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Taiwan-US FTA draft includes clause protecting migrant workers' rights

Labor rights advocates say regulations important, implementation more so

Members of Taiwan's Indonesian community celebrate the end of Ramadan in Taipei.

Members of Taiwan's Indonesian community celebrate the end of Ramadan in Taipei. (CNA photo)

TAIPEI (Taiwan News) — The preliminary terms of the upcoming Taiwan-U.S. free trade agreement show promising signs for migrant workers' rights, according to a prominent human and labor rights advocate.

The draft agreement was released on May 17, and contains a clause requiring both parties to work towards eliminating recruitment fees for migrant workers. Charges for helping migrants secure work are capped at NT$1,800 in Taiwan, though according to multiple reports brokers charging fees of between NT$20,000-60,000 to migrant job seekers is common.

Human rights advocate Dr. Bonny Ling (凌怡華) told Taiwan News the trade agreement aims to protect migrant workers in the global supply chain, but the challenge is making these protections a reality. “Nevertheless, by placing it in an agreement of such significance, it is a very big step forward,” she said.

Ling said that international labor standards already prohibit charging recruitment fees and related costs, and said there is a lot of work going toward ensuring this is enforced. “The challenge of responsible recruitment may look different on the ground, depending on which specific migration corridor one looks at,” Ling said.

She added that the dynamics of debt and vulnerability leave migrant workers open to exploitation from brokers. In February, Le Monde Diplomatique reported that many Vietnamese migrant workers were incurring high levels of debt to finance their way into jobs, binding them to their employers and enabling exploitation.

Taiwan-US FTA draft includes clause protecting migrant workers' rights
(CNA and Taiwan News graphic)

Writing in Ketagalan Media in 2021, Ling said that reforms to bring a better labor migration system for low wage workers in Taiwan would not be an easy task.

"But here is the open secret: There is no country that has yet completely implemented the vision of responsible recruitment, even though there is no lack of aspiration to bring in migration with dignity," Ling wrote. "The field is wide open."

Taiwan International Workers Association (TIWA) researcher Wu Jing-ru (吳靜如) told Taiwan News that agency fees and agency issues have existed for migrant workers in Taiwan for decades, and despite ongoing protests, the government has not made changes. Wu said to believe there were good intentions behind the clause, she would need to see a guarantee of increased wages for migrant workers.

Ling is more optimistic, and said the removal of recruitment fees and related costs for migrant workers will become a reality, despite it being a challenge, and these were not words just to placate. “It will happen,” she said.

According to government data, around 730,000 migrant workers were employed in Taiwan in 2022, making up approximately 6% of Taiwan’s workforce. The average salary for a migrant worker in Taiwan employed in care work was about NT$21,000 per month in June 2022.

On Tuesday (May 23) the Ministry of Labor said it would ease immigration restrictions to allow an additional 28,000 migrant workers into Taiwan, half of whom will work in caregiving roles. Taiwan’s migrant workers are often sourced from Southeast Asian countries, work in caregiving, agriculture, or construction, and are attracted to Taiwan by the relatively higher wages on offer.