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Migrant Worker Rights in Taiwan: An Interview with The Taiwan International Workers’ Association (TIWA)

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Earlier this month I had the pleasure to interview Jing Ru Wu from the Taiwan International Workers’ Association (台灣國際勞工協會). I am currently writing a report for an NCCU course on international journalism and I wanted to write about a subject in Taiwan that I felt needs to be addressed, namely, the rights of migrant workers in Taiwan.

Below is a transcript of the interview I conducted with Jing and it was an interesting conversation. I am not sure many of us in Taiwan, both foreign and local, actually understand the complexities of working in Taiwan as a ‘migrant worker’.

The hierarchy of expats on top, Taiwanese in the middle and migrant workers on the bottom is quite detestable for the fact that these three groups are all treated differently under Taiwanese law. In the case of caregivers and domestic workers, or 40% of the total migrant worker workforce, they have no protection from the Labor Standards Law because it is not applicable to them.

The interview blow has only been slightly edited. I prefer transcripts to be as close to the recording as possible.

Q1. Do you think migrant workers are aware of their rights in Taiwan?

Jing: At the very beginning (1992) they weren’t really aware of them, but around this decade (2003) people fighting started for the basic changes. So, there are some basic changes, so before they didn’t know where to complain, and they don’t even have any channel to complain.

So now, there is 1955, the general line, the general hotline for everyone with different languages, and they can call to complain. We aren’t talking about the quality yet (of the channels) but at least there is a channel now. And in the airports, they have a migrant desk, so if they are forced to be illegally deported, they can run to the desk to ask for help. So, these are the little changes, so that they can be protected.

But, on the other hand, for me it is not enough. Some people are so easy to compromise, yeah, migrant workers is like 650,000, so most of them like 260,000 or 250,000 are the domestic workers and they are working in individual houses.

We have a rally once every two years and you can see lots of people join, but it’s only a small percentage of the total amount of migrants and it’s only in Taipei. And, since you are in Taiwan, you know well that there is a big gap between rural areas and urban areas when it comes to transportation and information. So there are lots of people who aren’t aware of their rights.

So, that’s the situation, and according to the local government, there are the ones who mainly manage migrant labor disputes. The way they deal with it is not really….equal, or based on the law. Even the officials of the local government are so easy to push the workers to just compromise their rights, so they can close the case.

So, this kind of situation is still happening and lots of people don’t really have time, have channels, have strength enough to complain, because the one who controls them is not only their employees, but also the broker, and the broker system has the real power over migrants living and rights to work here. So that is a restriction for them to be really be aware and be like, stand up for their rights.

Q2. Do you think current labor laws for migrant workers are adequate or fair?

Jing: No, no, no not at all. I mean, if you observe the recent legislative yuan tried to, they passed a law about white-collar, white-collar migrant workers, regulations, and if you compare this to other laws, like the one for blue-collar migrants and they are totally different. The gap is so huge. These people are discriminated by the policy itself, by the law itself.

These people are the kind of people are what we call the ‘modern slavery’ in Taiwan. They don’t have freedom to transfer employer, they have to have lots of debt to before they can come to Taiwan to work (paying brokers). Domestic workers have no legal protection and all their rights are very restricted.

Q3. Would you consider it a form of ‘indentured slavery’?

Jing: Yes, definitely. Yeah, so when the very first time in 2006, or 2005 when Taiwan government tried to discuss about the trafficking issue, and at that moment we were criticising the government.

The policy was government to government organized crime actually. This Taiwan government the other migrant government to send these people in this kind of slavery situation, and this is organized crime, definitely.

Q4. Why did you and other organizations, organize the migrant worker’s referendum?

Jing: We have been fighting for the labor rights for migrants, since 1999 and then recently, since Tsai Ing’s government tried to extend new diplomatic relationships to South-Asian countries, with the Southbound Policy. But in the labour perspective, migrants aren’t treated well, and they are not even treated well politically.

DOC12

When we are doing our rallies, when we are doing our demonstrations, it is easy for them to get into trouble with not only the Taiwanese government and police, but also their home country.

It is easy for them be threatened by their home country’s government, who says if you are trying to join any rallies in Taiwan, we will not allow you to return to Taiwan in the future. So, this kind of threat is on the table and under the table and is so easy to be seen in the migrant circles in Taiwan.

So, we are first trying to mention to the society that they are people here, and human beings, and not only to be treated a labour, but be treated as people. They should have the right to voice out about the policies that are related to them. On the other we also we want to bring some new point of view to the Taiwan society about what we call ‘citizenship’.

DOC5

What is a citizen? And why does the term “citizen” have to be limited? For example, if I am citizen and you are not, what is the difference between us? When we expect this society can be developed better for people to live in, you, non-citizen, should your ideas be included or not?

And on the other hand, if I didn’t see these other people or minorities suffering from these policies in Taiwan. If I didn’t open my eyes to see those suppressed people, then we don’t see if Taiwan is a democratic society, or a real and fair society.

So, this is what we are trying to bring out, not only migrant political rights, voting rights, but also, the point of view of Taiwan’s societies, what should a citizen be and should not be. This is our first try actually.

Q5. You have been criticized by people who claim foreigners should have no rights in demanding changes to legislation, what is your response?

Jing: Yeah, if we relate it to two issues, first of all, citizen or not, secondly if it is a representative system or a referendum. When you compare these two, one is choosing a representative, and one is expressing your idea about policy.

In MENT (Migrant Empowerment Network in Taiwan), we don’t really have a common agreement on the representative system in Taiwan. I don’t trust it and I don’t like the representative system, but every one of us can agree on what are goal is with the referendum.

People should be able to speak out on policies that affect them the most. So, they should have the right to voice out. This is a very basic idea.

Q6. What do you want to achieve by organizing a mock referendum?

Jing: As I said, first of all we want to challenge citizenship ideology idea, and secondly, we want to let people think that policy making should be seen as making process and who and how and the what should be involved in this whole process.

We don’t really want to make any conclusion yet, we just want to at least start this kind of discussion, this kind of debating even, to make people think it over and since the migrant workers and also actually and many non-citizen, foreign spouses who are can’t become citizens yet.

There are many, not only migrants, immigrants, who are not citizens yet. But they have a long contribution, long relations, long living here. So, since we are living together, everyone should have rights to discuss the policies related to them and it will affect the way Taiwanese society should be developed.

Q7. The referendum calls for differences in three areas, abolishing brokers, and allowing domestic workers and caregivers to be covered under the Labour Standard Law and the freedom to transfer employee, how did you decide on these three areas?

Jing: These three topics, we have been bringing them up since 2003. These three topics are long existing problems that we haven’t achieved anything with yet. And these three topics and related policies are those which make the migrant workers suffer a lot. They are the main problem they have been facing. This is why these three are the main problems.

Q8.  As I mentioned to you before, I have interviewed some caregivers in Taipei mains station, and they mentioned that although they are not necessarily given their days off stated in their contract, they are happy, but they are happy, how would you explain that?

Jing; First of all, 260,000 domestic workers are in Taiwan. And those you can see in the train station, they are the lucky ones already. I mean they have a day off. According to the MOL, only like less than 10% of domestic workers get Sunday day off. So how many workers you have seen workers you see in the train station? And look at how many are in Taiwan?

So, the percentage is very few. These people might be really lucky, they can be there. That’s they have a day off, in some way, either one day in a month, or one day every week. In some way they can be there and in some way, those who tell they are happy might tell you they have a good employer who can understand the difficulties for migrants and who can understand how hard a caretaker’s work is.

And if you are in an individual house, you have been working for 24 hours. Not physically working, but you have to work with every demand and the relationship with the boss, not family actually, even if they are close, they are still different than a family member.

The stress is always there. They must be always be ready for any request from the family, so that is working, that’s not really relaxing, when they are suppose to be allowed time off. We can easily imagine when we ourselves relaxing, what we have done in the house, we don’t care about anything, but they are in an individual house, and they have to get themselves always ready, not only for the patient’s needs, but the family’s needs. If they feel better they might have a nice employee, who respects their efforts and contributions to the family and in that way, that’s good.

From our experiences, life for them doesn’t have to be materially good. We know some caretakers, they have to sleep in the same room as patients, and the room is very small, and the family condition is not that good, but they are happy too, because they always say the employee treat them very good.

So it is not only just being physically treated well, but also the personal interaction is a factor. They were treated as to know they are respected and their contribution too is respect.

So that’s the main the problem here. Most of the people they do contribute a lot to the society, especially in Taiwan the elder problem, the long-term care offered is useless. So, lots of people have to hire domestic workers and these domestic workers are individually, everyday 24 hours, no days off, keep on working. If the relationship with the employer is good, most of them will be satisfied.

This is no good actually, but if they don’t convince themselves in this way, to fit themselves into this situation, there will be problems, the burden, the pressure, so in recent years, we have more cases of psychological problems for domestic workers and caretakers. Before, when we had the cases, there were many cases of sexual abuse, and ugh occupational injuries, salary problems, this and that, but in recent years the psychological problems are getting worse. So, that’s the difficult.

I mean, difficult to find out the real situation, what caused their psychological pressure, yeah, but when we have them here, it is really terrible then, that kind of case often the government doesn’t deal with it, the broker whose charged them doesn’t know how to deal with them either, so they will always ask for our help. These kinds of cases are, well, not many, but we are seeing them more often in recent years.

The pressure of a caretake, or if the caretaker is satisfied with working condition, individually I do believe, there are lots of good employers, even lots, not really lots, but even also nice brokers, yeah. But systematically, it’s there is a big issue in general.

Q9. With low birth rates and an aging population, there will be obviously caregivers and domestic workers coming to Taiwan, and how does that present itself for you and your organization and where do you think this will lead Taiwan to?

Jing: Um, that’s a problem and I actually since 2013, we have had several conferences, several rallies, to criticise the social welfare system in Taiwan. So far, they are what you call ‘long-term care system’ as a social welfare system. But it’s not enough at all, it’s far from enough. According to some NGOs research, they said that 60% of the elderly are being taken care of by their family, 30% are by migrant caretakers. So, these migrant caretakers, together with family members are suffering a lot.

I mean, in the family they don’t have enough support from the government, so if you read the news in recent years, there are lots of tragedies happening in recent years. A grandfather killing grandmothers, mothers committing suicide with their disabled children. Lots of tragedies have happened.

And for the domestic workers, this is true. They are suffering a lot because the working hours are so long, the salary is lower than the minimum wage because they are not covered by the labour standard law.

So, the situation is getting worse. So since 2003 we have been organizing an alliance to campaign against this kind of system that the government is trying to build up that they call a form of social welfare. And recently the government took over the authority for this and their policy for long-term system is to market it.

They are extending to system to enlarge the market power inside the social welfare system. It means the government isn’t taking responsibility. They say that if we make it as an industry and a market, there will be more opportunity, more services which can offer to different needs.

Actually, as the market goes on, it will become a case that poorer families will not be able to afford the long-term care services and the working class and domestic workers situation will not get better and this is just a terrible situation. Just a few days ago we had a press conference in front of the legislative yuan and we strongly criticized the long-term care system.

The long-term care system, they use an unstable budget and the budget is small and job creation for locals to be caretakers in these services are bad, so no locals want to be caregivers. The working conditions are too poor.

So, migrant workers aren’t included in the long-term care system and they leave them alone to be in the market and to be outside of the protection of the law. That’s it, that’s terrible.

Q10. One last question, it is something that I haven’t come across, but why aren’t caregivers and domestic workers covered under the Labor Standards Law?

Jing: We are asking this question too! You should go to the MOL and ask too.

Mossy: They never got back to me. I called the DPP international department, the WDA and the MOL and everyone is too busy.

(WDA eventually got back to me)

Jing: We have been discussing about protection for domestic workers since 2003. We can just legal protection, either covered by the Labor Standard, or they have special laws for domestic workers.

But since 2003 up to now, every time the government, Tsai Ing-wen too, when the election is going on, she is so like sympathetic person, and says the domestic workers, it’s a pity, they should have rest and how come they don’t have a rest day and we should do more and their working conditions should be legally protected. That’s only under their election period.

Ma Ying jiu did that too. So, when they were elected, everything just was gone. So that is so ridiculous, and these issues are also gender issue. I mean if you look back to the feminist movement, the private sectors work should more socialized. The government should take responsibility for these reproduction burden from the individual houses so that women can be more independent.

But these kinds of issues are gender issues and even though the Taiwanese government signed into the UN CEDAW organization (Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women).

Taiwan’s government signed into CEDAW. But have they once ever tried to attend their meeting? It’s a convention on gender equality. The government signed it and supposedly they should be aware of the gender issue, but these people, 260,000 domestic caretakers and helpers, like 99% maybe of them are female, so these people they even establish a special committee in the executive yuan called the gender equality committee and they don’t even think of caretakers and domestic worker issues as a gender issue. So, this is ridiculous.

Q11. If they aren’t covered under the Labor Standards Law are they only covered under their contract?

Jing: Yes.

Mossy: Their contract is their only……

Jing: Their contract is a very standard contract so far, so on a domestic worker’s contract, one day off in 7 days, but no one reads it.

Q12. But who actually decides what is legal in their contract?

Jing: Nobody

Q13. Just brokers and employees?

Jing: Yes, that’s it, so imagine that how can domestic worker, the individual, the one with a problem with their employer, a day off for example, and the employers are not following the contract. Will the worker bring the contract to court? And go against the employer in that way? In lawsuit? They live together. And where can these workers sue the employer based on the contract? That’s impossible and that’s a big problem with what the domestic workers are facing.

Closing Thoughts

After the interview ended, Jing has brought up again the discussion of citizenship and political representation for non-nationals in Taiwan. It was unfortunate I didn’t record this but I am thankful I was able to talk to her about the issue.

For the most part, I haven’t questioned what it is to be a citizen. To me, it was clear. Citizens vote for their representation and take part in referendums to define their countries. Non-nationals do not have that privilege because they are not the citizens.

However, since researching the issue of migrant workers in Taiwan and from my own experiences talking to people about the APRC and gaining citizenship in Taiwan, I feel the concept of ‘citizenship’ should be challenged, not only in Taiwan, but everywhere.

I do agree that non-nationals should not be allowed to vote on representation in elections, but they should have some political rights. Whatever laws and regulations govern long-term expats or people who reside in Taiwan and call it home should include input form us. Hence, MENTs referendum. It is a mock referendum, but at least it is a start to begin some dialogue with the government to perhaps view migrants and in a more indirect way, expats, as being entities that should have more say in the laws and policies that affect them.

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