The recent riot involving discontented Thai laborers working on the construction of Kaohsiung City's mass rapid transit system has cast a shadow over Taiwan's human rights record.
It has also been an embarrassment for the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) which has long claimed human rights to be a preeminent concern.
Experts say the gap between the DPP's words and the actions it appears to condone is the result of the government's giving preference to the concerns of the business community and Taiwan society's strong bias against people of lower social and economic status, which results in the immature treatment of guest workers.
Before the establishment of the DPP in 1986, some political dissidents were oppressed cruelly by the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) as a result of their activities advocating universal values such as democracy, human rights, and social equality. At that time, some of Taiwan's democratic pioneers, including Vice President Annette Lu (
Lu, who now convenes the Presidential Office's Human Rights Advisory Committee, said immediately after last week's riot that the accident had tarnished Taiwan's human-rights record and damaged the nation's image.
Last week, Lu apologized to mistreated Thai workers twice in public.
Even the Presidential Office officially released a statement expressing its looking forward to a probe of the incident because "the incident has had a negative impact on public safety and the nation's image."
Lee Mei-hsien (李美賢), an associate professor at the Graduate School of Southeast Asian Studies of National Chi Nan University, told the Taipei Times that riots involving guest workers in Taiwan could be attributed to policymakers' giving in to pressure from business interests, and the lack of education of society at large.
"Labor brokers in both Thailand and Taiwan know clearly that the weaknesses of the Taiwan government. Unreasonable brokerage terms for guest workers, who are already in a lower social and economic status in Thailand, could be a key factor jeopardizing bilateral relations," Lee said.
Lee said that related regulations set by Taiwan are based on patriarchal concepts.
She also said that the government has no determination to tackle existing management problems involving the violation of labor laws.
"Here in Taiwan, we can tell from advertisements that guest workers are basically seen as working machines rather than valued as human beings. When management abuses workers' human rights, such as keeping their passports, our government does nothing to correct such illegality," she said.
The mass media also smears the image of foreign workers and delivers a great deal of false information, Lee said.
On top of this there is a wealth gap between Taiwanese and foreign workers, most of whom live in poverty on the minimum wage minus extensive deductions.
"In Taiwan, the lack of face-to-face communication opportunities between local people and foreign workers also leads to greater misunderstanding, which hampers management willingness to improve living and working conditions for workers," Lee said.
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