The perils of Filipino fishermen in Taiwan

Kaohsiung, Taiwan – Migrant fishermen in Taiwan must be able to live onshore instead of sleeping on the boats on which they work.

This is the call of migrant rights and church groups after three Filipino and three Indonesian fishermen were killed when the bridge in Nanfang’ao Port collapsed on October 1, crushing their boats. 10 people were also injured in the disaster. The incident also left 18 migrant fishermen, 14 Filipino and 4 Indonesian homeless.

“I hope that this incident will serve as a lesson for all of us, especially the Taiwan authorities and employers, that fishermen should not live on boats, because boats are a place of work and not a home,” said Fr. Joy Tajonera, a Filipino priest connected with Ugnayan Migrant and Immigrant Ministry in Taiwan.

An oil tank truck was on the bridge when it collapsed and ignited after falling into the waterway, spewing smoke into the air. As it fell, the bridge crushed three fishing boats beneath it, injuring and trapping a number of migrant fishermen on board the vessels.

Out of the 14 Filipino migrant fishermen, Ugnayan is now assisting five Filipino fishermen who wanted to transfer to a factory job. Two are returning to the Philippines to live while the other seven are transferring to new fishing employers.

The five fishermen were present during the recent World Conference of the International Christian Maritime Association (ICMA) in Kaohsiung, Taiwan where they shared their experiences to the delegates.

“One could see the hope and the resilience of the Filipino people on how to be responsible to live for others and not only for oneself as the pain brought by separation is a sign of their love, strength, and faith for the good of their family and the country,” Manila Archbishop Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle said during the conference.Taiwan’s estimated $2 billion fishing industry operates over a third of the world’s longline tuna vessels.

As of the end of April, the Ministry of Labor (MOL) reported that there were 12,406 migrant fishermen in Taiwan, adding that 12,383 work on fishing boats, while 23 are employed at fish farms. However, NGOs estimates higher number of migrant fishermen, mostly undocumented.

Labor issues have long troubled the global fishing industry, and Taiwan is no exception.

Migrant fishermen are a particularly vulnerable population.

The 2018 US State Department’s Country Report on Human Rights Practices for Taiwan flagged the practices of recruitment and brokerage agencies, which facilitate the hiring of fishermen and other migrant workers, as leaving workers “vulnerable to debt bondage.” This occurs when recruitment agency hires a foreign fishing worker and withholds his passport or deducts heavy service fees from the his pay.

The Report also noted mistreatment and poor working conditions for foreign fishermen remained common. Foreign fishermen recruited offshore were not entitled to the same labor rights, wages, insurance, and pensions as those recruited locally.

Many fishermen frequently report non-payment, long work hours, and verbal and physical abuse, often at the hands of Taiwanese captains.

Regulations only require a minimum monthly wage of $450.00 for foreign fishermen, significantly below Taiwan’s minimum wage. Moreover, NGOs reported that foreign fishing crews on Taiwan-flagged long-haul vessels generally received wages below $450 per month because of dubious deductions for administrative fees and deposits.

The Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) earlier urged Filipino fishermen to acquire the proper documents, certification, and safety training requirements before working in Taiwan.
The agency said applicants should not use backdoor exits, and instead, engage the services of licensed recruitment agencies with job orders approved by the POEA.

Illegal recruiters transport fishermen who choose to avoid the legal process to remote facilities outside of Taiwan that have been dubbed as ‘floating barracks’ and have been known to have substandard living conditions.

Atty. Dennis R. Gorecho heads the seafarers’ division of the Sapalo Velez Bundang Bulilan law offices. For comments, email, or call 09175025808 or 09088665786).