Migrant labour reforms are key to boosting the strength of Taiwan’s regional allegiances.
A mock referendum on migrant workers’ rights, held by the Taiwan International Workers’ Association, was initiated earlier this month with nearly 60 foreign workers calling for equal political rights. The campaign comes at a time for President Tsai, as China appears bent on poaching Taiwan’s international allies one by one, while her Asian neighbours are increasing their calls for the protection of their workers within Taiwan’s borders.
Labour reform on the horizon
The momentum of current labour reform is good news for Taiwan’s foreign labour force, but proper implementation will be essential to ensuring the stability of regional partnerships.
This month’s referendum is designed to address three key issues:1) whether or not migrant caregivers should be protected under the Labour Standards Act (勞動基準法), 2) whether foreign workers should be permitted to freely change employers, and 3) whether the government should abolish the existing private employment brokerage system and replace it with a nation-to-nation mechanism.
With voting stations established throughout Taipei, Taoyuan, Hsinchu, Taichung, Tainan and Kaohsiung, the referendum will run until 10 December 2017. The result will undoubtedly add fuel to an ongoing regional conversation with Taiwan’s neighbours, with wide reaching implications for Taiwan’s some 600,000 migrant workers.
Death of migrant worker sparks national conversation
The referendum comes after the death of a Vietnamese migrant worker, Nguyen Quoc Phi, after he was shot by police in August this year. Nguyen’s death sparked international outcry, with the Migrant Empowerment Network in Taiwan joining his family members to hold a rally in front of the Presidential Office, demand a thorough investigation. According to police, Nguyen attacked a police officer as he attempted to steal a car; video footage of the incident shows Nguyen bleeding and lying by the car while paramedics look on empty-handed.
The incident has sparked a national conversation on the treatment of migrant workers throughout the country. Foreign workers who leave their places of employment, often due to abuse or exploitation, tend to be characterised as suspects or criminals within the broader community.
In Nguyen’s case, he had run away from his job three years prior, leaving him vulnerable and without proper legal status. The National Immigration Agency has made small steps toward reforming the pariah status of these migrant workers, but further reform will be essential in order to proactively target widespread exploitation.
Exploitation and entitlements
Taiwan’s migrant labour workforce predominantly enters the country via for-profit recruitment agencies; scandals of debt slavery, abuse, exploitation and unexplained deaths are not uncommon. Late last year, the Ministry of Labour (MOL) scrapped a requirement that migrant workers leave the country after working for three years, ensuring a steady flow of returning workers for the brokerage industry, after the Taiwan International Workers’ Association organised a series to protests to demand expanded protections.
In April, the MOL stipulated that foreign workers who have worked in the country for at least a year be entitled to paid marriage leave, bereavement leave and personal leave.
This month’s referendum is set to build on this momentum, and it already has the support of a number of origin countries. The head of the Manila Economic and Cultural Office in Taipei has called for a crackdown on the exploitative practices of brokers, while the representative for Vietnam has called for a legal investigation into Nyugen’s death, at the same time as boosting bilateral efforts, to regulate recruitment fees.
Key to relations with neighbours
Even so, the gradual phasing out of Taiwan’s brokerage system will take time. Unions remain small, and stories of abuse abound. President Tsai’s New Southbound Policy may be the gateway to weaning Taiwan off of economic dependence on China by boosting ties with Southeast Asian neighbours, but the treatment of Taiwan’s growing class of migrant workers holds the key to its success.