Taiwan in Deep Water

Taiwanese seafood products were in October included by the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) in its List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor, retaining the forced-labor designation it first received in 2020.

According to the DOL, workers in the industry are hired by agencies that require them to pay recruitment fees and sign debt contracts. Many are subjected to up to 22-hour workdays and often “face hunger and dehydration, live in degrading and unhygienic conditions, and are subjected to physical violence or verbal abuse.”

The treatment of workers in the distant-water-fishing industry is a human rights issue. No person employed by Taiwanese (or any other) companies should face abuse or be subjected to forced labor. Although that should be enough to trigger serious action, the Taiwan government must also consider the possible ramifications for Taiwan-U.S. trade relations if it fails to eradicate forced labor from the fishing industry. The issue was raised by a U.S. labor representative during recent House Foreign Affairs Committee hearings on the future of U.S.-Taiwan trade.

Although the DOL designation has not yet affected exports to the U.S., it could later lead the American government to impose restrictions on Taiwan-caught seafood, significantly impacting what is a US$1.3 billion industry. Moreover, as Taiwan and the U.S. prepare their “early harvest list” on a possible trade agreement under the ongoing negotiations for the U.S.-Taiwan Initiative on 21st-Century Trade, the two sides know that a deal will not be possible unless Taiwan can ensure that labor standards are met.

Taiwan’s Fisheries Agency in November 2020 introduced regulations that make meeting International Labor Organization (ILO) standard C188 a prerequisite for receiving a fishing license. Standard C188 was passed 15 years ago, but only in October this year did the first Taiwan-flagged ILO-compliant long-distance fishing vessel make its maiden voyage. None of Taiwan’s other 1,100 distant-water fishing vessels comply with the standards.

While some progress has been made to improve conditions – including a wage increase for migrant crew members and the hiring of more inspectors to carry out labor checks – these are unlikely to eliminate the wider problem. Effective change would include extensive efforts to improve conditions on fishing vessels, further collaboration with human rights organizations, and vigorous intergovernmental efforts to enforce and strengthen existing laws while also carrying out more comprehensive inspections of vessels.

In 2021 the Control Yuan went as far as to recommend that the Ministry of Economic Affairs and other authorities consider implementing an import ban on goods produced by child or forced labor. Such a step would show that the government is serious about eliminating forced labor from supply chains and ensuring humane conditions for all workers.

While government action is pivotal, change must also be carried out by the private sector. Brands and retailers should ensure that their supply chains are free from forced labor.

Taiwan is known around the world as a vibrant democracy, a champion of LGBTQ+ rights, and a leader in women’s participation in society. But the treatment of migrant workers in general – and those in the fishing industry in particular – contradicts the image of Taiwan as a beacon of human rights. Determined action to ensure fair treatment of all those who contribute to the economy and society deserves priority.