Tuesday was an important day for the world's 200 million migrant workers. On this day, the UN passed its International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of all Migrant Workers and Members of their Families. Thousands of migrant workers have marched in Taiwan this month to demand that the government provide respite care for disadvantaged families and grant care workers their well deserved right to holidays.
But on Tuesday, news also broke of a student assaulting a migrant worker. The nation's 360,000 migrant workers and 390,000 foreign spouses are a test of the nation's ability to embrace social diversity.
The rights of migrant workers have always been an important benchmark of the human rights of disadvantaged groups in a society. Migrant workers and spouses are often rejected and treated as second class citizens as a matter of course and legislation of their rights is usually inadequate.
For instance, under the nation's residual social welfare system, families who employ migrant workers lose the right to respite care services. To ensure care services seven days a week, these families exploit migrant workers, denying them their days off.
This year, the government also allowed employers to raise the food and accommodation fees they charge migrant workers, another insult to their status.
In addition, the nation's strict immigration procedure for foreign spouses assumes marriages are fake, thereby treating all foreign spouses as suspects. This compounds prejudice in our society and increases the segregation and rejection of foreigners by society.
If the government does not deal with the difficulties foreign workers face, physical assaults on them will become more than isolated incidents and ethnic issues will ultimately become the seed of civil discord.
International human rights standards are clear on this issue -- the nation needs legislation guaranteeing equal pay to native and migrant workers and protecting the rights to form social organizations and be united with one's family. Taiwan should also recognize dual citizenship. These policies would counter the nation's fragile labor environment and prejudices against foreign workers and spouses.
But conservatives view the right to be united with family members and to have dual citizenship as a threat.
Even as nationalist influences grow in certain EU countries, most European states respect the rights of migrant workers and foreign spouses and recognize the importance of preventing segregation.
Even in elections, the most fundamental exercise of civil rights, the EU encourages its member states to grant foreign spouses voting rights and allow foreign workers with five years of residency in an EU country the right to participate in politics at some level. Cities like Rome grant foreigners with more than six months residency the right to vote.
We can learn from the experiences of other countries. While the government is busy playing up the UN referendum issue, they ought to take a closer look at the way Taiwan treats foreign workers and spouses.
Mobility through labor and marriage is becoming an irreversible international trend, we should reconsider our policies and take measures to catch up to international standards.
A new view and new policies are not impossible. If we keep sacrificing human rights, we will have to pay the price. To commemorate International Migrants' Day, let us take immediate steps to protect the rights of migrant workers.
Lorna Kung is general-secretary of the Scalabrini International Migration Network ? Taiwan.
Translated by Angela Hong