Digital Isolation: Taiwan’s Fishermen Battle for Wi-Fi

As fishermen working out at sea can go months at a time without Wi-Fi access, in March, a number of Taiwanese and overseas migrant workers’ human rights NGOs, including the Indonesian Seafarer’s Gathering Forum (FOSPI), Taiwan Association for Human Rights (TAHR), Stella Maris Kaohsiung, FOSPI Donggang Pingtung, Global Labor Justice – International Labor Rights Forum (GLJ-ILRF) and Humanity Research Consultancy (HRC), launched the “Wi-Fi Now for Fishers’ Rights at Sea” campaign, forming a global advocating platform.

Shih Yi Hsiang, Secretary General of Taiwan Association for Human Rights (TAHR), told Maritime Fairtrade in an interview that the platform coupled with the campaign was initiated by the US-based GLJ-ILRF in June 2022.

“There has been a lot of solid preparation work in advance before the establishment of the platform, and GLJ-ILRF has been doing a lot like liaison with various parties including labor unions in Taiwan. As many migrant fishermen are Indonesian, GLJ-ILRF also improved the discussions and forums by hiring lots of translators,” said Shih. 

“And we have division of work. For example, UK-based HRC, which is established by Taiwanese Mina Chiang, acts as our think tank and is responsible for conducting research like what kind of techniques and facilities are needed in the installation of Wi-Fi in the vessels.” 

Delegates of the Wi-Fi Now platform. Photo credit: Wi-Fi Now Platform

Why is Wi-Fi access important for migrant fishermen?

According to the International Labor Rights Forum, more than 22,000 fishermen, primarily migrants from Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam, have been working in Taiwan’s distant water fleets.

Shih said: “Fishermen working in these vessels can be at sea for seven and up to 22 months, where they cannot connect with their families, friends, lovers, labor unions, NGOs or officials.” This can have bad impacts on their mental health and emotions. Moreover, the fishermen are completely isolated and helpless, especially when accidents happen or when they are treated brutally. 

“It’s absurd that the Ministry of Labor has set up the 24-hour 1955 hotline for migrant workers seeking assistance. Yet they cannot even make calls or reach anyone when they are on distant water fleets,” Shih added.

The lack of Wi-Fi access cuts migrant fishermen off from the outside world, which means they are deprived of the right to communicate, to get updated information and to reach out for help. Therefore, having Internet access can be regarded as a basic human right. 

“This is the reason why our platform has chosen Wi-Fi access as the first and key issue to be fought for as it is fundamental to other labor rights,” Shih emphasized.

Forum to promote Wi-Fi for fishermen. Photo credit: FOSPI

What has the Taiwanese government done so far?

By the end of 2022, the US Department of Labor included Taiwanese seafood products on the “List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor” for the second time. The working conditions of the migrant fishermen in Taiwan were still far from good.

According to research conducted by HRC in 2022, out of 15 Taiwanese migrant-staffed fishing vessels, only 11 had Wi-Fi access, though at best, the crew only had access for three hours each day while some other ships only provided access on some days for a limited time, as short as 15 minutes.

In November 2022, the Fisheries Agency of Taiwan discussed the policy of promoting Wi-Fi on fishing vessels with Indonesia fishermen and international human rights organizations. The Agency is planning to subsidize NTD 3 million (US$97,500) per vessel for the purchase of network communication equipment and NTD 8,000 (US$260) per month for the communication fee to encourage ship owners to provide Wi-Fi onboard. It is expected that 60 vessels will benefit from the purchase of equipment while 110 vessels will obtain the communication fee, in four years. 

Shih said to Maritime Fairtrade that what the government provides is still far from enough. “There are almost 2,100 Taiwanese distant water fleets in total. To subsidize 60 vessels in four years counts for a tiny portion.”

But the fact is, even though the government provides subsidies, not many vessels have taken them up in the past few years. “Currently, less than 10 percent of the vessels have installed Wi-Fi,” said Shih. Also, the ship owners are not willing to turn on the Wi-Fi even though they have installed it already.

“For example, fishing vessels in the waters of the Falkland Islands are required to have fishing licenses, as well as Wi-Fi installed. Yet many Taiwanese vessel owners will turn off the Wi-Fi after leaving the waters, because they think it’s difficult for them to manage the discipline of the migrant workers,” Shih explained.

“Also, it is good for the government to enact and enforce relevant laws relating to the provision of onboard Wi-Fi rather than give subsidies, similar to the Act for Distant Water Fisheries, which stated that the automatic location communicator installed onboard must have a built-in global positioning system (GPS).”

Protest at Taipei Fish Market. Photo credit: Shih Yi Hsiang, Secretary General of Taiwan Association for Human Rights

Advocacy groups step in

On February 20, the concerned local NGOs went to the Taipei Fish Market to protest and call on the government to ensure the set-up of encrypted Wi-Fi on every Taiwanese fishing boat.

After the local protest, the NGO groups from Taiwan formed a delegation to go to the US, and joined with other foreign NGOs to make the campaign global in the fight for rights of migrant fishermen. Upon their arrival in Boston, the delegates met with US officials.

On March 14, the representatives of Taiwan NGOs together with the foreign allies staged peaceful protests at Seafood Expo North America, which was one of the biggest annual conferences held in Boston this year. Every year, thousands of global buyers and suppliers gather for networking and business. This was the reason why the NGOs targeted the expo as they wanted to hold the world’s biggest seafood companies responsible for their supply chains, according to Kimberly Rogovin, Senior Seafood Campaign Coordinator, GLJ-ILRF. 

Delegates met with US officials. Photo credit: ILAB-USDOL

What have advocacy groups achieved so far?

All the importers, exporters, wholesalers, restaurants, supermarkets, and retail companies involved can discuss more on labor rights and they have the power to influence the owners of distant-water fleets to improve the working conditions for the migrant fishermen. 

“The Seafood Expo has always neglected the voices of the migrant fishermen, and we succeeded in making their voices heard,” Shih said.

After the demonstration, the delegation was received by Thea Lee, Deputy Undersecretary for International Affairs of the US Department of Labor. Lee, who used to work in the largest trade union organization in the US, has been supportive of labor rights. 

The delegation was proactive in lobbying the US officials to include the labor rights of fishermen and a clause that prohibits the import of forced labor products in the “US-Taiwan Initiative on 21st-Century Trade”. 

“We have established linkages with many allies during our visit,” Shih concluded. “And AFL-CIO, the largest federation of unions in the United States, has just paid a visit to Taiwan and held a related workshop on April 23.”

Shih urged everyone to pledge support to the “Wi-Fi Now for Fishers’ Rights at Sea” campaign and back the fishermen in their fight for labor rights.

Top photo credit: iStock/metamorworks

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