation begins with a pointed rebuke that many officials confuse cases of “forced labor” for labor disputes over wages.

Domestically, the Control Yuan emphasizes that the problem is not one of law, for Taiwan’s legal framework already incorporates forced labor as a purpose of exploitation that meets the definitional threshold for the crime of human trafficking under the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, supplementing the U.N. Convention against Transnational Organized Crime.

The challenge, however, is the absence of conceptual clarity on what constitutes labor exploitation under the definition of trafficking in persons. This then makes it difficult for those on the ground to accurately identify cases of forced labor and their victims. The Control Yuan calls on officials carrying out enforcement or inspection duties to refer to relevant guidelines, such as Taiwan’s “Principles of Identification of Victims of Human Trafficking” (人口販運被害人鑑別原則) and its appendix “Reference Indicators for the Identification of Victims of Human Trafficking” (人口販運被害人鑑別參考指標).

In addition, the Control Yuan members demonstrated that they are familiar with the international legal framework on labor exploitation by referencing ILO Indicators of Forced Labour. Recommendation No. 1 contains an interesting passage on how the members of the Control Yuan interviewed migrant victims of forced labor, who worked on Taiwanese flagged ships or those flying under flag of convenience but with a connection to Taiwan. They heard of wage deductions, excessive working hours, retention of personal identification documents and how some migrant fishers were coerced by labor brokers into signing employment contracts that formalized exploitative labor conditions.

Fisheries Agency Lacks Specialist Knowledge

Given that the Fisheries Agency in the Council of Agriculture has the mandate for the oversight of Taiwan’s DWF, it is unsurprising that criticisms would be directed at the beleaguered agency. Recommendation No. 2 states: “Even though the Fisheries Agency of the Council of Agriculture dispatches personnel to inspect the fishery sector, it still does the inspection of crew by survey questionnaires…the Council of Agriculture’s labor inspection capacity for foreign migrant fishers, as well as its technical knowledge of human trafficking, still are insufficient [and require] review and improvement by the Fisheries Agency.”

Underscoring the importance of human rights awareness in the maritime environment, Recommendation No. 7 calls for the Fisheries Agency and the Ministry of Labor to conduct human rights education for those involved in Taiwan’s DWF, such as ship owners and crew.

Urgency of Improved Cooperation

The necessity of increased inter-governmental cooperation is a central theme of the proposed reforms, with the Control Yuan calling in Recommendation No. 3 for the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Transportation and Communications, Labor and the Interior, along with the Ocean Affairs Council, to collaborate and combat forced labor in Taiwan’s DWF.

The problem of forced labor in Taiwan’s DWF has greatly damaged Taiwan’s international reputation, and the Control Yuan recognizes that the challenge is beyond the sole competence of the Fisheries Agency. It, therefore, calls on the Executive Yuan to review inter-ministerial communication with the view to facilitate cooperation and timely response.

Looking beyond the Fisheries Agency, the Control Yuan also examined how to improve the prosecution of reported cases of forced labor at sea under Taiwan’s criminalization of human trafficking. In Recommendation No. 5, it calls on the National Police Agency of the Ministry of Interior, Ocean Affairs Council and the Ministry of Justice to work with the Judicial Yuan to review the mechanism for how suspected human traffickers are prosecuted and dealt with by the criminal justice system. This includes the need to deepen transnational law enforcement cooperation to combat forced labor.

Hope for a New Dawn

Labor and human rights activists have long highlighted the migrant labor exploitation aboard DWF vessels of Taiwan. Back in December 2020, I wrote about how the government cannot wait for the spotlight on the forced labor of migrant fishers on vessels with a connection to Taiwan to pass. What the U.S. Department of Labor blacklisting of fish caught by Taiwanese vessels demonstrates is that the challenge is immediate and a serious stain on Taiwan’s international reputation.

On December 31, 2020, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection issued a Withhold Release Order (WRO) against the Taiwanese-flagged vessel Lien Yi Hsing No. 12 (連億興12號) based on information the agency received on the use of forced labor on board the ship. Under the WRO, Lien Yi Hsing No. 12’s catch of tuna and other seafood cannot enter the U.S. the same fate as the Taiwanese-owned, Vanuatu-flagged DWF vessel Da Wang (大旺), which also received a WRO in August 2020.

In February 2021, the newly established National Human Rights Commission of Taiwan (NHRC), which sits under the Control Yuan, decided to prepare and later release a thematic report concerning the human rights of foreign migrant fishers. This report of the NHRC is separate from the set of recently-released recommendations by the Control Yuan, but the overlapping attention is a clear demonstration that the government is aware of the reputation damage to Taiwan if it does not embark on meaningful reforms. The extent of the reprimands issued by the Control Yuan is cross-ministerial and shows that it does not view migrant labor exploitation in Taiwan’s fishery sector as isolated incidents that can be addressed in an ad hoc and reactive manner.

Corporate Responsibility and Human Rights

The most telling of the Control Yuan’s expressed commitments comes in Recommendation Nos. 4 and 6, which explore the grounds of engaging in current international standard-setting activities on business and human rights, particularly on supply chain labor transparency. Recommendation No. 4 calls for the Fisheries Agency to work with Taiwan’s seafood industry to participate in multi-stakeholder initiatives to improve sustainability and labor transparency through certification and verification.

On the leverage that human rights due diligence can exert on the import of products produced by child or forced labor, Recommendation No. 6 is astounding. Unlike the other recommendations that have appeared, in one form or another in various advocacy reports concerning the forced labor of migrant fishers in Taiwan, this recommendation walks on new grounds for Taiwan. It exemplifies how the government can start to remediate when there is genuine political will to engage with difficult issues and when civil society organizations, domestic and international, collaborate to spotlight human rights abuses.

In my previous article on migrant exploitation in Taiwan’s fishery sector, I concluded with the reflection: “Taiwan can and should find new solutions to how migrant workers can be better recruited to work in Taiwan and implement the simple vision that the rights of migrant workers—human rights—apply whether they are on land or at sea.”

My heart skipped a beat when I read Recommendation No. 6 in Chinese. The simplicity of the terse language stood in contrast to the ambition and creativity of the measure put forth. It calls on the Executive Yuan, particularly the Ministry of Economic Affairs and other relevant authorities, to evaluate and review the potential of an import ban on goods produced by child or forced labor for Taiwan.

Taiwan currently does not have a comparable policy in place, similar in effect to the U.S. Department of Labor’s import ban on goods produced by child or forced labor. The Control Yuan formally asks for this policy to be explored and assessed by the government. To my knowledge, this would be the first time that any government, whose goods have appeared on the U.S. banned list, has committed to reforms to leave this list of ill repute, while exploring the possibility of implementing a similar import ban to join global efforts to eliminate child and forced labor.

Taiwan Can Help

The challenge now is squarely on implementation. The Control Yuan is an independent oversight body with no executive function. As with all bold policy statements, the pitfall of political whitewashing is real when the reality of inter-governmental coordination dampens the ambitions of reform. These developments will be closely watched, both domestically and abroad, in the coming months.

Furthermore, this critical intervention by the Control Yuan holds great potential to improve the labor conditions not only for migrant fishers at sea but also for migrant workers who make vital contributions to Taiwan’s domestic economy, in both productive industries and social welfare.

Beyond the diplomacy of “Taiwan Can Help” for Covid and global public health, we may be witnessing the start of Taiwan seriously lending its efforts to end child and forced labor worldwide. Much remains to be seen where words meet action, rubber meeting the road. Nevertheless, this initial set of recommendations from the Control Yuan could well be a watershed in the protection of migrant rights in Taiwan. One watches in hope.

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