Although recent amendments to longstanding regulations are a positive step in the right direction, policies that continue to ‘otherize’ migrant workers must be dispensed with once and for all.
Last week, draft amendments to the Employment Services Act, the statutory law that governs the employment of migrant workers in Taiwan, were announced by the Ministry of Labor. These include changes to the manner in which fines on employers who hire migrant workers are levied, as well as restrictions on the withholding of an employee’s identification documents, and punishments for cases of sexual harassment, sexual assault, human trafficking, grievous bodily harm, or murder of migrant workers for both brokers and employers.
Though signaling some progress on the rights of migrant workers in Taiwan, the provisions are still far too lenient on predatory brokers and abusive employers. They also fail to address the underlying social and policy issues that perpetuate a system that is harmful and exploitative to foreign blue collar employees.
There are currently more than 650,000 migrant workers in Taiwan, mainly from Southeast Asian countries such as the Philippines, Indonesia, and Vietnam. They are most frequently hired for paraprofessional caretaker positions, and the vast majority of those that engage in this type of work are women. The rest are mostly employed for unskilled manual labor or in Taiwan’s fisheries. Differentiated from the foreign white collar population through terminology like foreign labor and exclusion from the Labor Standards Act, these workers frequently face discrimination and abuse at the hands of employers, brokers, and care recipients. Their plight has been made a more focal topic of political and rights discourse in both the Chinese- and English-speaking communities in recent years, due to the investigative work of local reporters, the increasingly visible protests of advocacy groups like TIWA, and the documentary I Have it Maid, directed by Alex Wolfgram, a former student in sociology at National Cheng Chi University (NCCU) in Taipei.
As a result, amendments to the ESA were implemented in October last year, which did away with the regulation that required workers to leave the country every three years. This would cut down on the debt employees had to pay in brokerage fees every time they reentered Taiwan. Another regulation in April 2017 stipulated that employers could not refuse paid leave to their workers after one year of service, threatening those that did with a fine of NT$60,000 to NT$300,000. The most recent ESA amendments are just part of a series of adjustments that appear to signal a change in the Taiwanese government’s policy towards protecting the rights of migrant workers.
It’s a positive change, but it is not enough.
The most obvious issue with the new amendments is the punishment for employers or brokers who have been found guilty of sexual abuse or trafficking of foreign workers. For brokers, this includes a fine of NT$300,000 to NT$1.5 million and being barred from working as an agent. For employers or care recipients, it is a mere two-to-five-year ban on employing migrant welfare workers the first time it happens, while repeat offenders are banned for life. It should be noted that this is the punishment stipulated in the ESA; the offense would also ostensibly be prosecuted according to the Criminal Code.
Nevertheless, it seems odd that moves to improve the conditions of migrant workers would not take on a more punitive policy toward known predators. Allowing an employee who was found to have engaged in such heinous behavior to continue hiring migrant workers is not only unjust, it poses a distinct danger to subsequent employees.
Additionally, these changes in policy do not in any way target the root of the problem.
Challenging the family structure
Taiwan’s demand for foreign labor, and welfare workers in particular, stems from two major factors: an aging population and a severe lack of affordable or public long-term care. Frank T.Y. Wang, an associate professor at the Graduate Institute of Social Work at NCCU, observes that traditional Taiwanese values encourage the existence of a “three-generational family,” in which grandparents, parents, and children all live under the same roof and the mother is expected to stay home to look after both parents-in-law and offspring. However, due to the rapid economic development that began in the 1970s, more and more Taiwanese women have joined the labor force, disabling them from providing the amount of care that was once expected of them.
In the breakdown of such a family structure, there are few economical choices for what to do with either young children or the increasing amount of the elderly or infirm. “To compensate for insufficient long-term care,” Wang says, “the market [for affordable options] thrives over the past twenty years,” and since hiring a foreign caretaker that can be on call almost 24/7 costs roughly half of residency in a private nursing home, they “shoulder the major portion of [the] care burden.”
“The structural factors of abuses or mistreat[ment] of migrant workers still exist, such as lack of freedom to change employer, live-in [situations] with employers, and high broker fees in mother countries.”
It makes economic sense not only for families, but also for the government: private brokerage agencies handle all of the logistics, which means government offices have little to worry about in regard to distribution of care. It also “relieves the government from political pressure” of being the provider of public long-term care, Wang notes.
Added to all this are outdated racial and classist attitudes amongst many Taiwanese toward blue collar laborers from Southeast Asia, who are often seen as “dirty” or “uneducated” due to their lower socioeconomic status. These stereotypes have been reinforced by brokers, who have been known to distribute literature about or advise clients on how to “train” their employees. This includes reminding their employees to bathe regularly or wash their hands with soap. Media portrayals of caretakers who have committed crimes also do little to improve the image of migrant workers as a marginalized group. Terminology like “runaway” worker perpetuates the idea of a laborer as property and reminds observers that under the ESA, migrant workers are fixed to their original employer, except in very extreme cases. Such conditions have the effect of dehumanization and allow for continued ill treatment and danger to the lives of foreign employees. In the most recent case, Taiwanese police, who rarely resort to the use of deadly force, shot and killed an unarmed Vietnamese runaway laborer who was trying to flee.
Will continuing to gradually amend the ESA do much to improve the lot of migrant workers in Taiwan? Wang gives a definitive no.
“The structural factors of abuses or mistreat[ment] of migrant workers still exist, such as lack of freedom to change employer, live-in [situations] with employers, and high broker fees in mother countries,” he says.
The next step
What is needed, rather, is doing away with policies that “otherize” migrant workers. This would, of course, start with the conditions that govern employment of migrant workers and their rights being added to the Labor Standards Act. Abolishment of overly restrictive terms of service that limit freedom of movement or prevent workers from changing employers is also an important next step. A zero-tolerance policy on any reported abuse of migrant workers, be it physical, emotional, or sexual, could drastically cut down on the number of these types of incidents that occur. Furthermore, the government should compel brokerage agencies to provide extensive education on how to properly treat employees, including providing adequate rest time and not requiring workers to perform work not outlined in their contract or for which they are physically unfit to perform. Any agency that does not provide such training should be fined accordingly and prevented from doing business.
More fundamentally, though, if long-term care in Taiwan is going to continue to be marketized, a radical reconstruction of understanding about women’s role in the family is necessary, in order to break outmoded ideas of daughter-in-law as primary care giver. The current system locks women in a vicious cycle of being both “oppressor and oppressed,” as the introduction of migrant labor into the home gives the previously dominated daughter-in-law a subordinate to then dominate herself. This structural oppression, Wang argues, “divides women according to race and class, based on their role as employer and domestic worker.” More progressive attitudes about gender roles would not only help alleviate the demands placed on foreign care givers, it would relieve the social pressure on women in families and encourage at least a modicum of solidarity between daughter-in-law and hired caretaker.
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