WASHINGTON — Allison Lee (李麗華), secretary general of the Yilan Migrant Fishermen Union (YMFU, 宜蘭縣漁工職業工會), was recognized Tuesday for upholding the rights of foreign fishermen at a ceremony held at the U.S. State Department on Tuesday.
She was one of eight “trafficking in person heroes” to be given the State Department’s “Hero Acting to End Modern Slavery Award” at the ceremony, and the first ever Taiwanese citizen to receive the honor.
Lee was honored “in recognition of her unwavering advocacy on behalf of foreign fishermen on Taiwan-flagged vessels, her central role in forming the first labor union composed of and led by foreign workers, and her courage in demanding stronger protections for vulnerable workers through sustained engagement with authorities and the public,” according to the citation.
She received the award from U.S. Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson and also had brief exchanges with Ivanka Trump, daughter and adviser to U.S. President Donald Trump, who asked about her work in upholding foreign fishermen’s rights in Taiwan.
The ceremony was held in conjunction of the unveiling of the U.S. State Department’s Trafficking in Persons Report, which is published annually to help other countries combat human trafficking.
Taiwan was listed in the Tier 1 category — the best ranking in the report — for the eighth consecutive year, but the report still expressed concerns about foreign fishermen being abused by Taiwanese fishing boat owners and their exploitation by brokerage firms.
Lee was a key figure in the establishment of the YMFU in February 2013, the first union focused on the rights and interests of foreign fishermen.
Her years of effort on the issue drew the attention and recommendation of the American Institute in Taiwan, the de facto U.S. embassy in Taiwan in the absence of diplomatic ties between the two countries.
Lee said after the ceremony that she was involved in labor movements early on and later followed Cheng Tsun-chi (鄭村棋), former chief of Taipei’s Department of Labor, to work in government.
She started to help foreign fishermen five years ago, saying that being a Christian gave her strength to withstand the pressure from all levels of government, businesses, and Taiwan’s Chinese Federation of Labor and never give up.
Lee said that while fishermen cannot vote in Taiwan and rarely receive attention from elected officials, they are also members of Taiwanese society.
“I’ve learned a lot from helping them,” she said.