Vietnamese fishing communities seek justice in lawsuit against Taiwanese corporation

Formosa Plastics Group building. Photo: Lucychu

In 2016, a Taiwanese steel plant in Vietnam dumped toxic pollution into the ocean, destroying local livelihoods and incurring millions of dollars of environmental damage. Now seven thousand of these Vietnamese fishermen and their families are taking the Formosa Group to court.

By Skylar Lindsay

In April 2016, a group of divers off the coast of central Vietnam’s Ha Tinh province discovered a plume of red and yellow liquid pouring into the ocean from a pipe. The pipe was a sewage line connected to a steel plant run by Taiwanese company Formosa Plastics Group.

Soon after, local residents began to see fish, clams and whales washing up dead on the beaches. In late April, divers working with Formosa near the plant were hospitalised and one died.

The pollution forced fishermen in the area to give up their jobs, sell their boats and leave home to find work in cities. Those with enough money went to Taiwan and found work as day labourers.

“Before the marine disaster happened, I could earn up to 15 million Vietnamese dong [US$640],” said Nguyen Viet Thieu, a fisherman in the area. “But after, I didn’t sell any fish at all. I was sick of my profession.”

Earlier this month, more than 7,800 Vietnamese villagers filed a US$4.5 million lawsuit against Formosa in a Taiwanese court.

The case is being brought by lawyers with the Taiwanese civil society group Environmental Rights Foundation (ERF). The lawsuit seeks to secure remedies for the victims, stop any ongoing pollution at the Formosa plant and prevent future environmental disasters.

“The marine environment has still not fully recovered. The income of fishermen is still less than half what it was in the past,” Zoe Huang, a lawyer with ERF, told ASEAN Today.

Because the waste dumping occurred in Vietnam, the Taiwanese court will apply Vietnamese law and determine whether Formosa violated a number of domestic environmental laws and regulations. 

A boat in Ha Tinh.

Formosa’s US$11-billion Ha Tinh steel plant is the largest foreign investment project in Vietnam and is a joint venture between Formosa, China Steel Corporation and Japan’s JFE Steel. The ERF suit names 24 defendants, most of them subsidiaries of Formosa, but also includes China Steel, JFE and five former board members at Formosa Ha Tinh.

The lawsuit is the first transnational environmental case against a Taiwanese corporation. But it still doesn’t include all of the local residents affected by the disaster. The lawyers identified as many plaintiffs as they could but under Taiwanese law, a case like this must be filed within three years of the alleged corporate negligence. 

The lawyers believe they currently have enough evidence to secure compensation for 50 plaintiffs. ERF will continue to gather evidence for the rest of the plaintiffs and they may be able to secure compensation at a later date.

While the fish die off, we point fingers

The damage in 2016 affected more than 200 kilometres of coastline and spanned at least five provinces: Ha Tinh, Nghe An, Quang Binh, Quang Tri, and Thua Thien Hue. More than 20 divers and dozens of people who ate seafood from the region reported health problems connected to the pollution.

By late June, the Vietnamese government reportedly had evidence that cyanide and phenol from Formosa’s Ha Tinh plant were responsible for the fish deaths. 

Formosa admitted it caused the disaster and apologised to the Vietnamese people. The steel plant was using a “wet coking” method that produces contaminated wastewater. The company hadn’t received approval from the government to use this processing method.

“Our company takes full responsibility and sincerely apologises to the Vietnamese people,” said Formosa Ha Tinh chairman Chen Yuan-Cheng at the time.

Limited compensation drew protests

The company promised to pay US$500 million to the Vietnamese government to clean up the spill, compensate local residents and help them find new jobs. But many residents were never compensated and those who were only received US$2,430. 

None of the local residents in Nghe An province reportedly received any compensation. Government research on water flows determined that they weren’t impacted by the dumping. But many fishermen from Nghe Anh fished in the waters off of neighbouring Ha Tinh province.

The affected divers and their families have struggled to secure any compensation. Formosa hired many of them through a third party for work in the water around the plant. When they began to get sick and one of them died from the complications, Formosa cancelled the company’s contract. The divers and their families were left out when the government distributed compensation.

Residents across the region organised protests to call for fair compensation but again faced government repression. 

“The Vietnamese government did not properly handle these protests. Instead, they suppressed them,” said Huang. “Many fishermen and affected people were subjected to very serious violations when they fought for their rights.”

The movement for accountability in the Formosa case has been subject to what some rights groups call a crackdown on freedom of expression by the state. 

The Vietnamese government has arrested and jailed dozens of activists as well as bloggers who wrote about the disaster and the government’s response. Activists have been punished for meeting with foreign government delegations and prevented from speaking to them at all.

Litigation for a case like this can take years. It may be up to a decade before any of the plaintiffs see compensation.

But the lawsuit could also pave the way for similar cases in Vietnam. Victims of environmental damage caused by foreign corporations could stand a chance of seeking justice through the legal system in the country where a corporation is based. 

Formosa has also been accused of abandoning waste contaminated with mercury at its seaport in Sihanoukville, Cambodia. 

“After this incident, I hope the fishermen have the right to know the information, especially environmental information relevant for the fish industry,” said Huang.

Supporters of the lawsuit organised a protest outside Formosa’s headquarters in Taipei on the day of the court filing. One woman held a sign that read “Fish died, people died, we are still suffering.” The case may not be able to alleviate the suffering. But it can offer some form of justice to those who have had their voices drowned out and silenced for too long.