This past summer, due in part to the challenges posed by COVID-19, the treatment of migrant workers in Taiwan came to the attention of international media. Outrage voiced by the Taiwanese public and lawmakers regarding the treatment of Miaoli migrant workers, and timely actions taken by the government, point to a healthy and fully-functioning democracy. Yet, a key question remains: After the sensational coverage of the situation of migrant workers over the summer, have the underlying issues been adequately addressed by the government? Indeed, the mistreatment of migrant workers in Miaoli County reveals embedded problems facing migrant workers that require sustained interest in order to make real changes. This topic is worth revisiting, not only to ensure that Taiwan’s government is not simply employing stop-gap measures to escape criticism, but also because systematic mistreatment of migrant workers from Southeast Asia could undermine the success of the New Southbound Policy (NSP, 新南向政策).
The Case of Miaoli and Domestic Pressure
So, what happened that brought the international media to focus on migrant workers in Taiwan? Starting on June 7, 2021, the Miaoli County government forced migrant workers into an extreme lockdown, only allowing them to leave their dormitories to travel to and from work. Any migrant worker who consistently violated the order would incur fines for their employer or broker. Almost immediately, these restrictions were met by outrage from lawmakers and activists alike. Taiwan People’s Party (TPP, 台灣民眾黨) lawmaker Lai Hsiang-ling (賴香伶) said there was no legal basis to the restriction, while both the Taiwan Association for Human Rights (台灣人權促進會) and a Miaoli youth group condemned the decision. However, Miaoli County magistrate Hsu Yao-chang (徐耀昌) made it clear that containing the virus should take priority over migrant workers’ human rights.
After recognizing that unsanitary living conditions were partially responsible for the severity of recent COVID-19 outbreaks, the Central Epidemic Command Center (CECC, 衛生福利部疾病管制署) released new guidelines on June 21 for preventing the disease among factory workers. The revised guidelines mandated that migrant workers employed by different employers were not allowed to share the same floor, and included instructions for handling quarantine and arranging for workers to have more living space. Employers had two weeks to abide by the new guidelines or be fined between NTD $60,000 – NTD $300,000 (USD $2,000 – USD $10,000).
Following these new guidelines, King Yuan Electronics Co. (KYEC, 京元電子) forcibly relocated migrant workers in Miaoli a day later by packing their belongings into trash bags. The move was described as “chaotic” by both Gina Lin, a former staff member with the Manila Economic and Culture Office (馬尼拉經濟文化辦事處), and Miaoli County Councilor Chen Pin-an (陳品安). Even though KYEC abided by the new government restrictions, the lack of furnishings in the new accommodations, and the ill-handling of the process overall, makes it unclear whether workers’ living conditions have improved.
In addition to responses by individual lawmakers and Taiwanese civil society, government agencies also took action. On June 9, the CECC reminded Miaoli authorities that they could only enforce restrictions in line with the national Level 3 lockdown, and the Control Yuan (監察院) applied on June 25 to investigate the situation in Miaoli. After three weeks of forced lockdowns, Miaoli authorities announced that the COVID-19 outbreak had been contained and they decided to lift the ban on June 29—the same day that the MOL stated that “such arbitrary restrictions would be treated as a ‘criminal offense’.”
Even though the ban has been lifted, there are still doubts that conditions for migrant workers have substantially improved. In July 2021, Formosa TV English News (民視英語新聞) announced that migrant workers were still being kept under lockdown and continued to live in dormitories with poor living conditions. The news report stated that many migrant workers also continue to suffer human rights abuse because they are unaware of their rights. Despite the MOL’s announcement that illegal lockdowns would be treated as a criminal offense, no authorities or companies have been punished yet. Additionally, as of February 2022, there have seemingly been no updates from the investigation ordered by the Control Yuan.
As Miaoli lawmaker Tseng Wen-hsueh (曾玟學) noted during a panel on fair recruitment in October 2021, lawmakers are motivated to prioritize the rights of Taiwanese companies and workers because Taiwanese citizens—unlike the migrant workers—are able to express their displeasure by voting legislators out of office. Because of this, Tseng commended the Taiwanese public for drawing the government’s attention to the mistreatment of migrant workers. Closer integration between migrant workers and the Taiwanese public not only reinforces the NSP’s aim of deepening cultural ties, but also makes it easier for the public to hold the government accountable for continuing human rights violations.
The New Southbound Policy and International Pressure
Despite the government’s efforts to respond to the situation in Miaoli, the underlying issues have not been adequately addressed by the authorities. While international media attention was focused on vulnerable migrant workers’ mistreatment while living in Taiwan, such workers are also vulnerable to discrimination before arriving in Taiwan. Under the Employment Service Act (就業服務法), those who are defined in Article 46 as working in the low-wage industries of fishing, domestic work, construction, and manufacturing have additional barriers when changing employers—and only receive basic labor rights if their employers are in a business field covered by the Labor Standards Act (勞動基準法). This leaves domestic workers and caretakers completely unprotected, as they do not come under the scope of the Act.
Unequal treatment between high-wage and low-wage workers is evident in the recruitment process as well. Since the Employment Service Act introduced a licensed broker system in 1992, many companies have relied solely on private brokers to recruit workers. Low-wage workers typically fill jobs that Taiwanese are unwilling to take, helping in vital areas such as manufacturing and domestic work. Yet these workers are disadvantaged by having to pay recruitment fees that can range from USD $1,500 – 6,000 per worker, which can amount to up to 10 months of salary. In 2016, the Tsai Administration amended the Employment Services Act to allow direct hiring and reduce broker fees. Still, this has not deterred brokers from adding extra charges for various services given to migrant workers.
Even with the unfair treatment of migrant workers, it is difficult to abolish the broker system altogether. Firstly, broker systems are still seen as a cheap and effective way to export labor. Not only do they help companies navigate immigration processes, but they also handle recruitment and create jobs. Additionally, as pointed out by Lennon Ying-Dah Wong (汪英達)—the director of Serve the People Association’s service center and shelter for migrants in Taoyuan City—if non-governmental organizations (NGOs) replace the broker system, then they face the dilemma of generating enough money to sustain their operations without exploiting the workers they are trying to protect. Accordingly, initiatives such as The Five Corridors Project, a research project led by London-based human rights NGO FairSquare Projects, recommend that rather than abolishing the broker system, employers should pay the recruitment fees.
Taipei’s inflexibility in updating policies to protect workers who immigrate to Taiwan has the potential to cause friction between Taiwan and other countries, particularly ASEAN nations. President Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) New Southbound Policy differentiates itself from the previous “Go South Policy” (南向政策) in that Tsai’s policy appears to focus more strongly on mutual benefits between Taiwan and its partners, touching upon wider people-centered issues such as immigration, talent cultivation, and tourism. Despite its people-centered aim, the NSP largely focuses on cultivating high-wage talent and inviting professionals to immigrate to Taiwan, while ignoring low-wage workers in crucial industries such as semiconductor chip manufacturing. Considering that as of September 2021 45 percent of Southeast Asian migrant workers in Taiwan were employed in so-called “3K” industries (i.e., industries that are deemed dirty, dangerous, and strenuous), and 32 percent were employed as domestic workers and caretakers, the NSP’s focus on talent cultivation and skilled professionals is not representative of the current workforce.
Beyond leaving blind spots within existing policy, Taiwan has actively opposed changes to agreements that could rectify the issue, which have been proposed by their ASEAN partners. For instance, in 2020 when Indonesian Minister of Manpower Ida Fauziyaha announced a change in the country’s immigration policy that would require Taiwanese employers and the Indonesian government to share the cost of brokerage fees, the Ministry of Labor (MOL, 勞動部) stated that it “cannot accept” the change. Arguing that Indonesia’s unilateral decision violated the agreement both countries made at the 2013 Taiwan-Indonesia Labor Conference (台印勞工會議), the MOL stated that Taiwan might recruit workers from other countries if Indonesia chose to enforce this policy.
Taiwan has had multiple opportunities to update its policies to standards befitting a country concerned with human rights and to demonstrate its commitment to people-centered policies that mutually benefit both Taiwan and their NSP partners. By refusing to consider Indonesia’s proposed changes, Taipei achieved the short-term goal of protecting Taiwanese companies from incurring recruitment costs—to the detriment of its soft power appeal, and arguably more strategically important long-term goals. This is exemplified also by the Control Yuan’s recent January 2022 report urging the Executive Yuan to review migrant worker policies in order to solve Taiwan’s labor shortage issues and to improve Taiwan’s competitiveness. Pursuing international-standard best practices is not only important to deepen regional ties, but also for economic ties as well.
There are a number of potential reforms that could be implemented regarding Taiwan’s policies for migrant workers, which could improve Taiwan’s standing globally and demonstrate Taiwan’s commitment to the updated NSP under Tsai Ing-wen. These recommended reforms are:
- Amend the Employment Service Act and the Labor Standards Act: Having different protections for low-wage workers reinforces discriminatory divisions between high-wage and low-wage workers, and leaves domestic workers and caregivers particularly vulnerable.
- Have companies pay broker fees for all migrant workers: Fees should not be borne by the workers but by their employers—as is standard practice for high-wage workers—as advocated by the Leadership Group for Responsible Recruitment, a coalition of key international businesses and organizations.
- Support local NGOs and encourage the integration of migrant workers into Taiwanese society: By supporting connections between local Taiwanese society and migrant workers, the government can sooner become aware of, and correct, human rights violations. Such integration would strengthen the NSP’s people-centered agenda.
- Enforce punishment for violating authorities and companies: Now that the Ministry of Labor has condemned illegal lockdowns as criminal, punishment needs to be enforced. Otherwise, it is likely that human rights violations will continue to occur, especially if there is no ongoing public backlash.
The main point: Outrage voiced by the Taiwanese public and lawmakers regarding the treatment of Miaoli migrant workers, and timely actions taken by the government, are signs that Taiwan is a healthy and fully-functioning democracy. Yet, underlying issues responsible for migrant workers’ mistreatment still need to be addressed—not only for the sake of the workers themselves, but also for the sake of Taiwanese businesses and Taiwan’s reputation in the international community.
The author wishes to express special thanks to Dr. Bonny Ling, executive director of Work Better Innovations and research fellow of the Institute for Human Rights and Business, for sharing her time and resources.