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NEW TAIPEI CITY, Taiwan – Commercial fishing boat owners in Taiwan, one of the world's biggest seafood exporters, face strict rules and potential fines under a new law aimed at preventing overfishing and protecting migrant crewmembers who work far at sea with little oversight.
The Distant Water Fisheries Act, which takes effect Jan. 15, 2017, comes amid growing pressure on Taiwan's seafood industry to crack down on modern-day slavery and other abuses for the more than 20,000 migrants working on the island's fleet of fishing vessels.
Frances Lee, a spokeswoman for Taiwan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said new requirements for the foreign fishermen will include insurance, health care, wages, working hours and human rights.
Last year the European Union gave Taiwan a "yellow card" warning for failing to control illegal fishing on its commercial vessels, which sail around the world to catch some $2 billion a year worth of exported tuna and other seafood every year. Without improvements, Taiwan's $14 million worth of seafood exports to the EU could face sanctions.
The U.S. State Department's 2016 Trafficking in Persons report says that while Taiwan has cracked down on forced labor and sex trafficking, fishing vessels need more attention. The report says fishermen mostly from Indonesia, Cambodia and Vietnam have been fraudulently recruited to work on Taiwan-flagged vessels where they can face abuses including violence, limited food supplies and withheld wages.
The issues extend well beyond Taiwan. Commercial fishing boat owners around the world, including the U.S., recruit foreign crews for the dangerous and exhausting work of hauling in the catch. The migrant fishermen are vulnerable to human trafficking and other exploitation because the work takes place so remotely, far from police or labor officials, and they can remain offshore for years as their catch is shuttled in to port.
Several nonprofit advocacy groups including Greenpeace and the International Labour Organization have repeatedly raised concerns about working conditions for foreign crew in Taiwan's fishing fleet.
Allison Lee at the Yilan Fishermen's Labor Union, which represents migrant workers in Taiwan, said men have been beaten, overworked and denied pay on board boats.
"The captain or first officers will use violence, like hitting their heads, kicking or punching their stomachs," she said.
Migrant workers hired for Taiwanese vessels often report working all but one or two of every 24 hours at times, said Wong Ying-dah, director of the Service Center and Shelter for Migrant Workers in Taiwan.
They may also sleep in crowded quarters with other migrants and eat just one meal a day despite paying up front for three, he said. "Some don't even have a bed," Wong said.
Some workers sign multiple contracts, sometimes without knowing what's in them, and inadvertently agreeing to reductions in wages, activists say.
Steve Trent, executive director of the London-based Environmental Justice Foundation, said Taiwan's domestic and distant water fleet already circumvent its existing labor laws, and that more needs to be done.
"Taiwan needs to develop a far deeper, more rigorous, victim-centered inspection regime on its domestic and distant water fleet if it is to have any serious intention of bringing working conditions up to basic international standards," he said.
Phil Robertson at Human Rights Watch in Bangkok said passing a law is an important first step in providing protections, but said resources will be needed to give it teeth.
"The real difficulty is implementation, not only in court, but in the high seas," he said.
Advocates say they hear dozens of complaints from fishermen each year. But Fisheries Agency Director Lin Ting-jung said his department gets only two reports a year of abuse against migrants. Nonetheless, he acknowledged there are problems on some boats and insufficient government oversight.
"There are some tense moments on the boats and labor rights can be a problem," he said. "The captains are looking for ways to improve rights. But this sweat-blood-seafood problem, is it a common situation or a few isolated cases?"
The new law, ratified in July, requires that foreign crew be hired through registered agents with contracts that specify the workers' rights. Violators who hire foreign crew without authorized agents face fines up to $600,000, and boat owners who abuse their workers could lose their licenses for a year. The bill also lays out specific rules to conserve marine fisheries and curb illegal fishing.
AP reporter Martha Mendoza in Bangkok contributed to this story.