Tue, Aug 23, 2005 - Page 8 News List

Editorial: Riots rooted in injustices

A riot by Thai workers on Sunday night in Kaohsiung wasn't a prison riot, but there were many common features. Although the workers are not prisoners, their freedom is restricted to almost the same degree and the conditions they live in are not dissimilar to a jail. In a nation that prides itself as being built on human rights, the riot that swept through the community of construction workers is a shameful incident.

On Sunday night, hundreds of the 1,700 Thai workers living in dormitories provided by the Kaohsiung Rapid Transit Company (KRTC) in the Peichichang (北機場) area rebelled in protest of their living conditions. The violence began when dormitory staff sought to enforce rules forbidding workers from smoking and drinking inside the dormitory compound. This gave rise to acrimony, leading workers to throw stones and damage cars. The arrival of the police further inflamed the situation. Some workers, who were drunk, threw petrol bombs and set fire to a tin shed that served as the dormitory's management office.

After more than 15 hours of negotiations between representatives of the government, the KRTC and the workers, an agreement was reached and the incident can be said to have been brought to a conclusion.

The arson, stone-throwing and smashing of cars perpetrated by the workers are serious crimes and the government should ensure that there is no repetition of such violations of public safety laws. But the Thai workers' demands were not unreasonable.

Their requests to be allowed to use mobile phones, that a ban on alcohol be lifted, that their NT$5,000 in pocket money be paid in cash rather than tokens, that a satellite dish be installed so they can watch Thai television programs, that overtime be paid according to work done -- and that a limit on paid overtime of 46 hours be lifted -- and that Thais be employed as dormitory management staff, are perfectly reasonable.

In Taiwan today, people are unwilling to accept labor-intensive, high-risk, dirty or low-wage work. The government has no option but to import foreign workers to relieve the labor shortage in these sectors. Unfortunately, regulations, society and employers' attitudes have not been adjusted to fit the new situation. Outdated laws, poor management, a slave-owner mentality and cultural differences have caused friction between employers and employees, sowing the seeds of unrest.

The KRTC has used military-style discipline to simplify the management of thousands of Thai workers, allotting them poor housing and restricting their freedom of movement. This is unnecessary. Although employers can impose certain regulations during working hours, once work is over it's a different matter. It is unnecessary to prevent workers from using mobile phones, smoking or watching television after work, or to regulate how they spend their money.

Last Friday, a letter appeared on this page detailing the ill-treatment given a Filipina maid working for a Taiwanese family. The letter created quite a stir, and even the Manila Economic and Cultural Office, the Philippines' representative office in Taiwan, contacted us to enquire if they could offer assistance.

There are undoubtedly many similar cases in Taiwan. Such infringements of the basic human rights of foreign workers cannot be condoned. Government intervention and the establishment of a channel for victims to air their grievances, is necessary.

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