Wed, Oct 13, 2010 - Page 8 News List

‘Guest workers’ more like slaves

By Bruce Liao 廖元豪

Last week about a dozen female migrant workers accused their employer, AV Tech Corp in Taipei County, of installing surveillance cameras in their dormitory and spying on their every word and move. If their accusations that eight cameras had been installed, including one over the bathroom door, prove to be true, it would be one more in a litany of gross infringements of foreign workers’ rights and it should be no surprise if it provokes anger at home and abroad.

Think about it. If these workers were Taiwanese, would they be subjected to this kind of invasive management and surveillance? Such spying would be unacceptable even in army barracks, never mind staff dormitories. In other settings, spying on women’s private lives would only be done on the sly, because it’s a crime. Whoever made recordings from spy cameras wouldn’t dare show them around and discuss them openly. Perhaps the only places where the law allows such intrusive surveillance are pigsties and chicken coops. Clearly those who would spy on a worker dormitory see them as less than human.

Why would managers dare do something so outrageous and lacking in even the most basic respect for these foreign workers? It is a matter not just of individual wrongdoing, but of failings in the system. Taiwan’s laws governing migrant workers put them in a situation where their rights are easily trampled on and their status is little better than that of slaves.

Taiwan treats migrants as “guest workers” — a polite way of saying they can be used and then thrown away. They are only temporary guests and they can be sacked and deported any time. Since they can’t change employers, they have to put up with whatever treatment they receive. They have no voting rights and no social support network. They are unfamiliar with Taiwan’s legal system and other avenues through which they might seek help, so there are very few people willing to speak up for them. Besides, the government, by means of an administrative order, practically denies foreign workers the possibility of ever getting Republic of China citizenship, so they don’t even have the chance of becoming future citizens.

In Taiwan, where electoral votes are always politicians’ primary concern, how many legislators or political figures would take an interest in the rights of foreigners who will never vote?

Under this system, migrant workers’ response to exploitation and humiliation is usually just to grin and bear it. When the setup makes it so hard to call for help, telling people about their problems might not do any good. Remember what happened in Kaohsiung in 2005, when Thai construction workers, frustrated after repeated complaints fell on deaf ears, finally cracked and rioted. Five years later, incidents of migrant workers being driven to the end of their tethers continue to occur. Why? Because our laws are designed to create a group of workers who are easy to exploit. It is true that since President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) took office, his government has made changes to the system that have brought considerably improved protection for immigrants — especially those who have come for marriage. When it comes to migrant workers, however, the system has hardly changed and remains akin to slavery.

The experience of other countries tells us that malicious attitudes and discrimination, be they based on community, gender or class, are often directed at “outsiders” such as immigrants and migrant workers. Taiwanese wouldn’t treat workers or women from their own country so outrageously. It’s just because these people belong to a different nationality and don’t have enough protection under the law that bosses and labor brokers can act so unscrupulously, showing the ugliest side of human nature.

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