For the past few months, I have been interviewing NGOs, a few migrants and even got a documented interview from the Ministry of Labor, all about what is happening with migrant workers in Taiwan.
Like most people in Taiwan, I did not realize just how terrible the law in Taiwan is to migrant workers. As much as I complain about immigration laws in Taiwan, I am not subject to the same laws as a migrant worker, and in that case, I am weirdly afforded a certain “foreigner privilege”.
Interviewing Migrant Workers
I interviewed migrant workers in Taipei Main Station in November and there were two interviews with a Filipino caregiver and an Indonesian caregiver that confused me.
They both told me that life in Taiwan was very good and that despite low wages, the broker system and not having their contracts honored to give them 1 day off a week, they were happy.
Taiwan International Workers’ Associations response
“Those [migrant workers] you see in the train station; they are the lucky ones already. I mean they have a day off” Said Jing Ru, a spokesperson from the Taiwan International Workers’ Association, who further said that ‘less than 10% of domestic workers get a day off a month.’
674,000 migrant workers in Taiwan – from South-East Asian countries – face discrimination due to Taiwanese labor laws. As a result migrant rights groups are calling on the government to amend laws to give foreign laborers the same legal protection as locals.
Migrant Empowerment Network Taiwan – a consortium of NGOs – launched a mock referendum to call on the government to give migrant workers better working conditions, according to a Migrant Empowerment Network Taiwan Referendum document “We are not Taiwan citizens, but we also have rights.” The results of the referendum on Dec. 10 showed support from 10,000 Taiwanese and foreign nationals who voted in favor.
The mock referendum called for:
1. Domestic workers and caregivers to be included under the protection of Labor Standards Law – 260,000 caregivers and domestic workers do not have the same legal protection as locals or migrants in other industries.
2. Abolish the broker system, promote government to government direct hiring – the brokerage system is a middle-man system. The broker will put a migrant and an employer together and will take a monthly commission from the migrant’s salary. Some migrants are forced to pay almost a year’s salary to have a broker find them a job, and this is akin to modern-day indentured slavery in many cases.
3. Freedom to transfer to a new employer – Currently, if migrant workers want to change employer, they are not free to do so without a broker.
The referendum is being done to be a call to action, not just for migrants to call on the government to change the laws affecting them, but also for greater Taiwan society.
Jing Ru from TIWA said that the laws that affect 670,000 should have their input, and not being “citizens” is not enough of a reason to exclude them from political discussions that determine their well-being in Taiwan.
The issues for domestic workers and caregivers
Currently, domestic workers and caregivers do not have any legal rights under Taiwan’s labor law and migrant workers cannot freely transfer employers. They lack the same legal protection as locals or expatriates, and with Taiwan’s population aging fast, more migrant workers will be required in the future.
This has been an ongoing issue since 2003 when organizations like the Taiwan International Workers’ Association began to call on the government to make changes. The Number of migrant workers has more than doubled from 303,000 in 2003 to 674,000 in late 2017.
This isn’t a surprise when it is considered Taiwan also has the third lowest fertility rate in the world, being even lower than Japan. In the future, many more migrants will come to Taiwan to keep Taiwan’s economy competitive, all the while migrants take below minimum wage incomes.
The government’s strategy to face their lowering birth rate has been to import manpower from South-East Asia, according to Article 52 of the Amendment Act. Basically, migrant workers are in Taiwan for the purpose of aiding in the development and progress of Taiwan’s economy and there are safeguards to prevent them from affecting Taiwanese jobs.
At least 60% of elderly Taiwanese are being taken care of by family members and 30% by South-East Asian caregivers, and the issue of needing and exploiting domestic workers is because the government does not provide adequate elder care to Taiwan’s aging population and relies on 260,000 domestic workers, said Jing.
In other words, Taiwan’s elder care system is 90% provided by families and migrant workers. Jing Ru from TIWA said that this is a feminist issue. This is because nearly all the people caring for the elderly are women, whether it be from a family, or a migrant caregiver, the responsibility for the elderly in Taiwanese society is placed on women.
For those who can afford it, a migrant caregiver is an option, but without legal protection by labor laws, many of these caregivers are exploited with pay, hours worked and not having days off regularly.
The hotline for migrant complaints
The hotline for migrant worker complaints, 1955, has received the most complaints in 2017 than ever before and the service is the government’s strategy to help prevent abuse of migrant workers.
But the hotline, as a strategy to prevent abuse, has not been complemented by effective laws and regulations to prevent abuse of migrant workers, said Jing who further said that migrants are part of ‘modern slavery’ in Taiwan and that “they don’t have the freedom to transfer employer, they have to have lots of debt too before they can come to Taiwan to work.”
The government strategy of using the 1955 hotline for migrant workers to call grievances is ineffective because the ‘government is outsourcing the call-centers and the staff is not trained correctly or understand the laws that apply to migrant workers’.
Migrants are often told they should do what their boss tells them to and they “have come here to work, and not to complain” said Lennon Ying-Dah Wong, Director of the Serve the People Association, which shelters abused migrant workers.
Lennon talked about an extreme case in which a caregiver was being touched inappropriately and was not helped by the 1955 hotline.
“The boss in the house often took advantage of her, sometimes not so serious, maybe touching or scratching. So she just ignored it. But there was once a very big violation, he tried to touch her breasts. So, she called 1955 for help, and they told her she overreacted too much and that it was a friendly touch.”
When she contacted her broker, the middle-man between her and her employer, they told her that if it happens again, they will transfer her to another employer. “She had to be harassed again before she could be transferred,” said Lennon.
He also said that one of the key reasons for many cases of abuse is because migrant workers cannot transfer employers freely and they have to finish their 3-year contracts before being able to change employers that might be abusive.
The decrease in “Runaways”
There was a decrease in migrant workers that reside illegally in Taiwan. These people are referred to as “runaways” by the media and government because they didn’t finish their work contracts. The number of “runaways” dropped between 2016 -2017 from 21,708 to 17,096 (21%).
This was because of changes in the Labor Standard Act which gave migrant workers one flexible and one rest day in their work week. However, with recent protests by the NPP about the return to the old labor laws that were far more exploitative of workers, it can be speculated whatever good the government can state it has made in 2017, will be undone in 2018 if the assumption that their changes in the Labor Standard Act was the reason fewer migrants “ran away”.
Human Rights Report for Taiwan in 2016
Despite this decrease, ‘the number of inspectors and labor inspection rate were still too low to serve as an effective deterrent against labor violations and unsafe working conditions for migrant workers,’ according to the US State Department’s 2016 Taiwan Human Rights Report.
“The Ministry of Labor did not effectively enforce statutes and regulations intended to protect foreign laborers from unscrupulous brokers and employers.”
The need for migrant workers is outlined by the amendments made to the Employment Services Act in 2016 which said: “Taiwan is currently facing an aging population and low birth rate, as well as the need for high-quality manpower in a globalized economy.”
If current trends continue, Taiwan’s migrant worker population may continue to grow, and without effective mechanisms to protect them from abuse and exploitation, the problems faced today by over half a million South-East Asians might be exacerbated further in the future.
It has been a very sobering experience to look into the problems being faced by migrant workers. Up until now, I have been consumed with the problems of expats in Taiwan and seeing another side of Taiwan that isn’t beef noodles and progressiveness, has been insightful.
Sure, Taiwan is a democratic country, with a great civil society, but after opening my eyes a little more, I saw the issues here that are affecting so many migrant workers and the lack of involvement by society in Taiwan for their betterment.
If Taiwan wants to be seen as a progressive paragon in Asia, then the government and people should do more to give basic rights and enforce those rights for migrant workers. After all, they are the people who care for their elderly, built infrastructure and continue to aid Taiwan’s economy to be competitive.