Early in June, three electronics companies in Miaoli reported cluster infections among their employees. As most of the confirmed cases were migrant workers, the Miaoli County government announced an order on June 7 to forbid all migrant workers from leaving their dormitories. The order would remain in place until June 28.

Under the order, migrant workers could only travel to and from work using transport arranged by their employers or labor brokers. Shopping for necessities was restricted to dormitory managers or designated personnel. There is a video showing how some workers were marched in groups by their company in the days after the policy was implemented.

The order was strictly enforced even though there is no legal basis for it. While migrant workers who went outdoors in Miaoli were questioned and had their details taken by police, their Taiwanese colleagues were allowed to travel as they pleased.

Although the order was widely condemned as discriminatory, and even described as apartheid, the Miaoli County magistrate Hsu Yao-chang insisted that it was the right decision by saying, “You could die if you test positive. Why talk about human rights?” At a press conference on June 10, he said, “Migrant workers have made a mess of Miaoli.”

For most Taiwanese people, staying at home might mean safety, more alone time, or even coziness. For migrant workers, it means being confined to over-packed, dirty dorms, and narrow bunk beds. Such conditions could even lead to further spread of the coronavirus among the residents.

In Miaoli, some migrant workers working at King Yuan Electronics factory came back from quarantine facilities, only to find out that their belongings were thrown out of the factory dorms they paid for. New residents occupied their bunk beds.

Miaoli’s restrictions can be contrasted with the approach taken by Taoyuan. At about the same time, Taoyuan Mayor Cheng Wen-tsan announced the launch of a “Maginot Line” for the city’s over 116,000 migrant workers. Taoyuan has the highest percentage and largest population of migrant workers in Taiwan, including more than 90,000 factory workers and 25,000 household caregivers.

The line of defense includes implementing split teamwork arrangements for factories that employ more than 50 migrant workers. Gatherings at shared areas of factories and dormitories are limited to 50 people. As for factories that employ more than 500 foreign workers, mass screening is obligatory. Local authorities have prepared hotel rooms for those who need self-isolation and set up screening stations in industrial parks.

Ten days after the plan was announced, 18 large companies with over 500 employees tested for Covid-19 in Taoyuan. The fact that none of the 20,000 migrant workers tested positive for Covid-19 led to relief for the businesses and allayed the fears of local residents. It costs NT$1,000 to have medical personnel conduct rapid testing for a worker on site. But for the companies, the expenses are negligible compared with the cost of shutting down their production lines, which make products like semiconductors in high demand during the pandemic.

“It is really as simple as what is good for migrant workers is good for production. What is good for the domestic economy is good for Taiwan. This is especially true if we look at manufacturing in Taiwan that depends heavily on migrant labor,” Dr. Bonny Ling, Research Fellow at Institute for Human Rights and Business, told The News Lens.

This does not mean that migrant workers in Taoyuan are all treated equally and humanely. In June, electronics manufacturer ASE Group introduced a demerit point system to punish migrant workers who refused to move from privately rented accommodation into company dormitories in Taoyuan. Those who are warned three times are subject to dismissal. But the Ministry of Economic Affairs has backed ASE Group’s order, saying that “temporary measures” taken by the company were “in accordance with epidemic prevention requirements set by the Central Epidemic Command Center.”

Nevertheless, the Miaoli and Taoyuan cases clearly show how the local government’s policies could affect how companies treat their migrant workers. In Taoyuan, the local government has played an important role in communicating with enterprises and other private actors and leading them towards better directions. Mistreating migrant workers does not help prevent the spread of Covid-19.

In Miaoli, local authorities have legitimized unfair and inhuman treatments of foreign workers by implementing a policy against the law. The central government had initially responded to the action with silence, when it had the responsibility to issue guidelines on dealing with cluster infections for local governments to follow. On June 25, two members from the Control Yuan announced that they will open an investigation into Miaoli’s restrictive measures for its migrant worker population.

“When Miaoli and Taoyuan’s two different approaches to controlling Covid migrant spread in population come up, I have an image in my head of being on a train, moving somewhere between Miaoli and Taoyuan, except I don’t know in which direction. Am I moving northbound to Taoyuan or southbound to Miaoli? And this sums up where I see Taiwan is at for migrant workers, especially during Covid time when their vulnerabilities are exposed and laid bare,” said Ling.

Migrant workers rights have been a long-standing issue in Taiwan which Covid has both unveiled and exacerbated. With the world’s attention fixed on Taiwan due to its reputation in epidemic prevention, these episodes could hurt Taiwan’s image as a bastion of human rights, which has taken decades and great effort to build.

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TNL Editor: Nicholas Haggerty, Bryan Chou (@thenewslensintl)

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