The pandemic reveals we are one island sharing one fate The general review should not only focus on the immediate crisis
Contact persons: Taiwan International Workers’ Association, Hsiu-lien Chen 0939503121 Chunhuai Hsu 0954065543
In the past few days, after an outbreak of COVID at a printing factory in New Taipei City, Jing Yuan Electronics and Chao Feng Electronics also had outbreaks in their factories. Up to June 4, in the Jing Yuan factory there were 131 confirmed cases (14 Taiwanese, 117 foreigners), 323 contacts were traced; in the Chao Feng factory there were 9 confirmed cases, the CDC urgently established a front-line center, and began implementing rapid screening and remedial measures.
Ministry of Labor! These measures are not sufficient, much less ahead of the times
Because electronics factories hire large amounts of migrant workers, and the migrant workers are housed together in crowded dormitories, it is difficult to maintain social distancing. When the pandemic broke out last year, migrant worker groups had already raised this issue and argued that migrant workers’ dormitories should be included in plans for epidemic prevention. But we have yet to see the MOL, the central labor authority, do anything, and after a year we are seeing outbreaks of infection inside factories and dormitories.
Currently, among the 710,000 migrant workers in Taiwan, almost 470,000 are factory workers who are forced to live in the dormitories that their employers or brokers provide. In the better ones, maybe 4 to 8 people share a room, in some 10 people share a room. In 2018, Vietnamese migrant workers at a factory in Xizhi protested because they were crowded into dormitories with several dozen, even up to over 100 people in a single room. The living spaces for migrant workers are cramped and crowded, they must share bathrooms, it is difficult to maintain social distancing, and the potential for mass outbreaks of disease is a constant threat.
In the past year, the MOL’s measures to prevent the spread of the epidemic among migrant workers have been minimal. They have only offered some bilingual basic information and quarantine for entering migrant workers. They have not done a full investigation of migrant workers’ living conditions, or increased outreach to get accurate information into migrant workers’ social networks. Don’t tell us what they’ve done is “ahead of the times,” it is the bare minimum and may not be enough.
Ministry of Labor! Close the stable door after the horses have fled, don’t be the weak link
Migrant workers have long been marginalized by discriminatory government policies, the problems they have faced have tended to be dealt with with repressive measures. For instance, a fisherman without an onshore residence who was taking a shower beside the harbor was fined for not wearing a mask; the pandemic has been used as a reason to restrict the movement of migrant workers and to take away their days off; “runaway” migrant workers who have been infected because they are taking care of infected patients have been criticized for “running loose on the streets spreading the virus,” and migrant workers have been seen collectively as a “crack in the wall” of epidemic prevention.
Now, the MOL has proposed that until the Level 3 alert ends, migrant workers in Taiwan should not be allowed to change employers.
Also, the recent outbreaks of COVID among migrant workers are due to the overcrowding in their factories and dormitories, but the MOL has expressed no intention of solving the longstanding problems of migrant worker’s work environment, or proposed any concrete, long-term plans to improve those conditions. To the contrary, they have responded by further restricting migrant workers’ labor rights. On top of this, these policies which have such a big impact do not come with detailed explanations, and information in other languages has not been quickly provided.
When there is no bilingual or detailed information, the mass of migrant workers can only feel panicked and helpless; they worry that their dormitories are crowded and they must still go to work, how can they guarantee their safety? Some migrant workers also worry that even if they can finally get permission to change employers after waiting many months, their new employer might not be able to hire them. And other migrant workers, not knowing how long the pandemic crisis will continue, worry about how they will be able to pay for daily expenses and send money to their families during the period while they are waiting to change employers and receive no income at all. We are also concerned about the workers who are quarantined at this time – will they be able to receive adequate information? Will someone explain to them the current procedures, and what the next arrangements will be? When they are in quarantine, if they have questions, or they don’t have what they require for daily life, will there be friendly, bilingual workers whom they can ask, who can help them meet their needs?
Only with a general review of migrant workers epidemic prevention can we be one island sharing the same fate
Over the past year, migrant workers’ groups have made suggestions for epidemic prevention policies regarding migrant workers, including: information on epidemic prevention should be translated quickly; the identification system for buying masks should be friendly for migrant workers; runaway migrant workers should be treated with a policy of “don’t drive away, don’t punish, restore legal status”; the problem of migrant workers’ overcrowded dormitories should be dealt with, etc.. But the MOL has turned a deaf ear to most of these suggestions.
After the outbreak among migrant workers last year at the so-called “Medical Center” (an agency subcontracted by brokers), the MOL called a meeting on March 3, 2021 to “research and discuss migrant workers’ living environment safety and sanitation rules,” and came to the conclusion that “the government should create a centralized program and provide room and board for newly arrived migrant workers.” (At present, no concrete action has been taken.) We believe, providing migrant workers with suitable public services is not only the government’s responsibility, it is what will aid most in setting the proper direction for epidemic prevention.
On June 4 at a press conference at the Central Epidemic Command Center, Director Chen Shih-chung said that he would do his best to do a “big investigation” of migrant workers throughout Taiwan. We want to offer a few suggestions.
1.Re-assess and re-organize our epidemic prevention capacity to respond to future situations
After this mass outbreak, we should re-evaluate: Do we have enough quarantine hotels and collective quarantine centers? Migrant workers who come to Taiwan are away from home and have no resources here. It isn’t possible for these 710,000 people to quarantine in separate single rooms, and their employers may not be able to provide adequate space for quarantining. If a larger-scale outbreak of disease within the migrant worker community occurs, are our public resources (collective quarantine centers and quarantine hotels) adequate to deal with it? We must make a thorough re-assessment and re-organization based on concrete data; only then can we be prepared to face future grave situations.
2.The ban on changing employers is having a big impact, desperate times call for desperate coordinated measures
On June 5, the MOL completely banned migrant workers from changing employers. This policy has had a huge impact on workers’ rights, especially in negotiating employer/employee disputes, which do not decrease just because of the pandemic situation, and the period of employment contracts will not be extended because of the pandemic. For migrant workers, changing employers is always a last resort. If their work at a place is going smoothly, they won’t want to change anything. At this time when the MOL is facing the grave pandemic situation, their first instinct is to resort to restricting workers’ rights. We think that they should at least have a set of appropriate and coordinated measures:
(1) In factories when there is no epidemic, if a worker complains because their employer breaks the law, or if their contract period ends, MOL must still permit them to be transferred. Help arrange for them to go to an appropriate shelter place, and when all necessary epidemic prevention precautions can be followed, transfer them to their new employer.
(2) Due to the limitations of this policy, migrant workers changing employers is not common, the number of those who do is very small. Therefore, we believe that where all necessary epidemic prevention precautions can be followed, those who already have documentation of termination of the employment relationship (ie, permission to change employers) should still be allowed to be hired by new employers.
(3) Mgrant workers in Taiwan have been excluded from employment insurance. They get no compensation during the time when they are unemployed. If the MOL completely bans migrant workers from starting with new employers, we think that those workers who have already received permission to transfer employers should receive financial relief.
3.Guarantee migrant workers’ rights, and that the right to employment of workers who are infected or quarantined is not violated
In the factories that are affected by COVID, it’s possible that migrant workers may be forced to terminate their contracts. Even though it is now “forbidden to change employers,” migrant workers may still face forced deportation, or be forced to take unpaid leave and not receive their basic salary. The MOL should take concrete measures to ensure that during the pandemic period, migrant workers’ rights are not violated.
There was a migrant worker who was quarantined, whose broker demanded money from him, and he didn’t receive the 1000NT per day epidemic subsidy either. The MOL should guarantee that migrant workers who contract COVID or are quarantined should not have any extra fees imposed on them while they are in quarantine or in hospital, and they should be helped to apply for any subsidies for which they are eligible. The most important thing is, the MOL must guarantee that those migrant workers who contract COVID or are quarantined cannot be fired or deported because of that.
4.Put family member caretakers and migrant domestic caretakers onto the list of categories eligible for publicly funded vaccination
At present, there are 11 major categories of people who are eligible for publicly funded vaccination. The 5th category is “Patients, caretakers and employees, home-visit service workers, and social workers in long-term care facilities (nursing homes, health maintenance centers, day care centers, social work centers, etc.).” The reason given for prioritizing these groups getting publicly funded vaccination is “to maintain the running of the institutional and social welfare care system.”
In Taiwan today, aside from the long term care system made up of the “nursing homes, health maintenance centers, day care centers, social welfare, etc. long-term care institutions,” we have around 60% of patients needing long-term care who rely heavily on “family member caretakers” and “migrant domestic caretakers.” Their regular work is the same as that of caretakers in “long-term care facilities such as nursing homes, maintenance centers, daycare centers, and social welfare centers, etc.” The only difference is that the site where they do their caretaking is usually inside private homes. But they still have to go outside to do shopping, get prescriptions filled, take their patients to the doctor, etc., and the patients they take care of are usually those who “if they get infected are likely to have serious complications or to die.”
Even in ordinary times our resources for long-term care are insufficient. What worries us is that, if a “family member caretaker” or “migrant domestic caretaker” gets infected, who can quickly take over their caretaking responsibilities? Therefore, we suggest that the CECC, which has the important goal of “maintaining the running of institutions and the social welfare care system” should consider adding “family member caretakers” and “foreign domestic caretakers” into the categories of people prioritized for publicly funded vaccination, in order to prevent caretakers from becoming infected and causing a gap in healthcare to occur.
5.Plan for government-run dormitories to replace broker’s dormitories which cannot be managed
The recent outbreaks of COVID in electronics factories in Miaoli are the result of ignoring the problem of migrant worker living conditions for a long time. Food and lodging fees are deducted from migrant workers’ salaries every month, yet they are not provided with a decent living environment. Before the pandemic, many migrant workers died because their living spaces were not separated from the factory. After the outbreak of COVID, migrant workers continued to live in environments that are tiny, cramped, crowded spaces. Because it didn’t directly impact the health of the wider Taiwan society, it kept on being ignored.
The MOL announced, starting June 4, they will start on-site inspections of migrant worker dormitories housing over 100 people, in cooperation with local governments. We want to ask, after the on-site inspections, will the standards for which dormitories need improvement still be the “Foreigners’ Life and Care Services Plan”? Is there still no regulation for how many people per room? Each person should have at least 3.6 square meters (including clothes closet)? According to the “Foreigners’ Life and Care Services Plan,” toilets and showers are only regulated “in principle” – during the pandemic, how will those “in principle” regulations be enforced? Also, migrant workers have already told us that they are worried because there are currently 10 people per room in their dormitories, or 100, and they continue to work without any splitting of shifts or regulation of the flow of people. Should these workers’ complaints not be dealt with just because “this factory hasn’t had any COVID cases yet” or “there are less than 100 people per room”? As each county and city government is dealing with the current Level 3 situation, shouldn’t they also all be requiring adjustments to dormitories?
In the past the MOL has always delayed dealing with the problems of migrant workers’ boarding, claiming that it would place more burdens on employers. The recent outbreak has brought these long-standing problems to light. On July 20, 2020, the MOL held a meeting to respond to the demand for dormitories to be separated from factory workspaces. Even the brokers all agreed that “the government should establish government-run dormitories.” In the long term, aside from the urgent step of “thoroughly investigating migrant workers’ dormitory environments,” formal plans should be made for the establishment of not-for-profit government-run dormitories. Only then will the government be shouldering its responsibilities and be truly “ahead of the times.”
A crisis can be an opportunity for transformation. But only if the MOL and local labor bureaus stop taking the path of least resistance when facing problems such as: the temporary housing for migrant workers when they first arrive in Taiwan is terrible (including simplified health checks, the National Immigration Agency’s procedure for new arrivals), the living spaces for migrant factory workers are not good, the labor conditions for migrant workers working in private homes are poor, there aren’t enough bilingual government employees, etc..
If the COVID crisis requires a “general review of migrant workers throughout Taiwan,” aside from taking related urgent measures, if the MOL fails to take this opportunity to comprehensively investigate and plan, or even takes more regressive measures (for example, they tried to ban migrant domestic workers from switching to other categories of employment), then the MOL will not only have to bear the responsibility for policies that discriminate against migrant workers, their laziness and dereliction of duty will bring on the next (predictable) disaster!
Signatory groups to this petition:
台灣移工聯盟：海星國際移工服務中心 (Stella Maris)
天主教會新竹教區移民移工服務中心（Hsinchu Migrants and Immigrants Service Center, HMISC）
天主教希望職工中心 （Hope Workers Center, HWC）
台灣國際勞工協會（Taiwan International Workers Association, TIWA）
桃園市家庭看護工職業工會 （Domestic Caretaker Union, DCU）
台灣國際移民培力協會 （Taiwan International Migrants Mission, TIMM）
桃園市產業總工會（TaoYuan Confederation Trade Union, TYCTU）
台灣汽車貨運暨倉儲業產業工會（Taiwan Logistics Industrial Union）