Taiwan has become used to receiving heaps of praise from international media for its commitment to democracy, its human rights record, and, more recently, its sterling coronavirus response.
Its 700,000 Southeast Asian foreign workers live in an alternate reality. The security of their rights begins and ends with their employers and brokers, who can control almost every aspect of a worker’s life and are almost never penalized for violating Taiwan’s already weak labor laws.
Southeast Asian workers are integral to the strength of Taiwan’s economy, which has been celebrated for withstanding COVID-19 while global markets ground to a halt. Their labor powers the manufacturing, construction, and seafood sectors, along with care for Taiwan’s elderly. But a Taiwan-based coalition alleges the abysmal treatment of these foreign workers has not improved.
The Migrants Empowerment Network in Taiwan, a coalition of 10 migrant workers’ rights groups, pressed Taiwan’s Centers for Disease Control (CDC) last week to revise medical treatment laws for foreign workers, which they say allow employers to easily dismiss workers who become sick.
Two Filipino workers said they had been dismissed after contracting tuberculosis. Each had worked in Taiwan for around six years.
One factory worker, a woman identified as M, said her employer tried to terminate her contract despite her doctor saying she was not contagious and could make a full recovery.
The other, a man identified as J, said his employer and broker forced him to terminate his contract voluntarily, which would cause him to lose the health insurance he had paid into for years.
Taiwan’s current laws mandate that migrant workers – who are legally treated subordinately to “white-collar” foreign workers – must receive consent from employers to receive tuberculosis treatment. However, employers often opt to replace the workers rather than helping them.
“Migrant workers are humans, not disposable cutlery,” Gracie Liu, director of the Migrant and Immigrants Service Center under the Hsinchu Catholic Diocese, told Taiwan’s Central News Agency.
The CDC, however, continues to insist the lengthy treatment time for tuberculosis requires cooperation from employers. Around 380 migrant workers are diagnosed with tuberculosis while working in Taiwan each year, Liu said, citing a 2018 CDC report.
The coalition’s protest comes as multiple incoming workers from the Philippines and Indonesia have tested positive for COVID-19 while in mandatory 14-day quarantine after arriving in Taiwan. Five cases were recorded on Friday, all of which were asymptomatic.
In February, Taiwan opted not to grant amnesty to undocumented foreign workers after an Indonesian caregiver working illegally contracted the coronavirus. Taiwan initially said it would check the documentation of all caregivers accompanying elderly patients to the hospital, angering rights advocates, but backtracked after Health Minister Chen Shih-chung objected to the plan.
Foreign workers frequently conceal health conditions from employers and brokers out of a fear of termination or retribution. Taiwan’s celebrated health system has never found an answer for this – even if that answer appears as simple as protecting workers’ basic rights.
Workers who become pregnant are often pressured by employers to terminate their pregnancies or lose their jobs, which is a violation of Taiwanese gender equality law. In many cases, workers are unaware of avenues for legal recourse, but even those who do pursue legal action can be shut down by labor officials.
Taiwan is frequently lauded as a top destination for expats, in large part due to its universal health care system, but Southeast Asian workers who get sick all too often have a less positive experience than their white-collar counterparts.