You see them day and night at the vegetable market in Taipei County’s Sanchong City — foreign female workers who get up at dawn to work in the breakfast shops or clean cars under the scorching sun or late into the night. As the public waits for the economy to take a turn for the better when president-elect Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) takes over on May 20, it is this group of hardworking female immigrants that is the engine driving the local labor market.
A survey of the work situation for immigrant women published on the eve of Labor Day showed that language and race are the cause of much prejudice against these women as they seek employment. Then, if they manage to find a job, they usually have to suffer from inferior work conditions. Being immigrants and having to take care of their husbands’ family mean that these hardworking women often have to take substandard jobs.
The survey, which was conducted by the Taiwan International Family Association, showed that most female immigrants are employed in restaurants, as househould help or contractual workers in small factories, which means they work on the margins of the economy. The survey also revealed that the problems and prejudice immigrant women face on the job market are embarrassingly widespread.
The pressure to support the family has made double-income households universal in Taiwan. This means that aside from dealing with traditional household duties and child care, immigrant wives have to enter the labor market to help support the family. In households where the husband is unemployed, she becomes the bread winner. These women often have to accept lower pay for performing the same kind of work as their Taiwanese counterparts, go without labor insurance and work irregular hours.
Immigrant wives are not the only low-skilled workers that suffer this kind of treatment — foreign workers have long been subjected to the same conditions. Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) legislators have proposed amending the Act for the Establishment and Management of Free Ports (自由貿易港區設置管理條例) so that the minimum wage no longer applies to foreign workers in order to make such labor even cheaper.
Many middle-aged or elderly women who have had to join this group of low-skilled workers after suffering from work-related accidents or because of some adverse circumstances face the same kind of treatment. They are confronted with prejudice and hardship at their jobs while they get neither labor nor health insurance and are not afforded even the most basic protection under the Labor Standards Law (勞動基準法).
When workers have nothing but their ability to work hard to exchange for food on the table, the asymmetric relationship between employers and employees forces them to join the ranks of low-skilled workers. As Ma and his team work hard to gain the support of big businesses in preparation for taking over the government, I see no possibility of these imbalances being urgently dealt with.
The state should intervene to bring balance to the distorted relationship between employers and employees and relieve the lot of this marginalized group of immigrant, foreign, middle-aged and elderly worker.
The government should take a hard look at the situation of low-skilled workers and work to preserve their dignity. These workers are not asking for better conditions, they are just asking for the most fundamental job guarantees. If a country can’t even provide that, how can it ask workers to place their hopes in that country?
Lorna Kung is general-secretary of the Scalabrini International Migration Network in Taiwan.
Translated by Perry Svensson
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