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EXCLUSIVE/Meeting over MOU on migrant fishers' rights ends in stalemate

03/01/2024 11:21 PM
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Unsplash image for illustrative purpose only
Unsplash image for illustrative purpose only

Taipei, March 1 (CNA) A meeting between Indonesian union leaders and Taiwanese authorities in Taipei on Friday over the signing of a proposed memorandum of understanding (MOU) to improve the rights of distant-water fishers ended with the two sides failing to reach any agreements.

The delegation, comprised of members of five Indonesian unions, called for the creation of an MOU that protects the fundamental rights of Indonesian distant-water fishers working for Taiwan-registered vessels.

Such workers were excluded from an MOU inked by the two countries in 2018.

During a two-hour closed-door meeting at the Fisheries Agency, which was also attended by officials from the Ministry of Labor (MOL), the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Indonesian Economic and Trade Office to Taipei (IETO), the union leaders delivered to Fisheries Agency officials a petition including appeals they said should be included in the proposed MOU and asked them to sign the document.

According to the petition, the unions demanded that the two governments provide distant-water fishers with decent working conditions pursuant to those defined in the International Labor Organization (ILO) Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work.

They called for fair wages for distant-water fishers employed overseas, currently set at US$550 per month, which is lower than the NT$27,470 (US$868) for coastal fishers.

They urged that distant-water fishers be allowed to form unions and negotiate collective bargaining agreements with their employers without risk of retaliation - dismissal or deportation - when they file grievances about their employers with the authorities.

They demanded that every migrant worker on distant-water fishing vessels be allowed to freely access Wi-Fi in case they need to check whether their families have received their remittances or to file a complaint.

They petitioned for any recruitment fees resulting from the employment of a distant-water fisher be paid for by the employer rather than the worker as is currently the case.

This practice is stipulated in the Work in Fishing Convention (C188) promulgated by the ILO, which Taiwan has yet to include into its local law despite the government having signaled a willingness in 2019 to adopt it.

The union leaders also called for a MOL-supervised "tri-party working group" comprising the government, employers, and unions to be established, saying that this would enable unions to better monitor Taiwan's distant-water fishers' recruitment system.

Fisheries Agency officials, however, declined to sign the petition, saying they needed some time to review the demands, a source with direct knowledge of the matter told CNA.

The union members said they hoped the agency would issue a response by the end of March.

The Indonesian Economic and Trade Office to Taipei (IETO), meanwhile, said they hoped the two governments could formally sign the MOU in May or June, the source said.

However, representatives from Taiwan's Fisheries Agency replied that it was unlikely there will be such rapid progress on the MOU, another source close to the matter told CNA.

In a written response to CNA Friday, the Fisheries Agency said it would take the unions' appeals under advisement while drafting the proposed MOU, which it would be happy to discuss with relevant Indonesian government agencies.

Meanwhile, Mira Caliandra, an analyst at IETO's Labor Department, said that the Indonesian government has prepared a draft MOU regarding the issue and was hoping to discuss its content with Taipei.

The IETO will relay the unions' appeals to Jarkata as a reference for the draft MOU, Caliandra added.

Taiwan's Ministry of Labor and its Indonesian counterpart signed an MOU in 2018, which covers the recruitment, placement, and protection of Indonesian migrant workers.

The agreement aims to promote bilateral collaboration and exchanges in vocational training, skills development, work assistance, empowering female workers, and capacity building for people with disabilities through international organization platforms or regional partnership mechanisms.

However, that MOU only applied to domestic caregivers, factory workers, and workers engaged in coastal fishing, while excluding distant-water fishers who are classified as "employed overseas," said Jonathan Parhusip, seafood campaign organizer at Global Labor Justice.

The Indonesian delegation members are from the unions: Serikat Pekerja Perikanan Indonesia (SPPI), Serikat Buruh Migran Indonesia (SBMI), Serikat Awak Kapal Transportasi Indonesia (SAKTI), Serikat Awak Kapal Perikanan Bersatu Sulawesi Utara (SAKTI Sulut), and Persatuan Pelaut Borneo (PPB).

Hariyanto Suwarno, head of SBMI, said should the Taiwanese government refuse to sign a new MOU, the unions will keep pressuring it to do so by campaigning harder - for example by organizing a strike or collaborating on international reports such as the "Seabound" series released by Greenpeace to expose the conditions that migrant fishers working in Taiwan face.

The U.S. Department of Labor included Taiwan-caught fish on its "List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor" in both 2020 and 2022 after several investigations and reports by international NGOs confirmed the existence of systemic forced labor in the Taiwanese fishing industry.

Thea Lee, deputy undersecretary for international labor affairs at the U.S. Department of Labor, arrived in Taiwan on Monday for a five-day stay until March 1.

During her trip, she met with labor officials and union representatives and called for Taiwan's commitment to improve labor rights compliance, according to Twitter posts by the U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of International Labor Affairs.

She also observed how labor inspections are performed on distant water fishing vessels at a fishing port in Taiwan.

In a press released Friday, Taiwan's Fisheries Agency said Lee had affirmed Taiwan's efforts to improve fishers' rights.

However, the agency also acknowledged that the U.S. Department of Labor believed there are still systemic problems in Taiwan's fishing sector, including broker fees and migrant fishers' lack of organization and negotiation rights.

(By Sean Lin)

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