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EXCLUSIVE/Migrant fishers' rights deal takes force after over 1 year in limbo

04/20/2024 06:34 PM
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Fishers standing on a fishing boat are pictured in this undated photo. CNA file photo
Fishers standing on a fishing boat are pictured in this undated photo. CNA file photo

Taipei, April 20 (CNA) A deal between a major Indonesian fishers' union and two of the largest Taiwanese seafood associations, which includes a pledge to install Wi-Fi on all fishing boats belonging to the associations, finally came into force this month after being shelved for over a year.

In an exclusive interview with CNA this week, Achdiyanto Ilyas Pangestu, chairman of Serikat Pekerja Perikanan Indonesia (SPPI), said the "collective agreement to promote ideal working conditions and the sustainable development of the industry" was officially implemented on April 12.

This came more than a year after the agreement was signed by SPPI, the Taiwan Tuna Association (TTA), and the Taiwan Squid and Saury Fisheries Association on Dec. 16, 2022.

The delay was caused by a dispute between manpower brokers in Taiwan and Indonesia over how to split job placement fees collected from migrant fishers, said Pangestu, who came to Taiwan to attend the International Forum on Fisheries and Human Rights earlier this week.

Under the deal, SPPI is to train and provide fishers for the two associations, but the disagreement between the brokers had prevented the pact from taking effect due to the lack of a direct government-to-government hiring system between Taiwan and Indonesia, Pangestu said.

SPPI Chairman Achdiyanto Ilyas Pangestu visits the Keelung Migrant Fishermen Union on April 18. CNA photo April 19, 2024
SPPI Chairman Achdiyanto Ilyas Pangestu visits the Keelung Migrant Fishermen Union on April 18. CNA photo April 19, 2024

The dispute was later resolved with the help of Liuhuang Li-chuan (劉黃麗娟), an associate professor in the Department of Labor Relations at National Chung Cheng University, who is credited with facilitating communication between Indonesian and Taiwanese manpower brokers and setting the agreement in motion.

One of the pact's major clauses stipulates that the Taiwanese associations offer crew members Wi-Fi on all of their fishing boats, which labor rights groups have been seeking since early 2023.

TTA Secretary-General Tony Lin (林涵宇) said that with Wi-Fi onboard, crew members can be reassured about the well-being of their family back home and have peace of mind while working, knowing that if needed, help can be secured quickly.

For example, he said, if a crew member's family member gets sick, he can contact SPPI using the onboard Wi-Fi and make sure his sick relative is looked after in time.

Labor rights groups have said that having access to the internet allows crew members to easily communicate with their families to make sure they receive the remittances they send and file timely complaints with the authorities on possible infringements of their rights.

With the agreement having been officially implemented, Lin said his association aims to provide Wi-Fi on the 300 boats it operates by the end of the year, and that vessels with SPPI members on board will be given priority.

Another key feature of the pact is improved transparency and protections for both shipowners and crew members during the recruitment process, proponents of the deal said.

Liuhuang said that under the agreement, migrant fishers are trained by SPPI and must present medical records proving they are healthy and mentally stable enough to work at sea for extended periods, sometimes for up to 10 months, without docking.

In turn, shipowners must ensure that crucial information, such as which boat a fisher works on, its condition, equipment, fishing ground, types of catches, and date of return to home port, is transparent, so job seekers can better decide where to work, she said.

Liuhuang said her research indicates that employers, brokers, and employees all need to be involved if the problems faced by migrant fishers are to be solved, and that is why she offered to help.

Going forward, the agreement will provide crew members with a channel through which to lobby through SPPI for other benefits not yet covered by the pact, she added.

In a written reply to CNA, Taiwan's Fisheries Agency lauded the pact initiated by the private sector for establishing mechanisms for crew members to file complaints and enabling shipowners to find workers more suited to their needs.

However, labor rights advocates remain skeptical about the efficacy of the agreement when it comes to improving the working conditions of migrant fishers.

Lennon Wong (汪英達), director of migrant worker policies at the Serve the People Association in Taoyuan, took issue with the term "collective agreement" used by the signatories.

Collective agreements are to protect workers' rights, but the central clause in the pact putting SPPI in charge of training and supplying workers to the two associations means it more closely resembles a deed of appointment or a commercial contract, Wong argued.

"Worker training programs are themselves a part of the brokerage system in Indonesia," he noted.

He also questioned the claim that SPPI will be able to independently deal with the complaints filed by crew members and wondered how much leverage the union has over Taiwanese shipowners and authorities in the event of a disagreement.

Furthermore, he highlighted an apparent incongruity in the TTA's attitude toward having Wi-Fi on its fishing boat, noting that the association was a vocal critic of the practice and only recently publicly spoke out against it.

Shih Yi-hsiang (施逸翔), a senior researcher at the Taiwan Association for Human Rights, said that having Wi-Fi onboard is important, but the bottom line is that migrant fishers must be allowed to use it. The reality is that crew members of fishing boats equipped with Wi-Fi often do not have access to it, he said.

Achmad Mudzakir, head of Fospi, the largest Indonesian migrant fishers' association in Taiwan, said it was too early to tell whether the pact will bring any benefits to migrant fishers.

As of press time, the Indonesian Economic and Trade Office to Taipei (IETO) has yet to respond to CNA's request for comment on the agreement.

(By Sean Lin)

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