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Since 2018, Verité has been leading a multi-stakeholder initiative on the promotion of responsible recruitment in order to address workers’ vulnerability to human trafficking and forced labor. Part of this initiative is Verité Southeast Asia’s (VSEA) recently concluded study on the recruitment experiences and working conditions of Filipino migrant fishers in Taiwan. The full report presents key findings that include widespread reports of unethical recruitment practices, degrading working and living conditions, and indicators of forced labor in both offshore and distant water fishing (DWF), despite migrant fishing workers initially going through formal recruitment channels. See our full report here.

The research findings were shared through a webinar hosted through the My Labor Matters Facebook page. The webinar also gathered insights, feedback, and additional recommendations from key stakeholders on sustaining the momentum in working together and improving the hiring practices and employment conditions of migrant fishers in one of the biggest seafood exporters in the world. VSEA was joined by a panel of reactors that included representatives from Greenpeace Southeast Asia, Ugnayan Migrant Ministry, Serve the People Association, Greenpeace East Asia, and the Philippine Overseas Labor Office in Kaohsiung, as well as various members of the civil society and other stakeholders involved in Taiwan’s fishing sector. Watch the webinar here.

Critical insights

The reactors and participants validated Verité’s findings based on their own experiences working on the ground and with other nationalities also employed in Taiwan’s fishing sector. Ephraim Batungbacal, Regional Oceans Research Coordinator of Greenpeace Southeast Asia, briefly discussed the indicators of forced labor according to the International Labour Organization (ILO) and noted that most of these were described in Verité’s report.

Ugnayan Migrant Ministry’s Fr. Joyalito Tajonera likewise shared the three main problems that he has encountered in his work with migrant workers in Taiwan. First is the bureaucracy and inefficiency in handling cases of trafficking, leaving migrant fishers jobless and unable to support their families back home. Another issue is the Taiwanese and the Philippine governments’ reluctance to acknowledge wage withholding as a serious indicator of human trafficking. The third, which echoes one of Verité’s key findings, is how despite the presence of legislation in both the Philippines and in Taiwan to prevent worker exploitation, obvious cases of trafficking and forced labor still persist, and migrant fishers—even when they go through formal and regulated recruitment channels—inevitably fall victim to the broker system of paying excessive fees.

Meanwhile, Lennon Ying-Dah Wong, International Coordinator for Serve the People Association, cited the US Department of Labor’s 2020 report on the “List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor.” In the report, Taiwan makes the list for the first time for forced labor in fishing—highlighting the severe working conditions taking place in the sector.

Wong also emphasized the differences in the provisions for food and accommodation between Filipino migrant fishers and Indonesian migrant fishers as well as migrant land based workers in Taiwan. He also discussed the Taiwanese government’s lack of a standardized contract for migrant workers, which makes them more vulnerable to contract substitution; and briefly touched on the lack of vessel inspections in either offshore fishing vessels or DWF vessels.

On the other hand, Greenpeace East Asia’s Pearl Peiyu Chen noted that Taiwan’s two-tiered system—the very existence of which is in violation of the ILO Discrimination Convention (C111) adopted by Taiwan—essentially renders migrant fishers vulnerable to forced labor. She highlighted how the Taiwanese government’s inadequate monitoring of manning agencies has resulted in the civil society sector’s insufficient presence in the evaluation of manning agencies; the government’s limited knowledge of the activities of foreign manning agencies; and a grave lack of strong punishment to actors involved in issues of forced labor and trafficking. In addition, Chen brought up the wide practice of the Flag of Convenience (FOC) in Taiwan, declaring that migrant fishers working in FOC vessels may be the most vulnerable because they are not covered by either Taiwan’s Labor Standard Act or the Overseas Employment Act. She also observed that Taiwan’s special international status limits the country’s ability to request for or cooperate during investigations, and complicates the establishment of government-to-government direct hiring programs with other countries with which Taiwan has no diplomatic ties.

Lastly, Labor Attaché Rustico de la Fuente of the Philippine Overseas Labor Office in Kaohsiung recognized the stark differences between the deployment and employment of seafarers and fishers, even as Philippine legislation puts both groups of workers under the same category of seafaring. De la Fuente also noted that there is a significant difference between fishers who come from fishing families or have a background in fishing, and those who did not grow up in fishing communities and were only hired later in life to fish. He said that the former have higher chances of getting better job opportunities in the fishing sector as compared to the latter who are often not familiar with the work involved in fishing or the provisions necessary in fishing contracts, making them more vulnerable to exploitation. He further acknowledged the challenging but necessary work of transforming fishers into active participants in protecting their rights and enabling them to speak up, make demands, and report irregularities and malpractices as they take place.

Current initiatives and recent developments

Participants of the webinar also noted new developments undertaken by the Taiwanese and the Philippine government along with the civil society, in addressing issues of forced labor and human trafficking in the fishing sector.

Wong shared that Taiwan’s Fisheries Agency has conducted experiments on the use of satellites and WiFi networks in fishing vessels in order for workers to communicate with their families while out at sea. If this practice is standardized, fishers may also use this channel for grievances and redress. Chen similarly noted that the Fisheries Agency, with the work of the Coalition of Human Rights for Migrant Fishers, has listed forced labor as a condition to revoke the permit of Taiwanese nationals who operate flag of convenience (FOC) vessels, and is looking to establish a stronger port state measurement, in order for the Taiwanese government to better regulate port activities. Additionally, Wong mentioned the Taiwanese government’s policy on banning foreign-flagged vessels who fail to provide the salaries of fishers stranded due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition, Wong shares that the Taiwanese government is currently working on increasing the salaries of DWF workers as a way to address the double standards in the fishing sector’s two-tiered system.

On the Philippine side, efforts are currently being made by the government to better document the cases of Filipino migrant fishers in DWF vessels. De la Fuente also noted that the Philippine Overseas Labor Office (POLO) in Kaohsiung does not accept jobs in non-Taiwan-flagged fishing vessels, and that there are robust grievance mechanisms in place both in the Philippines and in Taiwan which migrant workers can access. There is also ongoing discussions between the Philippine and the Taiwanese governments to establish a Memorandum of Understanding on the Recruitment and Employment of Fishers in Taiwan, as well as joint efforts in crafting a standard employment contract that suits the context of migrant Filipino workers in Taiwan’s fishing sector.

Summary recommendations

Participants of the webinar noted that the combination of unethical recruitment practices, ambiguous legislation, and the broker system essentially legalizes human trafficking in Taiwan. While ongoing initiatives from the civil society sector and the Philippine and Taiwan governments are recognized and welcomed, there is still much that needs to be done to prevent forced labor and labor exploitation in the fishing sector.

Based on the insights shared by the panel of reactors and the webinar’s participants, some critical recommendations are proposed to the Philippine government, the Taiwanese government, and the private sector in order to sustain the momentum and continue to improve the recruitment experiences and working conditions of migrant fishers in Taiwan.

Recommendations to the Philippine and Taiwanese governments

  • Responsible recruitment elements must be incorporated into recruitment regulations and government due diligence processes. Philippine and Taiwan recruitment and migrant worker regulations must adopt the International Labour Organization (ILO) Convention 181; the ILO’s Operational Guidelines for Fair Recruitment; and the ILO Work in Fishing Convention (C188). Both countries should move towards a zero fees to workers model and implement more effective, inclusive, and rights-based inspection regimes.
  • The Philippine and Taiwan governments should harmonize their regulations to clearly prohibit the charging of recruitment fees and expenses to workers. The Philippines prohibits the charging of manning and processing fees to migrant fishers and seafarers and requires provision of board and lodging to workers. In Taiwan, although DWF fishers are spared from service fees, offshore fishers can be legally charged monthly service fees, and board and lodging expenses.
  • The Philippines and Taiwan should strive for better coordination among countries in the Southeast Asian region and push for stronger collaboration among ASEAN countries, especially those who are the top sending countries for migrant fishers in Taiwan, in order to address issues of forced labor, labor trafficking, and unethical recruitment.

Recommendations to the Philippine government

  • Strengthen recruitment mechanisms. Incorporate fees-verification steps into agency assessment protocols and ensure that manning agencies properly orient jobseekers to the job terms and conditions.
  • Work towards alleviating poverty in the Philippines and provide work opportunities for Filipinos, as poverty in the sending country is a primary driver for labor migration. Consequently, poor people are more vulnerable to exploitation.

Recommendations to the Taiwanese government

  • Equally apply all labor standards to all migrant fishers. There should be no distinction between offshore and DWF workers in terms of labor protections, benefits, and assistance.
  • Establish measures to ensure that human rights violations do not happen because of a lack of action from the government. The Taiwanese government should penalize local manning agencies who are working with foreign agencies found to be in violation of labor regulations. This would compel Taiwanese agencies to only work with legal foreign manning agencies with good records.
  • Standardize port state measurement to better regulate port activities.
  • Disclose the names of fishing vessels involved in forced labor.
  • Remove the broker hiring system in Taiwan which functions as a systematic and legalized mechanism for human trafficking.
  • Improve vessel monitoring and initiate stronger and clearer policies on the use of satellite on ships, the installment of WiFi networks in vessels, and provision of protective gear to fishers.

Recommendations to the private sector

  • Industry associations should engage governments, advocate for employment and recruitment system reforms, and press for strong legal protections for all migrant fishers.
  • Individual consumer brands, seafood traders, and manufacturing facilities should incorporate a zero fees to workers model into their codes of conduct and implement their own robust due diligence and supplier monitoring mechanisms in their supply chains.
  • Manning agencies should develop job matching programs for jobseekers, and conduct comprehensive pre-departure and post-arrival orientations for migrant workers.

Learn more about Verité's work in the seafood industry here.

Learn more about VSEA's similar resarch on the Philippine tuna fishing indusrty here.