“Having Internet Connection is a Human Right” – It’s About Time to Allow Workers at Sea to be Connected

boat on body of water during day time

 “When I was working as a fisherman on a vessel, I had once been unable to contact my family for ten months because there was neither signal nor internet connection onboard.” An Indonesian friend of mine told me last night, “There is a set of satellite phones onboard, but that’s only for use of the captain and the chief engineer.

“I have a friend who had just returned to Taiwan from a Taiwanese vessel, and his case was even worse – he had been at sea for more than a year and had completely lost contact with his family for the entire year.”

To a lot of Taiwanese, internet connection is like air. Imagine not being able to set foot in your homeland and only using an extremely weak connection to contact your friends and family for ten days – it is hardly bearable, let alone extending this situation to ten months or even a year. Even in prisons, prisoners are allowed to contact their friends and family by phone at a specific period of time, but this is impossible for those migrant workers working long hours at sea. Workers on coastal and offshore fishing vessels may board the land comparatively more frequently, but for thousands of distant water fishing vessels and the fishermen aboard, it is nearly impossible to reach out while at sea.

Having Internet Connection is a Human Right – Especially at Sea

A few years ago, Taiwan’s Minister without Portfolio Audrey Tang, proposed that having broadband access is a human right, and emphasised that internet connection should be available at every corner in Taiwan, including cities, countrysides, flatlands, or high up in the mountains. People love this idea, and the international media also finds the concept fascinating. Especially during the COVID lockdown in Taiwan this year, being restricted at home and experiencing “working or learning from home,” people feel more strongly about the internet being the only channel for them to contact the outside world, and their work or learning will be directly affected without the Internet.

On the other hand, the lockdown was forcing people to stay at home for a longer period of time, which triggers more conflicts between family members, yet victims had nowhere to escape. According to the statistics, reports of domestic violence has increased during the lockdown, and we all know that there are always more women, children, and men who chose not to report. This is happening in not only Taiwan but all around the world. For example, calls to domestic abuse helpline in England increased by 60% in 2020.

Working on the fishing vessel at sea and not being able to leave resembles the setting of being forced to stay at home. If staying at home means increased stress and increased clashes between family members, the exact same logic applies to fishing vessels isolated at sea. When violence occurs, at home it is possible to make phone calls or using the Internet to get help. Phone calls allow verbal expressions, and for sending pictures or videos, the Internet is the only tool. While at sea, currently there is virtually no method for fishermen in the distant water fishing vessels to reach out.

Satellite Wi-Fi on Fishing Vessels

In the past year, the Fisheries Agency in Taiwan had begun an experiment to install Satellite Wi-Fi on fishing vessels at sea. This idea has a good intention and is highly welcomed by the NGOs and the fishermen.

Nonetheless, the NGOs in Taiwan stated that after a year of the experiment, the Fisheries Agency is planning to terminate this programme due to budget considerations. They are now considering promoting installing CCTV on fishing vessels instead, which allows the monitoring function; however, this is a lot different from the internet service which provides dual-side communication.

It is indeed not cheap to install Satellite Wi-Fi, but what’s really costly is not the installation of the machine, but the data transmission. Considering the funding, the employers do not have to provide Internet 24/7 on vessels. The usage of the Internet can be limited to an hour a day, or once every week. Alternatively, the employers can limit the amount of data usage (instead of usage time), for example, a certain number of GB per week. Public spaces providing free Wi-Fi have been applying this type of calculation. Even with the limitations on time or data transmission, it will be much better than the current situation where the workers at sea are not able to contact the outside world for their entire journey.

Except for Contacting Family and Friends, Having Internet Connection at Sea Brings Us Potential Business Opportunities

Establishing Wi-Fi on fishing vessels allows fishermen to contact their family and friends, report immediately if they have unfortunately encountered forced labour or violence at sea, and may even bring new business opportunities to the vessel owners.

In China, some vessels have been streaming and selling their fishing harvests after establishing Internet service onboard, skipping the transport ships and intermediaries, and selling a large number of their goods directly to customers waiting to place orders. This greatly increased the marketing ability of these fishing vessels. Furthermore, in the past, when the parts on the vessels were out of use, it took a lot of effort and time for the seafarers to explain the situation to the mechanists through phone; however, with the Internet service, they can simply take a picture of the broken parts and send it to others, which is much clearer than phone calls.

It is technically possible to install Wi-Fi on vessels, and it’s not difficult to make it happen. Many coastal private yachts, or even luxury cruises, commercial ships, and cargo ships that operate over a longer distance have established Internet services onboard. In recent years, more and more commercial aircraft are providing Wi-Fi service. Unlike in the past, the passengers would have to turn off their mobile phones during the entire flight – nowadays, people are able to check into a location on social media or send pictures on communication Apps on aircraft.

Allowing fishermen to contact their families and friends while working long hours at sea is definitely beneficial to fishermen’s well-being, which serves the interests of the local/international aquatic stakeholders. How many murders happening at sea in recent years (migrant fishermen killing captains or other crew) were originated by the long-term violence against fishermen, pushing them to the desperate edge to commit such crime? If there were Wi-Fi available onboard for the fishermen to reach out, allowing the NGOs, unions, and the government to intervene, mediate, and care, could these unfortunate incidences be avoided? Of course, vessel operators may be sceptical and worry fishermen use the Internet to make complaints and “causing trouble”, but for vessels that are doing the right thing and treating fishermen well, why would they be afraid of fishermen making complaints?

We look forward to seeing the Fisheries Agency maintain their original good intention, and continue to encourage Taiwanese fishing vessels to install Wi-Fi onboard through policy tools and support.

(This article was translated and edited from an article published on the Commonwealth Opinion authored by Mina Chiang)