On Thursday, Aug. 31, 27-year-old Vietnamese migrant worker Nguyen Quoc Phi died after being shot nine times by police officer Chen Chung-wen (陳崇文) in Hsinchu County after Nguyen allegedly attacked Chen and a community watch officer when they tried to detain him on suspicion of theft and vandalism and attempting to steal their vehicle.
Distressing surveillance footage from the first ambulance on the scene shows that Nguyen was alive when it arrived, but that police and paramedics watched as the migrant worker died, without offering medical assistance. It is astounding that the first ambulance left the scene with the injured community watch officer, while Nguyen was only assisted by paramedics arriving in a second ambulance.
Nguyen was alive when the first ambulance arrived; he was pronounced dead on arrival at the hospital. This case has raised a number of questions and brought the treatment of migrant workers into the spotlight.
Questions surrounding the events have been compounded because the full footage has not been released, leading to contradictory statements from police and the victim’s family and migrant worker advocate groups, such as the Taiwan International Workers’ Association, the Taiwan Association for Human Rights, and the Migrant Empowerment Network in Taiwan.
Did Nguyen understand the commands from police? Why did he allegedly try to steal a police cruiser when his father says he did not know how to drive? Why did police and paramedics not offer medical assistance to Nguyen? Why was he not subdued without the use of lethal force?
Why is it routine, as Vietnamese worker Nguyen Viet Ca pointed out, for police to stop and request the identification document (ID) of migrant workers, particularly those from Asia, on the suspicion that most of them are “runaways”?
Lai Yu-fen (賴毓棻), an official at the Vietnamese Migrant Workers and Brides Office at the Catholic Church’s Hsinchu Diocese, raised the legal and systemic economic causes of such conflicts, saying that “since the Employment Services Act (就業服務法) does not allow migrant workers to freely change employers, many migrants who cannot cope with poor working conditions often choose to run away from their jobs.”
Lai also said that “in some cases, migrants who file reports of disputes with their employers or leave their workplaces to seek outside help are reported by their employers as absconding” and that “the reporting system has been abused by employers as a tool to deal with defiant employees and to prevent them from filing reports about disputes.”
This systematic “harassment,” particularly of Southeast Asian migrant workers, stands in contrast with the experience and privilege of white migrant workers or those who pass for whites.
This was personally brought into stark contrast and confirmed when I was stopped on the street in the middle of September by an officer who requested to see my ID because I had watched him take a photograph.
The Foreign Affairs Police Service in Neihu was helpful in processing my query about this incident and provided access to the 2011 Police Power Exercise Act (警察職權行使法).
Article 6, Chapter 2 — “Identity Verification and Data Collection” — of this act details when police may stop and detain someone and request identification. My conduct did not meet any of the conditions stipulated in the six subparagraphs of the article, and yet the officer had still stopped me.
Are police officers sufficiently educated in the act’s contents? Do they unilaterally interpret the act according to pressure from their superiors? Had I refused to provide my ID, would he have tried to detain me further or arrest me? Would violence have been used if my Chinese language ability was insufficient to prevent miscommunication and escalation?
As a staff member at the Foreign Affairs department said in a telephone call, the police must have an appropriate reason to stop a person and request ID, adding that if my version of events was correct, then I was stopped unlawfully.
He then asked me where I was from. When I replied that I was from the UK, he asked more specifically if I looked Asian, as “police will often stop Southeast Asians because they suspect them of being runaways,” confirming Nguyen Viet Ca’s assertion.
When I revealed I was white, the most privileged of Taiwan’s foreign worker class, the staff member sounded puzzled and embarrassed. Had I told him I was of Asian descent, would he have said something like: “Well, it’s unfortunate, but we’re just doing our job and it’s hard to tell who is and isn’t a legal worker”?
There is a fine line between prejudice and racism. Prejudice that is casually embedded in a culture can end up manifesting as institutionalized racism, leading to tragedies such as that which befell Nguyen Quoc Phi and his family.
Although President Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) drive to open up Taiwan to Southeast Asia as part of her New Southbound Policy is welcome, more must be done to address the everyday stigma, prejudice, and racism that migrant workers and residents originating from Southeast Asia face in Taiwan culturally, politically, legally and economically.
From indentured slavery on Taiwanese fishing vessels to abuse of domestic care workers, wage docking and confinement of construction and agricultural workers, and imprisonment in factories, Taiwanese employers and police have a long way to go to show basic respect for the human and economic rights of migrant workers.
Presidential Office spokesman Sidney Lin (林鶴明) responded to a petition submitted by Nguyen Quoc Phi’s father and sister, along with lawyers and labor rights activists, by issuing a rather boilerplate response: “The government pays attention to and protects the rights of migrant workers” and that the office would “respect the results of the investigation into the shooting.”
Until cultural and institutional attitudes toward these workers move substantively in a positive direction, the Tsai administration’s warm welcome and entreaty of closer economic cooperation will be undermined by the negative reputation that Taiwan is building for itself across the region — as an economy characterized by serial abuse, exploitation, and now troubling prejudice with possible deadly escalation — among migrant workers.
Ben Goren is an essayist, businessman and long-term resident in Taiwan.
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