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Taiwan’s Human Rights Miracle Does Not Extend to Its Southeast Asian Foreign Workers

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Taiwan’s Human Rights Miracle Does Not Extend to Its Southeast Asian Foreign Workers

Recent incidents affecting Southeast Asian foreign workers muddy Taiwan’s claims as a regional guarantor of human rights. 

Taiwan’s Human Rights Miracle Does Not Extend to Its Southeast Asian Foreign Workers

In this photo released by Ministry of National Defense, damaged ships are pulled after a towering arch bridge collapsed in Nanfang’ao, eastern Taiwan Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2019.

Credit: Ministry of National Defense via AP

Taiwan often touts itself as a regional bastion of human rights, especially in contrast to China. But several recent incidents have once again thrust systemic mistreatment of Southeast Asian workers in Taiwan into the spotlight.

Six Filipino and Indonesian fishermen were killed when a bridge collapsed onto their fishing boats on October 1 in Taiwan’s Nanfang’ao harbor. Twelve were injured and 19 became homeless after the accident, losing their passports and savings, as they lived on board their boats.

Some of the affected fishermen are now sleeping on cardboard boxes, according to a report from Taiwan’s state-owned Central News Agency. (The report somewhat bizarrely qualifies this by noting that the fishermen are still being paid their wages and are receiving three meals a day.)

Rights groups and religious leaders are calling for onshore accommodation to be provided to foreign fishermen in the region and have asked that Taiwan fund education for the children of the deceased. Vessel owners generally do not provide foreign fishermen with accommodation, and multiple fishermen have told me in the past they were asked to stay on their boats during bad weather, including typhoons.

A Yilan County labor official said about 300 beds will be provided for fishermen within the next two years. The official also said that while the families of the six fishermen would receive survivor’s pensions of about $130 per month, there are no scholarships available for the 19 and 17-year-old children of Andree Serencio or the 7-year-old son of George Impang, all of whom lost their fathers in the bridge collapse.

The bridge collapse has devastated the tight-knit community of foreign fishermen in Nanfang’ao, a major fishing port in the east of Taiwan, who prayed into the night as the bodies of the missing fishermen were retrieved by search and rescue personnel. Nanfang’ao is also home to Taiwan’s first union for foreign fishermen; one of its officers, Ersona, was among the victims of the accident.

President Tsai Ing-wen expressed regret over the bridge collapse on Facebook, promising to reopen the port for business and praising rescue teams as they searched for the lone fisherman who remained missing as of the evening of October 2.

Tsai did not mention the five foreign fishermen whose deaths had already been confirmed.

If the ultimate measure of a society’s character is its treatment of the most vulnerable, Taiwan’s human rights victories soar no higher than the abhorrent labor conditions – and a bipartisan disinterest in improving them – endemic in Taiwan’s fishing, manufacturing, and caregiving sectors. Combined, these industries employ over 700,000 Southeast Asian foreign workers, the vast majority of whom sign binding three-year contracts and are not allowed to transfer jobs without government permission.

Taiwan’s treatment of foreign workers is often treated as an addendum; a heel dragging behind its greater success story as a democracy in the shadow of China. They are rarely presented as what they are: An integral part of Taiwan’s societal equation.

Discrimination against Southeast Asians, while widespread, is an infrequent topic of discussion in Taiwan, which is over 95 percent Han Chinese. This may change as the country, which has the world’s lowest fertility rate, imports more foreign laborers to work in its factories, catch its fish, and care for its elderly as it transitions into a super-aged society. Through that process, Taiwan will invariably become more diverse.

The government has taken some small steps to resolve its issues. It passed the Act for Distant Water Fisheries in 2017, in theory (but not yet in practice) regulating labor standards on board its high seas fishing fleet, who work on larger vessels that fish in global waters. (The six fishermen who died in the Nanfang’ao accident fished closer to shore.)

In 2016, Taipei allowed foreign workers who complete their initial three-year contracts to find new jobs in Taiwan without having to pay a second “job-buying fee” to third-party brokers. But brokers, citing rising costs, are now pushing the government to reverse this decision. Brokers and recruitment agencies are allowed to charge fees to workers seeking jobs in Taiwan, a practice shunned in many other countries. The U.S. Department of State, in its 2018 Human Rights Report on Taiwan, has said this leaves workers “vulnerable to debt bondage.”

But Taiwan’s labor ministry remains resolutely opposed to instituting a mandatory system of direct hiring, as countries like South Korea have done due to concerns over exploitation in their brokerage system. Brokerage firms and industry associations retain significant political sway in Taiwan; Southeast Asian workers, meanwhile, cannot vote and have few paths to permanent residency.

Workers also regularly decry unsafe work environments, especially in Taiwan’s factories. The U.S. State Department report notes that Taiwan’s occupational safety inspections dropped by 89 percent from 2016 to 2017 (the last year for which there is available data), meaning less than 10 percent of workplaces were inspected.

Taiwan’s government tells workers to report potential violations using a multilingual government hotline, but many workers fail to do so, fearing reprisals from employers and brokers.

In August, Filipino factory worker Deserie Castro Tagubasi died after hydrofluoric acid she was working with splashed onto her exposed lower legs at Tyntek Corp., a Taiwanese semiconductor and LED manufacturer. A recent series of reports by Ketagalan Media (disclosure: I work there as an editor) revealed that Tyntek did not provide safety training to Filipino workers handling dangerous chemicals – a job Taiwanese workers were unwilling to do. Following the fatal accident, Tyntek restarted operations before administering the required training. Government officials provided no assistance to Tagubasi’s family when they traveled to Taiwan to navigate the aftermath of her death. (The case has been referred to the district prosecutor.)

A wider-lens look at Taiwan’s inability to manage its foreign workers reveals a pattern of not only ineptitude, but inhumanity. Following two deadly factory fires, rights groups called for Taiwan to abolish its practice of housing workers in on-site factory dorms, often adjacent to combustible chemicals. Taiwan’s labor ministry originally considered this measure but later reneged, citing costs to employers. Instead, it announced it would reduce an employer’s foreign worker hiring quota by one for every injured worker, and by five for every worker who died.

The Tsai administration, generally vocal on matters of human rights, has largely stayed silent on foreign worker issues while touting upticks in tourism, trade and educational exchanges with Southeast Asian countries – a strategy aimed at decreasing the nation’s reliance on China. But even those programs have been exploited by universities hiring students out to factories; one university program advertised its South and Southeast Asian students as “highly cooperative” and willing to do “taxing, filthy and dangerous shift work.”

Tsai’s opponent in Taiwan’s upcoming presidential election, Kaohsiung mayor Han Kuo-yu, used a racial slur to describe Filipinos in Taiwan in March, months before he was chosen as his party’s nominee.

Taiwan has expressed its support for the basic rights of Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters, religious and ethnic minorities in China, and its own citizens. As Tsai prepares for the upcoming election, neither she nor her opponent are likely to advocate for overhauling the country’s brokerage system and its Ministry of Labor, or otherwise reforming the labor laws and enforcement measures governing the Southeast Asian workers on the country’s own shores.