Labor group details struggle facing Taiwan's migrant workers

TIWA result of senior figures from Taiwan's labor movement collaborating to address conditions of migrants

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Anti-slavery poster in the offices of the Taiwan International Workers' Association. (Taiwan News, Tim Rinaldi photo)

Anti-slavery poster in the offices of the Taiwan International Workers' Association. (Taiwan News, Tim Rinaldi photo)

TAIPEI (Taiwan News) — Located on the edge of Taipei's Little Manila in a narrow residential lane, the Taiwan International Workers' Association (TIWA), established in 1999, forges ties between Taiwanese laborers and their migrant counterparts.

Recently, Hsu Chun-huai (許淳淮), who has been working at TIWA since 2015, took the time to outline some of the group's work.

"Taiwan began to bring in migrant workers in 1989," Hsu explained. "By 1999, some of the senior people in the Taiwanese labor movement realized they could no longer ignore the very poor labor conditions of these immigrants. They founded a group to help them organize and stand with local workers — and so TIWA was born."

Taiwan has over 700,000 foreign laborers, largely from Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, and the Philippines who tend to be employed in factory work, caregiving, and fishing.

Despite its focus on labor organizing, TIWA itself is not a labor union but an NGO; indeed, one of its roles has been to help create labor unions. Groups such as IPIT, an Indonesian workers' association, as well as Kasabi, a Filipino version, were birthed through TIWA.

"We organize migrant workers to help them have their own organizations," said Hsu.

The legal framework that TIWA and other groups must contend with derives from the Employment Services Act (就業服務法), which was enacted in 1992 to regulate the status of foreign laborers. The law governs a distinct class of persons who live under a starkly different set of guidelines than those pertaining to the foreign teachers, tech workers, and other professionals who come to Taiwan every year.

For the foreign laborers, everything from the ease of switching jobs to the ability to remain in Taiwan is subject to a parallel domain of law. For instance, while a white-collar foreign worker may apply for an Alien Permanent Resident Card (APRC) after five years of toil in Taiwan, for the blue-collar counterpart, after 12 years of sweat in a chemical plant, a return to country-of-origin is the only item left on the menu, as the lifetime limit of work in the nation has come to pass.

While TIWA's primary focus is to advocate in labor disputes, the group also runs a shelter where foreign laborers, who often live in dormitories, can reside if relations with employers turn hostile.

"After the trouble, they may not have a place to stay," said Hsu. "So we have a place for them to have a rest and wait for the process to unfold."

When time and resources allow, TIWA turns its attention to more long-term matters, such as organizing to lobby for legislative reforms. One of the areas of attention has been the system by which foreign laborers are recruited to Taiwan.

The labor brokerage scheme, which requires that foreign laborers pay lump sum fees to agents in their home countries, only to then shell out a declining slice of their earnings for years afterward to an intermediary in Taiwan, has long been a concern of TIWA's and human rights groups generally.

"The most expensive fees are for the Vietnamese workers," said Hsu. "They have to pay NT$200,000 (US$6,844) to a labor broker in their own country, maybe sell their land, property. After they come to Taiwan, they have to pay the Taiwanese broker NT$1,800 every month, and it goes down to NT$1,700 the next year, but if they go home to visit, it goes back up. It's very ridiculous."

Despite the tenacity of the brokerage industry, several years ago, the middlemen did endure a defeat. In 2016, as a result of lobbying efforts by TIWA and others, a stipulation that foreign laborers leave the country at least one day every three years — forcing them to restart the cycle of agency fees at the highest rate — was overturned, resulting in a more streamlined process.

"After that thing happened," said Hsu, "these brokers, they went after us with a defamation suit. But they failed."

Marginal victories notwithstanding, the forces ranged against the Taiwan migrant worker population remain powerful and largely intact, including most of the excesses of the brokerage system, which routinely nickels and dimes many overseas laborers out of a large portion of their salaries.

"There are about 2,000 or 3,000 of these brokerage companies," he said. "We think it's a bad system. We don't think these brokers should exist in Taiwan."

Another focus of TIWA's is the caregiving industry, where exploitation flourishes. Caregivers are not protected under any of Taiwan’s existing labor laws, because the work is typically performed inside residences, leaving it outside the purview of the Employment Services Act.

Those who tend to the nation's elderly may find themselves illegally loaned out to other businesses, having their passports confiscated, working with no days off, or with any number of other abuses visited upon their persons.

To protect against these exploitations, TIWA and its allies have promoted a draft bill called the Household Service Act (家事服務法), which would bring the caregiving industry under the umbrella of Taiwan's labor protections. It has yet to make it into law, despite the Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) administration acknowledging the need for reform.

Perhaps the most dramatic realm for mistreatment of Taiwan's migrant community is in the fishing industry, where a class of workers employed in distant waters, often on vessels flying flags of convenience, labor under extraordinary conditions. Debt bondage, physical abuse, and even the occasional murder are all documented elements of the trade.

"The inshore fisherman," said Hsu, "they are covered under the labor laws. But for the offshore fisherman, they are like the caregivers — unprotected."

Attempts have been made to bring the regulation and enforcement of Taiwanese offshore fishing under control; however, Taiwan's Fisheries Agency, the relevant authority and one that doubles as an industry trade group, has not made much progress.

Hsu pins the impediments to solving these problems neither on a political party nor on a leader, but on something trickier to outmaneuver: "In these issues, we have many tensions with the … how do you say? Capitalists."