May 22, 2024 Last Updated 6:09 AM, May 21, 2024

Oppressed and they know it

Oppressed and they know it

Robert Tierney

   Indonesians were among these men protesting against the death
   of a migrant fisher
   Courtesy of the Catholic Hope Workers’ Center

There are many Indonesian migrant workers in Taiwan. In fact twice as many of the country's documented migrant workers come from Indonesia as from Vietnam or the Philippines or Thailand, each of which accounts for about 20 percent of 346,000-strong migrant workforce. The vast majority of Indonesian workers are women employed as care-givers for the elderly but there are also a significant number of men.

Indonesian men are mainly concentrated in relatively small labour intensive factories or as deep sea fishers, a sector where they represent around 4800 of the 6100 or so documented migrant workers. Because they work with other Indonesians, men employed as fishers do not experience anywhere near the same degree of isolation as Indonesian women who typically work unsupported in private homes. However, both are often denied access to their legal entitlements. Indonesian fishers' ability to resist this exploitation is limited because they work at sea - often alongside undocumented migrant workers - and because they have little support from the local labour movement. But the conditions in which they are forced to work are so appalling that they have driven at least some of them to act, linking up with migrant support groups and organising protests to get the Taiwanese government to force employers to pay the back wages they have withheld.


Irrespective of their nationality and position in the job market, Taiwan's migrant workers experience similar economic hardships, including exploitation by broker companies, which impose extremely high service charges for services that are either only partially provided or not provided at all. In the workplace, migrant workers are denied safe and healthy working conditions and labour insurance. They experience racism and bullying from employers, line managers and dormitory security officers as well as underpayment - or in many cases non-payment - of wages. As migrants often work 18 hours per day, seven days per week without the right to vacations or public holidays, they experience a profound sense of isolation as well as physical and emotional exhaustion. To make matters worse, they face the constant threat of deportation, often without explanation and after lengthy stretches in Taiwan's harsh and degrading migrant detention centres.

Of the documented fishers, Indonesians account for the majority with Vietnamese making up the next biggest group. However anecdotal evidence suggests that undocumented workers from the PRC (People's Republic of China) represent the bulk of migrant employment in Taiwan's deep sea fishing industry. When trawler-owners engage only mainland Chinese, they do so in order to drive down labour costs and conditions below even those paid to documented migrants. But mainland Chinese, Indonesians and Vietnamese also do work together on many trawlers, with the same wages and under the same conditions.

When on the boats they experience physical abuse from captains and crew, all too often being beaten as punishment for slow or unproductive work or perhaps simply as a way to indulge racist and violent temperaments. Reverend Bruno Ciceri, one of the Catholic Church's strongest supporters of migrant workers, has described many of Taiwan's trawlers as 'floating coffins' because of their poor ventilation together with filthy kitchens and lack of adequate safety equipment. As a result of this lack of proper sanitation, migrant and other fishers frequently experience malnutrition and food poisoning, causing vomiting and diarrhoea. Exacerbating these health problems is the claustrophobia of the crew's bunks which are typically more suited for children.

At times, migrant fishers have vented their frustration and anger both on each other and on the Taiwanese members of crew

Inter-ethnic violence is common when documented and undocumented migrants work together because the different migrant groups blame each other for their miserable working conditions. In one case during 2007, some 20 Indonesian men working on the trawler Ming Tung Yu 1724 allegedly threatened seven Chinese, who immediately radioed a distress call to Taiwan's Coast Guard. The Coast Guard dispatched five cutters to the vessel then situated some 70 kilometres off the island's west coast. They separated the two nationalities, gathering 21 Indonesians at the Ming Tung Yu's bow and the Chinese at the stern while they mediated a solution. A Chinese fisher was injured in the incident, forcing his hospitalisation in Kaohsiung.

At other times, migrant fishers have vented their frustration and anger on the Taiwanese members of crew. In October 2009, a violent argument broke out between the Taiwanese captain and one of the Indonesian crewmen on board the Japanese vessel Yu Chin No.166. A second Indonesian joined the fray, during which the two men threatened the lives of the captain and his Taiwanese chief engineer. For a week, the Taiwanese men locked themselves in the boat's cockpit off Japan's Ryukyu Islands to protect themselves. Six other Indonesian crew members brought them food and water while trying to end the violence. The Coast Guard Administration charged all eight Indonesians even though the Taiwanese men spoke in support of those who had helped them.

The degrading and dangerous conditions at sea often force migrant fishers to jump ship and look for alternative trawler employment. Most end up with one of Taiwan's multitude of illegal labour brokers, where each has to hand over between NT$6000-10,000 per month (around A$200-350) as a down-payment for accommodation in a half-way house, typically an over-crowded apartment. In addition, they are forced to pay NT$250 (around A$10) for daily meals and are not permitted to leave the premises for any reason because brokers fear being fined for housing 'illegals'. Once the brokers find the men new trawling jobs, they each must pay an 'introduction fee', amounting to an additional NT$5000-10,000 (about A$170-350). It can take undocumented run-away fishers many months of earnings to recoup the money they must pay to the broker.

Fighting back

The situation is tricky for Indonesian and Vietnamese fishers. The vast majority of Taiwan's formal-sector employers have long forced migrant workers to tolerate excessive overtime and failed to pay the overtime rates stipulated by the Labour Standards Act. But while the ships manned by documented migrants operate in Taiwanese waters and are commanded by Taiwanese captains, they are largely owned by overseas companies. According to the Taiwanese government, this means that it can't intervene in wage disputes because of the foreign ownership of the fishing vessels, and migrant fishers are told to seek resolution of their grievances in the courts of the vessels' countries of origin. In addition, with the exception of the Taiwan International Workers' Union and a handful of labour groups affiliated with the Beijing aligned Labour Rights Association, the labour unions have done nothing to help.

To make matters worse, migrant fishers in Taiwan are acutely aware of a bizarre incident in mid 2007, which left seven Indonesians extremely traumatised. When the Taiwanese captain of a fishing boat took his own life by throwing himself overboard, his family accused the Indonesian crew of murdering him. On two occasions, Taiwan's Courts found the crew not guilty but after each verdict the family lodged an appeal. The crew were incarcerated at migrant detention centres at Hsinchu and Nantou from the time they were first arrested. They were only released in April 2009, when the Pingtung District Court gave permission for Indonesia's de facto 'Embassy' in Taipei to accommodate them in its male shelter. The 'Embassy' has now organised free legal aid to help the crew mount their defence against a third appeal by the family.

But all is not uniformly bleak. As with care-givers and domestic workers, Taiwan's migrant fishers have begun to fight back. Beginning in December 2002, around 20 documented Indonesian and Vietnamese fishers sought the assistance of the Catholic Hope Workers' Centre and of the Taiwan Association of Victims of Occupational Injuries to organise a protest outside the CLA (Council of Labour Affairs) in Taipei, demanding a massive pay-back of unpaid wages from employers who had been paying some of them as little as NT7000 per month (about A$240), or just 44 per cent of the minimum wage to which they were legally entitled. No information is available on whether they won the case, but at the very least they have developed a sense of class and inter-ethnic solidarity together with the realisation that they were not altogether politically powerless and friendless in Taiwan.

If fishers and other migrant workers in Taiwan are really to change their situation, they need to unite on a much larger scale, joining forces with care-givers and others who are beginning to come together to demand better wages and conditions. Some of the more militant migrants I have spoken to believe that this kind of solidarity is not only achievable but would also help to overcome long-standing ethnic and gender divisions among the migrant community. It may even inspire local Taiwanese to recognise that these migrants are brother workers and join with them in solidarity.

Robert Tierney ( teaches industrial relations and management at Charles Sturt University in Australia.

Inside Indonesia 100: Apr-Jun 2010

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