Taiwan’s migrant workers hit the streets once again last weekend, protesting the failure of the Ministry of Labor (MoL) to ban on-site factory dormitories, which they say are unsafe. They are likewise upset over what they say is a poorly conceived alternate plan.

The issue came to the fore after an April fire in a factory owned by Chin Poon Industrial Company in Taoyuan took the lives of six firemen and two Thai migrant workers who lived on the premises. The deadly blaze happened four months after another fire at a factory owned by Sican Plastics in Taoyuan killed six Vietnamese workers.


Credit: TIWA Facebook

Protesters show photos of what they say are unsafe living conditions in on-site factory dormitories, Oct. 28, 2018.

In June, there were signs of progress. An inter-ministerial meeting was scheduled to respond to the demands of migrant workers and “stipulate the need for a safe distance between dormitories for migrant workers and factories,” according to Focus Taiwan.

But on Oct. 27, the MoL said a ban on on-site dorms would not be implemented any time soon. Instead, Workforce Development Agency section head Hsueh Chien-chung (薛鑑忠) said the ministry had devised a plan to penalize employers who fail to adhere to proper safety measures for migrant workers.

The proposal: The MoL will reduce an employer’s quota of foreign worker hires by five for every migrant worker death resulting from negligence. If a migrant worker is injured, the employer’s hiring quota would be reduced by one.

Wu Jing-ru (吳靜如) of the Taiwan International Workers Association (TIWA) told The News Lens the proposal was “useless,” saying it gives the impression employers will only be punished after workers die or are injured. She accused the MoL of “putting migrant worker’s lives at risk, just to reduce [costs] for the employers.”

Wu told The News Lens in May that companies could already face penalties for failing to comply with MoL safety regulations. However, she said, the usual practice was to levy relatively small fines which companies like Chin Poon are easily able to pay. Before the fire, Chin Poon had indeed been fined 10 times since the start of 2017 for violations of the Labor Standards Act (LSA) and the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA).


Credit: Nick Aspinwall

Wu Jing-ru of the Taiwan International Workers Association flips through Ministry of Labor regulations governing safety standards in factory dormitories.

Taiwan has taken its response to the fire seriously, immediately drafting legislation to standardize information sharing regarding the storage of toxic chemicals. First responders to the Chin Poon fire were reportedly unsure where dangerous chemicals were located within the factory. Chu Chih-yu (朱智宇) of the National Association for Firefighter’s Rights, a firefighters’ union, told The News Lens in May the response to the fire was disorganized and chaotic, with firefighters failing to receive clear information from Chin Poon on where toxic chemicals were located.

The MoL’s proposed alternative to an on-site factory dorm ban, however, landed with a thud among migrant worker advocates who frequently claim they are exploited by employers and neglected by Taiwan’s government.

“What we want is prevention,” said Wu.

TIWA and allied organizations present at the Oct. 28 protest called for a full ban on on-site factory dorms and an increase in resources allocated to MoL safety inspections.

However, factory owners have relentlessly lobbied against changes that would shift migrant worker housing off-site. The Taiwanese government has ordered that minimum size limits be enlarged for migrant worker housing, but this measure has itself been met with protests from owners.

It is likely that many on-site dormitories currently at use were illegally constructed in the first place. Safety oversight duties are generally allocated to local labor bureaus, and there is no national database of on-site dormitories and their specifications, MoL official Wang Shu-chin (王淑津) told The News Lens shortly after the Chin Poon fire. The Sican Plastics fire in Dec. 2017 raised immediate speculation from the Taoyuan Construction Management Office that the dormitory had been constructed illegally.

The MoL will reduce an employer’s quota of foreign worker hires by five for every migrant worker death resulting from negligence. If a migrant worker is injured, the employer’s hiring quota would be reduced by one.

A MoL official said at the TIWA protest that the agency employs 274 full-time inspectors. Wu called on the ministry to hire more, noting that there are now nearly 700,000 migrant workers in Taiwan.

Under the new plan, on-site dormitories would remain legal. It is unclear whether the frequency of inspections will increase. As of press time, the MoL had not responded to requests for comment from The News Lens, but Hsueh of the Workforce Development Agency said last week the MoL would release more details on its dorm safety proposals in the near future.

If the new plan was applied to Chin Poon, which employs a workforce of about 6,700, the company would be deducted 10 foreign worker hires. The rest of its migrant workers, meanwhile, would be allowed to sleep in on-site dormitories.

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Read More: Taiwan Protests Ignite Calls for Centralized Labor, Fire Safety Regulations

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