Shocking extent of human rights abuses in Taiwan fisheries revealed
Mar 20, 2018

Shocking extent of human rights abuses in Taiwan fisheries revealed

By EJF Staff

Beatings at gunpoint, slavery, dangerous working conditions and squalid living conditions. These are just a few of the findings from a new investigative filmby the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) telling the harrowing stories of migrant fishermen working aboard Taiwanese-owned fishing vessels. The film shows that although some new rules have been introduced in Taipei, out at sea human rights abuses and illegal fishing practices continue.

Taiwan is a major supplier of seafood to the world, shipping annual exports worth around US$2 billion to Europe, USA, Japan, and other major economies.

A vast 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 ‘flags of convenience’ of other states with even more lax regulations.

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.”

Many vessels in the Taiwanese distant water fleet do not return to port for months or even years at a time, simply 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.

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 Ms. 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 warns that they were mainly related to illegal fishing and for regulations on “working conditions, labour 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."

Taiwan has been repeatedly criticised over its failure to protect human rights in the fishing industry in the last five Trafficking in Persons reports from the US Department of State. There is an urgent need for Taiwan to protect the migrant workers that make its massive, lucrative distant water fleet possible.


Notes for Editors:

Watch the film: Exploitation and Lawlessness: The Dark Side of Taiwan's Fishing Fleet

Link to EJF’s briefing on Human trafficking in Taiwan's fisheries sector

Watch EJF’s previous film about Taiwan.

Key facts:

  • Taiwan has one of the largest deep water fishing industries in the world. According to the Taiwanese Fishery Agency, in 2016 it caught more than 820,000 tons. The export value of the industry over recent years has ranged betweenUS$1.6 billion to US$2 billion. These products usually land in foreign countries, such as Thailand and Mauritius, and are then transported to local factories for processing before being re-exported to the final consumer markets.
  • Taiwan produces seafood exports worth about US$150 million to the USA and US$17 million to the EU. Exports to Japan, a major market for the country, reach up to US$475 million.
  • According to data provided by the Fishery Agency and Ministry of Labor, in 2016 there were about 26,000 migrant workers working in the Taiwanese fishing industry. However, the US Department of State Trafficking in Persons Report 2014 cites estimates of up to 160,000 migrant workers in Taiwan’s deep water fishing industry.
  • The total value of illegal and unreported fishing losses worldwide is estimated at between US$10 billon and US$23.5 billon every year.

EJF is calling for:

  • All countries to fully ratify and implement the International Labour Organization’s Convention 188 Work in Fishing, aimed at protecting the rights of workers within the fishing sector. In addition, all countries should implement legislation to prosecute national citizens engaged in human traffickingand address the role of unregulated brokers involved in human trafficking and labour abuses.
  • All governments – and the private sector– to work towards reducing market access for illegal fish products and eradicate the risks of human rights abuses in seafood supply chains by strengthening transparency and traceability measures. Exchanging vessel and catch information between states and stakeholders can help identify and address illegal fishing. Mandatory IMO numbers, an end to the practice of flags of convenience and unsupervised transhipment-at-sea are also key.

The Environmental Justice Foundation is a UK-based charity working internationally to protect the environment and defend human rights. EJF is a charity registered in England and Wales (1088128).


Daisy Brickhill - EJF Press & Communications Officer Tel: 07871946911