By William Yen, CNA staff reporter
When the bridge in Nanfang'ao Port in Yilan suddenly collapsed at around 9:30 a.m. on Oct. 1, it not only devastated the fishing community there, but also sent shock waves through the rest of the country as the spotlight turned on the working and living conditions for migrant fishermen nationwide.
Six fishermen -- three Indonesians and three Filipinos -- were killed when the bridge came crashing down on the boats below, while 10 other people were injured, most of whom were also migrant fishermen.
In the aftermath of the disaster, while questions arose about the general safety of port bridges in Taiwan, human rights and church groups turned their focus on the dangerous and harsh conditions under which migrant fishermen work in the country.
Allison Lee (李麗華), secretary-general of the Yilan Migrant Fishermen's Union, told CNA that the job of migrant fishermen is dangerous because of the high risk of accidents.
One of the Indonesian fishermen who died in the Nanfang'ao bridge collapse, 32-year-old Ersona, was injured last year on the job when some machinery on the boat fell on him, Lee said.
"It took three months for Ersona to recover from that accident, Lee said. "I never imagined that one year later he would die in another accident. They (the union members) are leaving (this earth) one by one."
She said that in 2017, two Indonesian members of the union drowned when they fell overboard far out at sea.
At the time, they were not wearing life jackets, Lee said, adding that the majority of migrant fishermen in the Nanfang'ao area are not encouraged by their employers to wear life jackets because it slows down the work and thus affects the size of the daily catch.
Prior to the bridge disaster, five migrant fishermen based in Yilan had died over the past three years as a result of occupational hazards, according to statistics from the Ministry of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Four of the deaths were by drowning, and the fifth was as a result of a fire onboard a fishing boat, according to the statistics.
Allison Lee (李麗華, left), secretary-general of the Yilan Migrant Fishermen's Union
Another issue facing migrant fishermen is the long hours they are expected to work, according to Father Gioan Tran Van Thiet of St. Christopher's Church in Taipei, who visits the fishermen in Nanfang'ao every week.
"Taiwan's labor laws stipulate a workday of no more than eight hours, but many migrant fishermen are working much longer hours because no one is checking," he said. Some fishermen have said they work up to 20 hours a day, but due to the language barrier, they do not know how to file a formal complaint, according to Thiet.
Father Gioan Tran Van Thiet (right) of St. Christopher's Church in Taipei
A Vietnamese fisherman, who declined to be named, told CNA that during the tuna season March to June, he often works 14-15 hours a day for six straight days, as the boat stays out at sea near Japan for a week at a time.
On the day of the bridge collapse in Yilan, several fishermen who had narrowly escaped death, some with injuries, and others who were in shock over the loss of friends, were asked to work, they told CNA.
The fishermen, who asked not to be named, said they worked long hours that day, carrying out tasks like untangling ropes and clearing debris.
One of the boat captains, Jiang Rong-hua (江榮華), who lost two migrant fishermen in the disaster, told CNA there was no actual work to be done on that fateful day. What the fishermen described as work was actually untangling ropes and clearing the wreckage of the boat, which was smashed but not pinned under the bridge, Jiang said.
"They were asked to help because they were familiar with the ship and could carry out those tasks quicker than people who had never worked on the boat," he said. "There was no work. Our boats were crushed."
When told by CNA about the accounts given by the fishermen, Jiang said there seemed to be a difference of opinion regarding the definition of "work" and "helping out."
Toto Bula, a Filipino priest who served in Nanfang'ao for eight years until March 2019, said fishermen are often asked to do tasks such as untangling ropes or fixing nets when they return from a long workday at sea.
"I would like to see a separation of duties in the near future, so that those who are working at sea to catch fish do not also have to mend nets when they return to port, and they can therefore have a proper rest," he said.
Father Toto Bula (left)
While hardly any migrant fishermen obtain overtime pay for working more than eight hours a day, some receive small bonuses from the sales from their catch, according to the Yilan Migrant Fishermen's Union.
An Indonesian fisherman confirmed that in addition to his salary of NT$20,800 per month, he also gets a small bonus from the sale of the catch.
Miswan, 46, said his working conditions are acceptable because he does not lose pay even if the boat has to stay in port for two days due to bad weather. He did not disclose, however, how many hours per day he works on average.
When the bridge collapsed in Yilan, Filipino John Vincente Royo, 37, not only suffered injuries but also lost all his belongings, including his passport, wedding ring, and cash savings of around NT$10,000 (US$325). Royo's possessions were all on the boat because it was his only place of accommodation.
He said he narrowly escaped death by jumping into the water and swimming away when the bridge started to break apart. He was picked up later by another boat in the area, he said.
"Even though I lost all my possessions, I thank God I'm still alive, because I have three children, ages 10 to 15 years, back home in the Philippines," he told CNA.
John Vincente Royo
The practice of housing migrant fishermen solely on boats is all too common in Taiwan, according to Thiet.
"It's terrible," the priest said. "I have seen many of them sleeping in spaces so cramped they can hardly move."
On one fishing boat with a migrant crew, CNA was shown an area of about 28 square meters that was said to be the sleeping quarters of six men.
The issue of onshore accommodation for off-duty migrant fishermen has long been a contentious one, according to Jose Toquero, president of the Illongo Seafarer's Organization for Filipino fishermen in Yilan.
He said the organization has long been advocating for onshore accommodation for migrant fishermen, but to no avail.
"The contracts given to the Filipino fishermen before they leave home state that they will be provided with food and lodging, but when they arrive in Taiwan, they have to sleep on the fishing boats because they are not provided with any other kind of boarding," Toquero said, shortly after the bridge collapsed.
Joy Tajonera, another Filipino priest, said the Nanfang'ao bridge collapse not only killed six migrant fishermen, but left some-19 homeless because their only place of abode was on the boats, that were crushed.
"I hope this incident will serve as a lesson for all, especially the Taiwan authorities and employers," he said.
Migrant fishermen should not live on boats, because fishing boats are a place of work, not a home, Tajonera said.
At the moment, however, Taiwan's labor laws do not stipulate that employers have to provide onshore accommodation for migrant fishermen.
Human rights and church groups that advocate for the welfare of migrant fishermen in Nanfang'ao said little has changed over the years.
"I have not seen any improvement," said Thiet, who has been serving in the area since 2017. "The conditions remain the same. The only difference is that some employers are providing a bit more food for their fishermen."
Father Gioan Tran Van Thiet (center) speaking with Transportation Minister Lin Chia-lung (林佳龍, left) and Minister of the Interior Hsu Kuo-yung (徐國勇, right) about the welfare of the migrant fishermen who were left homeless
Father Gioan Tran Van Thiet (center) speaking with Minister of the Interior Hsu Kuo-yung (徐國勇, left) about onshore accommodation for migrant fishermen
He said it is important for the government to check on the working conditions for migrant fishermen and penalize employers who violate the law.
"This is something that needs to be taken seriously," Thiet said.
If the government decides to carry out inspections at the port, they must be unannounced, he said.
"Otherwise, there will be cover-ups, and the labor inspectors will not be able to find the facts," Thiet said.
Since the Yilan Migrant Fishermen's Union was established in 2013, there has been greater public awareness of the plight of its fishermen, but the government has not been proactive in enforcing the relevant laws, according to the union's secretary-general.
At the central government level, the occupational health and safety laws require fishermen to wear life jackets whenever there is a risk of falling overboard, and that includes while working on deck, according to Chen Jhih-ci (陳志祺), section chief in the labor ministry's Occupational Safety Division.
"Employers cannot just use some excuse to prohibit employees from wearing life jackets," Chen said. "Doing so carries a fine of between NT$30,000 (US$954) and NT$300,000, and if an occupational injury occurs under those circumstances, the maximum penalty against the employer is three years in prison."
In 2018, Chen said, his division coordinated 150 investigative checks and handed out five fines, including three against employers for failing to observe life jacket regulations. The five fines totaled NT$150,000, he said.
Chen Jhih-ci (陳志祺)
In Yilan, the county's Labor Affairs Department has been sending staff members to fishery associations' meetings to inform employers about the relevant laws and regulations, said Lee Fang-ching (李芳菁), deputy director of the department.
While the department does not proactively carry out labor inspections on fishing boats, it conducts checks and investigations whenever it receives a complaint from a fisherman about working conditions or mistreatment, she said.
The Yilan County Labor Affairs Department, however, was unable to provide CNA with any statistics on complaints, inspections, violations or fines over the past three years.
On the accommodation issue, the department said while there is no law requiring employers to provide onshore lodging for fishermen, it is planning to build facilities in Nanfang'ao Port for that purpose.
The project will be conducted in three phases, with approximately 300 beds to be provided in the first phase, which will take two years, Lee Fang-ching said, adding that the number of beds will be increased in phases two and three.
"The ultimate goal is to provide onshore accommodation for all of Nanfang'ao's migrant fishermen," she said.
Father Gioan Tran Van Thiet (left) and members of the Migrant Workers Concern Desk at Taipei's Saint Christopher's Church bring bags of blankets for the homeless migrant fishermen
Volunteers from the Migrant Workers Concern Desk at Taipei's Saint Christopher's Church fold up donated clothing for migrant fishermen