The Ministry of Labor is acting like a rent-seeking corporation by immediately sending its feelers out toward Myanmar and Vietnam following Indonesia’s recent announcement that it plans to stop allowing its citizens to work abroad as domestic helpers by 2017.
It should instead aim to protect migrant workers in the domestic sector. The lack of a viable set of regulations and legal framework has made the group of about 221,000 people vulnerable to exploitation.
According to the ministry, the government is planning to reverse the ban imposed a decade ago on Vietnamese maritime workers and domestic helpers in June at the earliest, and to add Myanmar to the list of countries migrant workers may be sourced from, in addition to the four main source countries: Thailand, the Philippines, Vietnam and Indonesia.
As Indonesians now form the biggest group of migrant workers in Taiwan — accounting for 40 percent of its migrant labor force of about 540,000 — 221,000 people — among whom about 173,000 work as domestic helpers or caretakers in nursing institutions — Jakarta’s decision was said to be a “disaster” for Taiwan, as it would cause a labor shortage.
This shows how heavily Taiwan relies on migrant workers to maintain its competitiveness in the international market, to achieve infrastructure development and economic progress and to take care of its senior citizens in the absence of long-term care facilities since the nation opened up its job market to migrant workers in 1989.
Taiwan would not have become what it is today without the contribution of migrant workers. However, while society as a whole is better off, exploitation of migrant workers continues unabated.
As documented in various reports, hardship endured by migrant workers in Taiwan includes exorbitant broker charges, confiscation of travel documents by employers, low wages, long working hours without regular days off or vacations, denial of retirement pensions, discrimination and disrespect for their cultural identities and practices. Workers are even at risk of sexual violence and harassment.
Although Taiwan is not the only nation Indonesia has said mistreats its citizens who work abroad, its repeated demands that Taiwan take action to improve conditions for migrant workers have gone unanswered, with the last round of negotiations held last year ending without results.
Among the proposals under debate were increasing the salary for migrant domestic workers and caregivers from about NT$15,840 to the nation’s minimum wage, then NT$19,047, and adopting a new measure that would require potential Taiwanese employers to have an interview with the Indonesian representative office in Taipei to prove that they are hiring Indonesian workers directly. This measure would be aimed at preventing brokers from burdening migrant workers with exorbitant recruitment fees.
The ministry’s decision to look to Myanmar and Vietnam to fill the expected gap from 2017, and disregard concerns voiced by the Indonesian government over the exploitative work environment for migrant workers, has drawn criticism from labor groups.
In response, the ministry said that for domestic workers, working conditions are decided by employers and employees given that they are not covered by the Labor Standards Act (勞動基準法).
This suggests that the ministry fails to see the need to exercise authority and provide legal protection for domestic workers, and explains why the 221,000 domestic workers remain without legal protection.
Empirical studies show that in the age of globalized capital, the rent-seeking behavior of multinational corporations causes global income inequality.
As a responsible global stakeholder, the government should implement measures to control rent-seeking practices. It should revamp the nation’s policy toward migrant workers, rather than emulating bad practices and landing the nation a bad reputation.
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