Fish caught by vessels bearing the Taiwan flag have been classified as products of forced labor, based on the conditions under which the crews work, according to an annual report released Wednesday by the United States Department of Labor.
According to the report on Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor, Taiwan's longline fishing fleet of 1,100 vessels is the second largest in the world after China's and employs an estimated 35,000 migrant workers, mostly from Indonesia and the Philippines.
"Similar to crews on Chinese-flagged vessels, crews on Taiwan-flagged vessels face confiscation of documents, long days with little rest, physical and verbal abuse, and lack of payment," the 2020 document states, citing media reports.
Taiwan's inclusion for the first time in the report means that American companies buying fish from Taiwan suppliers might come under close scrutiny at U.S. Customs and risk suspension of the supply chain.
Commenting on the report Friday, Taiwan's Fisheries Agency said however that Taiwan's fish exports to the U.S. from distant water catches will not be immediately affected.
The agency said its top priorities are to improve the welfare of migrant fishermen, ensure observance of the relevant laws in the fishing industry, and keep the U.S. informed of Taiwan's efforts with regard to such issues.
Meanwhile, Andy Shen, senior oceans adviser at Greenpeace USA, said major American retailers, including Walmart and Costco, and national tuna brands such as Bumble Bee that are supplied by the Taiwanese fleet must assure consumers that they are not profiting from and perpetuating modern slavery on the high seas.
"The companies have a responsibility to use their economic power to change the Taiwanese government and seafood industry's human rights and environmental policies and practices," Shen said.
Also commenting on the report, the Human Rights for Migrant Fishers group in Taiwan urged the government to introduce laws before the end of the current legislative session to protect and enhance the rights of migrant fishermen and end forced labor and human trafficking on Taiwanese-flagged vessels.
"These measures must include more stringent labor inspection of Taiwan-flagged fishing vessels, greater transparency of fishing boat operations, establishment of a traceability system for fish caught by Taiwan-flagged vessels, and better oversight of the industry," the group said.