A group of foreign fishermen in Taiwan were locked in tiny windowless rooms around the clock to stop them escaping while not at sea, prosecutors said in the island's latest abuse case involving migrant workers.
Fishing and boat company owners were among 19 people charged Monday in the southern city of Kaohsiung for illegally holding 81 foreign fishermen in buildings after they had berthed their boats.
When they were at sea, the fishermen were sometimes made to work for 48 consecutive hours without rest for a monthly wage of US$300-$500, the prosecutors said -- despite Taiwan's labour laws which stipulate a maximum working day of eight hours and minimum wage of around $930.
"The accused exploited the fishermen with illegal methods for their own profit," prosecutors said in a statement, describing the fishermen as "slave labour in the sea".
The 19 face charges of human trafficking and offences against personal liberty and could face a maximum seven-year jail term if convicted.
Prosecutors also confiscated nearly Tw$3.69 million ($123,000) from the companies in back pay for the workers.
The case came to light last year after a fisherman tipped off prosecutors with the help of a social worker, the statement said.
Authorities later raided two places where fishermen from countries including Indonesia, the Philippines, Tanzania and Vietnam were held and rescued them.
Environmentsl group Greenpeace has said previously that foreign crew on Taiwanese vessels endure "horrendous" working conditions and physical abuse, as well as withheld payments and exploitation by recruitment agents.
The case comes after an outcry over a police shooting of an unarmed Vietnamese migrant worker last month.
According to rights groups, exploitation of migrant workers is frequently reported in Taiwan, where around 600,000 foreigners work as caregivers, fishermen, construction and factory workers.
Chuang Shu-ching, a spokeswoman for Taiwan International Workers' Association, said the government leaves the matter in the hands of for-profit private recruitment agencies, who mostly serve the interests of employers.
Southeast Asians who make up the bulk of Taiwan's migrant workers also face racial discrimination, she said.
"Labour conditions for migrant workers haven't improved in more than a decade and the same problems will continue if the system remains the same," Chuang said, recommending the establishment of state recruitment agencies.
In the shooting case, police have come under criticism for firing nine shots at the unarmed Vietnamese migrant worker.
A security guard slightly wounded when he was attacked by the worker was sent to hospital in the first ambulance to arrive on the scene.
The second ambulance came half an hour later for the worker, with rights groups saying his treatment was deliberately delayed.
The migrant worker's family and campaigners are calling for Taiwan's top government watchdog, the Control Yuan, to investigate his case.