The Exemplar in Taiwan’s Distant Water Fishing Industry: “It’s definitely worthwhile to ensure good working conditions for the foreign fishermen on my vessels!”

Written by Mina Chiang

This article was originally published here in Mandarin.

“I’ve been working on vessels since I was 16 years old, and it’s now been over 20 years!” At the other end of the phone was Mr. Chen Wensheng, the third-generation fisherman from Donggang (東港). His fleets in the three largest oceans of the world mainly work on harvesting halibut and yellowfin tuna in Pacific fishing regions such as Guam, Palau, and Tahiti.

“I agree with you that, nowadays, fishing vessels often remain at sea for a long time, sometimes for several months or even a year. However, usually, only the captain and the chiefs (engineers) are able to communicate externally and connect with the land, not the crew. So, at the end of last year (2021), I installed a wireless satellite communications network system on my offshore vessel ‘Man Foo Cai No.168’ (滿福財168號). When the crew members are at sea and are not working, they can watch TV programmes or videos on other online platforms, and contact their families in Taiwan and Indonesia through their mobile phones with this system.” As an empathetic vessel owner, Mr. Chen cares not only about the management of his fishing vessels; he puts himself in the fishermen’s shoes and places great focus on the well-being of the foreign fishermen on board.

Why do we encourage fishing vessels to provide wifi to fishermen?

At present, only two offshore fishing vessels among the “Taiwan Tuna Longline Association” are equipped with satellite internet services that can be used by fishermen. One of which is the Man Foo Cai No.168, and the other is the Zhen Fa Li No.8. Mr. Chen, in addition to owning the Man Foo Cai No.168, also owns four other offshore fishing vessels that are still at sea. “I will also install the same communication facilities on the other four vessels once they have returned to Taiwan. All five of my fishing vessels must also be certified by the EU. They have previously undergone the Fisheries Improvement Program (FIP), and now I am signing them up for the MSC Marine Stewardship Council) certification”.

Due to the epidemic, Taiwan is facing severe labour shortages. Many foreign fishermen are looking to transfer to other industries with better working conditions, such as becoming factory workers. Therefore, many ship owners and captains are worried about their foreign crew members quitting their jobs. On 24th November 2021, Mr. Chen hired a group of 15 Indonesian fishermen from Indonesia to work on the Man Foo Cai No.168. Before leaving the port, other vessel owners asked him why his foreign crew members had not “run away”, to which he replied, “The benefits I provide are great, the crew is very happy with their working conditions, the fishermen work happily, and they’re in high solidarity. Why would they want to run away?”

My consulting firm, Humanity Research Consultancy, serves clients all over the world, including Taiwan. In Taiwan, we have long been assisting international organisations concerned with human rights in the fishing industry as well as non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to promote the advancement of human and labour rights in Taiwan’s fishing industry. A while ago, after a meeting with the NGOs in Taiwan, we decided that one of our initiatives will be to encourage the provision of enabling communication tools for the fishermen on fishing vessels. This is because we believe that it is essential for fishermen to have the means to communicate externally, which is crucial in avoiding regretful occurrences and making the working environment better. For more information about this campaign, please refer to another article: “Having Internet Connection is a Human Right” – It’s About Time to Allow Workers at Sea to be Connected.

In fact, the International Labor Organisation “Work in Fishing Convention” (also known as ILO Convention No. 188) has also required means of communication to be provided to the crew members of fishing vessels. Article 71 of the Convention states that: “Communication equipment shall be adequately provided to all crew members on board a fishing vessel, and the expenses shall be as reasonable as possible and shall not exceed the total expenses of the owner of the vessel.”

At the 36th meeting of the Executive Yuan Human Rights Protection Promotion Group in June 2019, the Taiwanese government has decided to domesticate the ILO 188. Since the decision to domestically legalise Article 71 of the Convention has already been made, it is only a matter of time before the official encouragement or even regulation for fishing vessels to provide communication tools for fishermen takes place.

It is only a matter of time before it is necessary to encourage and even make regulations for fishing vessels to provide communication methods for fishermen. Photo credit: Shutterstock

Allowing the crew members to communicate, and to enable problems to be minimised

When fishing vessels are out fishing, the crew members on board must, of course, concentrate on their work, instead of spending time using the Internet. But if the vessel is resting at sea outside of working hours, having internet connections allows the crew members to watch videos on YouTube, listen to news broadcastings from their hometowns to ease their homesickness, and watch a variety of shows and news on TV.

Man Foo Cai No.168 departed the port in January this year. Once, after leaving the port, two Indonesian crew members received calls from their wives about issues with their salary. Both of them had received their monthly wage of USD 1,000 (about NTD 28,000) as usual, but after remitting the money back to Indonesia, their wives claimed to have received IDR 600,000 (about NTD 1,170) less than what was expected.

Even though they were at sea, with the communication facilities on the vessel, they were able to ask their wives to immediately send the documents to their mobile phones and to directly communicate with them. In the end, it turned out that it was just a misunderstanding, and the workers immediately apologised to their captain. “In such situations, with communication tools to connect with the land, problems occurred can be solved right away, and the crew are also grateful for this. If we do not assist the workers when things go wrong, the teeny-tiny problems may accumulate into bigger ones,” said Mr.Chen, the owner of the ship.

In the past, due to the high cost, maritime communication service was normally not available for fishermen on fishing vessels. The hardware for Wi-Fi instalments, such as antennas and hosts, used to cost millions of dollars. However, nowadays, the hardware items themselves do not need to be purchased, rather, they can be rented from telecommunication companies at a low cost and be returned to the companies once the vessel stops using them. Mr. Chen said: “At the beginning, it only took around one week for the technicians to install the hardware. The only payment required from my side is the monthly rental fee and installation fee. The monthly rental fee is about USD 2,000 (NTD 56,000) per month, which is about NTD 700,000 per year. It is not cheap, but if you think about it from another perspective, the crew will stay on board happier and longer. The management cost caused by labour flow can be decreased if the same group of workers stay with us for a longer-term. We are all pursuing higher standards, and I think it’s worthwhile to provide onboard communications.”

“We love it so much!” Mr. L, an Indonesian crew member, told me over a LINE call (an application similar to WhatsApp) with a voice full of joy. He said that he and the other crew members are satisfied with the communication equipment and leisure environment on the vessel. “We can make a 15-minute satellite phone call home every month,” he said. It turned out that Mr. Chen had prepared two satellite phones on board, one for the captain and one for the Indonesian crew. This approach is very different from the others offshore fishing vessels which provide satellite phones exclusively for the captain’s use.

While writing this article, I am in the UK, and the Man Foo Cai No.168 is on the vast sea southeast of Palau, a small country in the Pacific Ocean. Although the quality of the call is not the best, and there is a time lag in our conversation, it was still wonderful to be able to talk to the crew who are in the middle of the sea.

Because the ship attaches great importance to downloading on board, Man Foo Cai No.168 uses a satellite network with an altitude of 15,000 kilometres, and a bandwidth of 2M for download and 512KB for upload. However, with technology progressing rapidly, it is expected that there will be low-orbit satellites available for our use in the future, which will allow an even better signal.

Picturing a higher labour standard in Taiwan’s fishery industry

“The current situation in the fishing industry is also improving, especially after Taiwan has been issued a yellow card by the European Union, and the revisions of the three fishery laws. A lot has changed in recent years,” said Chen Wensheng. “For example, older fishing vessels used for more than 20 years are slowly being phased out due of safety concerns and the failure of their interior design to meet the current regulatory standards.”

Since the uncovering of labour mistreatment in the fishing industry in Taiwan years ago, the government, industry, media, and NGOs have taken their respective roles to promote the transformation and progression of labour conditions in the industry. “Although I believe it is great that many changes are being made, I hope that the Fisheries Agency’s approach is as much about communication as possible rather than punishment. Especially since Taiwanese captains and crew members normally have not received higher education, rigid laws and regulations are hard to be understood by them without communication. These people may feel resentful towards the legislative reforms.”

On many offshore fishing vessels, the source and the usage of drinking water are also key issues that require more attention. Therefore, Mr. Chen installed water filters and water dispensers on Man Foo Cai No.168. In addition, on many fishing vessels, foreign crew members may have to endure the scorching hot weather, and sometimes rather than staying in the stuffy cabin, they end up resting on the deck because it is too hot to stay indoors. Regarding this issue, Man Foo Cai 168 is equipped with air conditioners for foreign crew members’ use.

Mr. Chen’s vision and efforts to raise the standard of the working conditions of his fishing vessels is a model worth emulating by other industries. On his vessels, not only that there are no labour or human rights concerns, and there’s a great team spirit among the crew members. Mr. Chen also said: “This feels good. I can tell that the crew members have a high morale!”