A nation often praised for its high promotion of human rights has come under fresh scrutiny over concerns about employment.
Often recognized as a hub of international employment and foreign labour, Taiwan has been criticized in recent years for failing to protect lower income foreign workers despite the rapid expansion of migration. Around 700,000 foreign migrants working in blue collar employment have started to fill the gaps of a low birth rate nation, primarily being hired as caregivers, fisherman, and factory manufacturers. This influx has been highlighted as necessary for the development of the Taiwanese economy, freeing up locals to participate in the higher income jobs, which in turn, facilitate the creation of more jobs.
Despite having passed and amended legislation on employment - such as the Labor Standards Act 2019 (LSA), the Gender Equality in Employment Act 2016 (GEEA), and the Employment Service Act 2018 (ESA) - the government has been criticized for these laws being weak and unenforced leaving many workers highly vulnerable.
This week, special attention was given to caregivers after a report by the Garden of Hope Foundation surveyed that approximately 40% of migrant caregivers have been subjected to physical, verbal, or sexual abuse from their employer. This follows multiple reports of caregivers being overworked with only 35% reporting they had had someone to change shifts with and many saying that had been unable to have more than 8 hours of rest. Many have protested, stating that they are overworked, underpaid and that the administration of the law has been unfairly applied against them. For example, contrary to gender equality legislation, many employees have been immediately dismissed when the employer has discovered that they are pregnant, with the law not being effectively implemented to protect them.
One mechanism for dealing with such abuses is the 1955 complaints hotline which has been praised by those pressuring the Government. However, the Government has been criticized for not promoting its use enough. Over half of those surveyed had not asked for outside help, either because they did not know how or because they feared to lose their employment.
Other regulations also highlight that while the law exists, it is not enforced properly. Article 40 of the ESA bars employers from retaining the employee’s documentation. However, 20% of workers have reported that that was not the case and that national health insurance cards, passports, and identity cards had all been kept from them. The long-term care sector issue has therefore been named by those protesting as a sweatshop system.
These conditions also extend to manufacturing which has a history of poor treatment of workers, with only 14 out of a total of 70 factories inspected conforming to regulations. This inspection came after a number of fires in which multiple workers died due to the close proximity of the factory buildings and the dormitories. Protests have been attributed to a lack of appropriate training, accommodation standards, and poor safety codes which have been deemed as severely lacking in most surveyed factories.
The response of the Government has been to amend the ESA to penalize foreign worker quotas meaning the employer will have their quota limit of foreign workers lowered by five for every worker that dies and dropped by one every time a worker is injured. Critics have stated that this is a useless proposal stating that the company will face repercussions only after workers have been harmed.
Furthermore, they state that the decision by the Ministry of Labor not to ban on-site dorms is “putting workers lives at risk in order to reduce costs for employers.” This is compounded by the small fines set by the Government which are easily absorbed by large firms; the case in point is one of the factories in which eight people died had had ten previous fines within the previous year for violating the LSA and the Occupational Safety and Health Act 2013.
The largest area of concern by employment rights advocates has been concerning high seas fishing which has been compared with slave like conditions. Reports often state instances of dismal working conditions, forced labour, beatings, coercion, human trafficking and sometimes murder. While the Legislative Yuan passed the Human Trafficking Prevention Act in 2009, a couple of years later it voted that distant water fishing vessels were not under Taiwanese jurisdiction. The gap between employment protection legislation and the withdrawal of responsibility is illustrated through the Taiwanese owned ‘Giant Ocean International Fishery and Co Ltd.’ trafficking ring. Investigators from NGOs such as Greenpeace have found that multiple convicted human traffickers are living openly in Taiwan with the full knowledge and consent of the Taiwanese authorities. This, along with a number of instances, has led the UN International Review Committee to “express its continuing concerns regarding the accountability of the Government for failing to effectively enforce its laws” and the EU to give Taiwan a ‘yellow card’ for its insufficient efforts in combating the labor standards in the fishing sector.
Some aspects of foreign workers rights are improving under the Government. The Control Yuan has recognized the Government’s flaws with regards to nearly 500 unregistered children of foreign workers and have been pressuring the MoL and the Executive Yuan to step in. This will help to bring about equilibrium with the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child and allow children to be registered in Taiwan so as to gain more legal rights regardless of their parent’s origin. The Government have also started asking migrants when they attempt to return home, if it is their decision, ensuring that they were not forced out of their employment.
Furthermore, there has been a change in the ESA which means that brokers - seen as a powerful force in the migrant job issue - cannot charge fees for renewals of contracts. Despite this, the process of mitigating the influence of these brokers has seen a problem with enforcement. Often, agencies easily evade the illegality of “job-seeking fees” by putting expiry terms into the original employment contract, understanding that the worker will often come back to the same broker to gain new work.
The current state of low-level, foreign employment is facing a large amount of scrutiny and so developing the level of protection available in the law are expected to continue. However, to do so, many are pushing the Government to, among other things; close loopholes for individual caregivers put workers needs before those of companies such as manufacturers, and take responsibility for the increasing amount of high seas trafficking that takes place under the Governments eye. Therefore, the area of employment and exploitation may be of increasing importance especially as Taiwan develops its “New Southbound Policy” in the coming decade.