Taiwan’s fishing industry faces claims of ‘hell’ on the high seas
For sailors aboard the rickety fishing vessel Fuh Sheng 11, life on the waters off South Africa, 10,000km from the boat’s home port in Taiwan, was a living “hell”
For sailors aboard the rickety fishing vessel Fuh Sheng 11, life on the waters off South Africa, 10,000km from the boat’s home port in Taiwan, was a living “hell”.
The captain was alleged to have handed down beatings and forced the crew to work up to 22 hours a day while insects infested their cramped sleeping and eating quarters. Out on the high seas, the men said, protected sharks were caught and stripped of their fins.
The 27-man, mostly-Indonesian crew’s ordeal—documented in a probe by Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF), a British non-governmental organisation— not only suggests that labour abuse and environmental pillage still plague the global fisheries business, it also signals that an overhaul of Taiwan’s laws and closer international monitoring have failed to rein in the industry’s darker side, environmental experts said.
“For all Indonesian fishermen, I hope they don’t experience what I’ve experienced,” one crew member told the EJF, which on Thursday published its investigation into the episode.
The Fuh Sheng No 11 is one of an estimated 1,100 Taiwan-flagged distantwater fishing vessels that comprise the world’s second-largest long-distance fishing fleet, behind China.
While much of Taiwan’s industry by value is concentrated in the Pacific, where Taiwanese longline boats target tuna, hundreds of boats spread across waters from Fiji to the Falklands.
The vessels are manned by tens of thousands of south-east Asian workers. Government estimates put the number of migrant fishermen at 30,000 while NGOs estimate that the figure tops 100,000.
Taiwan in 2017 overhauled its fishing laws, beefed up funding of the industry regulator and increased penalties for breaches following years of international pressure to curtail human rights abuses and overfishing.
Lin Ding-rong, director of deep sea fisheries at Taiwan’s Fisheries Agency, which manages the country’s fishing practices, said that new electronic systems monitored vessels’ positions every hour and logged daily catch reports.
Authorities are now exceeding international standards for the frequency of inspections and have boosted worker support.
“I believe Taiwan’s fishing fleet is more transparent than before,” Mr Lin said. “The new regulations have done a lot to enhance and protect the right of fishing vessels’ crews.”
The European Commission, which has threatened to sanction Taiwan’s fishing industry, has acknowledged “great efforts done by the Taiwanese authorities to reform their fisheries policy”.
However, the testimonials from the
Fuh Sheng No 11 crew given to EJF and complaints made to South African officials suggest a sharp divide between what authorities say and what is happening at sea.
When the ship arrived in Cape Town in May, it was sharply listing, lifebuoys were rotten and anchors did not work, according to a South African Maritime Authority report. It was declared unseaworthy and the crew was temporarily removed.
Yang Yen-rong, proprietor of Fuh Sheng Fishery that owned the Fuh Sheng No 11, confirmed that the vessel had caught and finned sharks — stripping sharks on vessels is illegal in Taiwan — but denied allegations of physical abuse and excessive working hours, and blamed the poor hygienic conditions on the workers.
“The Indonesian workers are making things up,” Mr Yang said, adding that he had since sold the Fuh Sheng No 11.
Poor treatment of fishermen and illegal contracting arrangements is still widespread, said Allison Lee, founder of the only union representing migrant fishermen in Taiwan.
“The new law is useless,” said Ms Lee. “They don’t care about the people.”
The Fuh Sheng No 11 crew was promised pay of $300 a month, less than Taiwan’s minimum wage of $450 a month, according to contracts obtained by EJF. They also had to make deductions to pay back a guarantee to an employment broker.
“The use of significant salary deductions creates bonded labour conditions, making it difficult or impossible for crew to leave and therefore vulnerable to physical and other abuse,” the EJF said in its report.
Contracts for migrant workers on other Taiwanese-owned vessels, seen by the Financial Times, similarly reveal pay below the minimum wage, brokers deducting employment guarantee fees, and clauses specifying that the bodies of deceased workers may not be repatriated, which in practice means bodies are dumped into the ocean.
Low-cost, high-volume operations were driven by “the relentless pressure of constant global demand for huge quantities of cheap seafood”, Greenpeace said of the long-distance fishing model.
EJF urged Taiwan to review the measures in place by the Fisheries Agency to detect and counter human rights transgressions.
“The abuses suffered on this vessel are appalling and completely unacceptable,” said Max Schmid, EJF deputy director.
Mr Lin, from Taiwan’s fishing regulator, said that investigations into the Fu
Sheng 11 were continuing but conceded that oversight of the industry remained problematic.
“You cannot prevent bad guys doing bad things,” he said. “The role of the government is to use every effort to control or monitor our fishing vessels, it doesn’t mean that wrongdoing won’t happen any more.”
The Fuh Sheng 11, declared ‘unseaworthy’ by South African officials and dry docked for repairs in Cape Town