As the COVID-19 epidemic spreads around the world, people have been diligently following the disease-control measures announced by the government.
The Central Epidemic Command Center on Feb. 26 reported Taiwan’s 32nd confirmed case of COVID-19 — a runaway migrant worker who was working illegally as a caregiver. She was infected by a coronavirus patient while caring for him in a hospital.
The center traced the woman’s activities from Feb. 16 to 24 and published a summary, which shows that, while already infected with the virus, she visited various places, saw some friends off from Banciao Station’s high-speed rail platform and made a number of trips by train, bus and MRT, all of which carried a risk of infecting other people.
The Ministry of Labor’s inaction has turned Taiwan into a paradise for runaway migrant workers. There are more than 50,000 such illegals scattered nationwide. As well as those working as caregivers in hospitals, such as the 32nd patient, others are domestic helpers and restaurant or factory workers, while even more work at construction sites.
These people have no legal status. Without National Health Insurance cards, they cannot legally seek medical treatment. If they become ill, they have to visit small clinics at their own expense or buy medicine from a pharmacy.
They have become a unique category of foreigners in Taiwan. With an epidemic looming, these thousands of runaways have become an unknown quantity and a potential breach in the wall of disease prevention.
In the case of the 32nd patient, the authorities should not just investigate her two illegal employers, but also ferret out any labor brokers involved and subject them to stringent penalties, because who knows how many more potential virus carriers might be working in jobs arranged by them?
Her landlord and the hotel where she is known to have stayed must explain why they accepted her as a tenant or guest without checking her identity. They, too, should be investigated and penalized.
The existence of runaway migrant workers moving around and working all over the place has become a hot potato for the National Immigration Agency (NIA).
The ministry’s laws and regulations governing the management of migrant workers are lax. It blames labor brokers for the absconsion and makes the NIA responsible for catching them. It has never reviewed its own management or the weaknesses of existing laws and regulations.
As a result, runaways feel that they have nothing to fear. If they are caught, they are deported to their home countries, with a free airplane ticket added to the bargain.
The NIA gets the blame for all this trouble.
The amount of personnel and resources that it devotes to catching runaways detracts from other aspects of maintaining national security.
The NIA should tell the ministry to respond to this crisis by proposing amendments to the law.
As well as making illegal migrant workers criminally liable, these amendments should impose heavy penalties on shady brokers and illegal employers.
Like Singapore and Hong Kong, Taiwan should do more than just impose fines. Only then can it shake off its reputation as a paradise for runaway migrant workers and close the disease-prevention loophole that such people might create.
Steve Kuan is a former chairman of the Taipei and New Taipei City Employment Service Institute associations.
Translated by Julian Clegg
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