The soundbite “one island, one life,” with its idea that “we are all in this together,” is meant to show that all types of people are affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, and that every person should do their part in prevention measures. Yet, migrant workers have been on their own, due to inconsistent and incomprehensive laws and protections.
Following a cluster of infections at King Yuan Electronics, the Ministry of Labor on June 7 temporarily banned the transfer of migrant workers between employers, citing a nationwide level 3 COVID-19 alert in effect. On June 16, the ministry abruptly proposed an amendment to the Employment Services Act (就業服務法) that would require migrant workers planning to change jobs to use a government-run employment service agency, with priority being given to workers transferring to a similar line of work.
Under the existing work environment, caregivers and fishers are overworked, underpaid, without labor insurance and regular holidays, and, above all, outside of the legal protection offered by the Labor Standards Act (勞動基準法). Given the opportunity, they would naturally transfer to factories, which provide legal protection.
Assuming that the Legislative Yuan amends the Directions of the Employment Transfer Regulations and Employment Qualifications for Foreigners Engaging in the Jobs Specified in Items 8-11, Paragraph 1, Article 46 of the Employment Services Act (外國人受聘僱從事就業服務法第46條第1項第8款至第11款規定工作之轉換雇主或工作程序準則), caregivers and fishers would be fully deprived of what little opportunity they had to transfer between employers.
Non-governmental organizations and academics have been critical of the approach.
Not only has the ministry failed to provide migrant workers with protective measures during the outbreak, but it has also taken advantage of the circumstances to put in place stricter regulations. This approach runs contrary to international human rights standards and Taiwan’s obligations as a nation.
A comparison of what international experts have recommended and what the government has done is disappointing. In June last year, the Executive Yuan published Taiwan’s third national report on the implementation of two international human rights covenants, touting progress on human rights over the past four years. That is contrary to the Concluding Observations and Recommendations response to Taiwan’s first national report in 2013, in which international experts recommended that the “rights of migrant workers enabling them to transfer between employers be extended.”
In the third report, the ministry indicated its obligation to protect migrant workers’ rights.
“The law requires employers to pay wages to foreign workers directly and in full,” the report says. “Failure to do so will result in penalties for the employer, and the migrant worker will be permitted to seek employment elsewhere.”
However, the government has not complied with the legal obligations and promises contained in the two international covenants. There is an urgent need to call for the government to abide by international human rights law.
President Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) administration should seize this opportunity to revisit policies on migrant workers, while consulting with the public as it pushes for a strategic overhaul over the long term. The government especially needs to seriously consider how to encourage migrant workers to assimilate into Taiwanese society, such as by giving them voting rights and citizenship. Only then would a friendly and inclusive democratic society be possible among all of the people living on the island.
Huang Yu-zhe is a student at National Chengchi University’s Graduate Institute of Law and Interdisciplinary Studies.
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