An annual report on human rights published by the US Department of State on Tuesday offered a scathing account of labor conditions for migrant workers in Taiwan.
The issue is not new, and the government’s continued failure to address it is an embarrassment, particularly while Taiwan aims to present itself as a champion of democracy and human rights in the Indo-Pacific region.
Migrant workers in Taiwan are overworked, they generally get only one day off per month, and their already low pay is further reduced by broker fees.
Fishers, in particular, are often subject to “physical violence, beatings, withholding of food and water, retention of identity documents, wage deductions and noncontractual compulsory sharing of vessel operating costs to retain their labor,” the report said.
Taiwan has made significant progress in democratization and is the first nation in the region to allow same-sex marriage. However, in terms of labor rights for migrant workers, Taiwan lags desperately behind. Workers have spoken up, for example, during a protest organized by the Migrants Empowerment Network in Taiwan on Dec. 14 last year. The workers demonstrated in front of the legislature in Taipei, holding placards with messages such as “We want legal protection,” “We are not slaves and not products,” and “Stop human trafficking. Stop exploitation.”
Despite this very clear message, maltreatment of Southeast Asian workers continues unabated. On Friday last week, a service center for migrant workers wrote on Facebook that a caregiver in Hsinchu was asked to do unpaid work outside of their contract, and after agreeing to an out-of-court settlement, the employer in a final insult to the worker paid them NT$8,938 in coins.
The abuse of migrant workers is mind-boggling. At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, there was an uproar when migrant workers were restricted from entering Taiwan, indicating their importance to the nation.
Taiwan is not alone in its treatment of migrant workers. Associated Press on March 4 described Pocheon, a town near Seoul, as a place where migrant workers live in squalor, “while doing the hardest, lowest-paid farm work most Koreans avoid.”
In Hong Kong, a Philippine domestic worker who was in 2019 fired after she was diagnosed with cancer has died, without support from local authorities.
Can the Western world really pretend to be shocked? The US and other countries have been outsourcing manufacturing and other low-paid jobs since the 1970s — first to Latin America and then to East Asia. It only makes sense that East Asians — upon transitioning to value-added services — would outsource menial labor to poorer countries. Taiwan — which has been called a “beacon of democracy” in the region — can play a critical, pioneering role in the improvement of working conditions for migrant workers in the region. This would be in its own interest, especially given the Western sanctions against China for human rights and labor abuses in Xinjiang. It would look bad if the US’ sweetheart in the region was abusing the labor rights of migrant workers.
It is also in Taiwan’s interest to address the concerns as it is promoting the New Southbound Policy. The Executive Yuan’s Office of Trade Negotiation on March 5 said that trade with Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, India, Thailand, Indonesia and Cambodia had grown 30 percent since President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) assumed office in 2016. Although consumer spending in ASEAN countries has declined since the pandemic hit, Taiwanese firms increased trade with them, the office said.
The government should seek to formulate laws that would result in the fair treatment of migrant workers, as this would be in line with being a beacon of democracy, and to differentiate Taiwan from China and its human rights abuses in Xinjiang.
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