ISSUE: New Southbound Policy Misses Migrant Worker Protections

Photo Credit: Reuters/達志影像
Why you need to know

President Tsai's recent speeches on the New Southbound Policy overlooked systematic discrimination problems faced by migrant workers in Taiwan.

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Tsai on New Southbound Policy

The more President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) bangs the drum about the New Southbound Policy, the more glaring Taiwan’s failure to address problems of migrant workers on its own shores becomes.

Tsai today reaffirmed the New Southbound Policy is Taiwan’s “Asia Pacific strategy” under which the country will increase the scope and depth of its activities with South Asia and Southeast Asia. The president was speaking at the “Yushan Forum: Asian Dialogue for Innovation and Progress” (玉山論壇:亞洲進步與創新對話), an event hosted by Prospect Foundation for Taiwan that aims to develop economic and cultural partnerships with Southeast Asian countries.

Tsai said the government will take the following five steps to achieve its goal: cultivate talent by increasing the number of international students from Southeast Asia studying in Taiwan to 5,000 each year; help Southeast Asian countries develop industries catering to “domestic needs” such as the petrochemical industry, Information and Communication Technology (ICT) and healthcare; create a US$3.5 billion official development assistance (ODA) fund for Southeast Asian countries; encourage experience sharing between small businesses and NGOs; and collaborate with countries with similar visions.

The remarks echoed sentiments expressed in yesterday’s National Day address, entitled “Better Taiwan.” “The goal of the New Southbound Policy is to help Taiwan find a favorable position in the international community,” Tsai said in her speech to the nation, adding that the country is ready to play a more important role in the prosperity and stability of Asia-Pacific. She referenced improved trade data, more frequent international students exchanges and new consultation platforms set up to encourage foreign investment.

But Tsai’s speech drew criticism for its failure to address problems much closer to home, namely the lack of protection afforded to migrant workers in Taiwan, more than half a million of whom are from countries targeted by The New Southbound Policy. At the end of 2016, there were 624,768 migrant workers actively working in Taiwan; 39 percent (245,180) from Indonesia, 29 percent (184,920) from Vietnam, 21 percent (135,797) from the Philippines, 9 percent (58,869) from Thailand, and various other countries accounting for the remainder.

Migrant Workers Unprotected

“New immigrants to Taiwan from Southeast Asian countries face obstacles in social integration and the law is discriminatory towards them. How are they to believe that Taiwan really values them?” wrote Liao Yuan-hao (廖元豪), an Associate Professor at National Chengchi University’s College of Law, in response to Tsai’s speech.

Migrants who give up their original citizenship in order to obtain a Taiwanese passport are a case in point. They are vulnerable to having that citizenship revoked if they change their marital status, potentially leaving them stateless, according to TransAsia Sisters Association, Taiwan (TASAT).

New Bloom editor, Brian Hioe, pointed out that the New Southbound Policy aims “to wean Taiwan off of economic dependence on China by building stronger ties with Southeast Asian countries,” but, “disappointingly little action has been taken to better the situation of migrant workers in Taiwan.”

Hioe picks out the recent use of excessive force by police in fatally shooting an unarmed Vietnamese migrant worker who was accused of car theft, and the experience of underpaid migrant fishermen in southern Taiwan, as evidence of systematic racism and discrimination that the government must address.

The path forward

The Ministry of Labor is gauging public opinion on its plans to modify the Employment Service Act, and hopes the amendment will be processed by the Legislative Yuan early next year. The changes will strengthen migrant workers' safety and rights — and stop inappropriate practices by employers and employment agents.

The revised act will forbid employers from keeping the passports and residence permits of migrant workers in order to enforce good behavior, and violators of migrant workers’ personal rights will face increased fines and jail time, as well as the threat of bans on hiring foreign workers or having their operation shut down entirely.

Taiwan's government frequently solicits public feedback on proposed legislation via the online discussion platform, Join, run by the National Development Council. So far, this issue has accumulated 2,331 comments since it was posted on Aug. 30, reflecting a broad spectrum of views on how the government should proceed.

For instance, an online user by the name of Lion Kuo wrote: “In the case of runaway migrant workers [the Vietnamese migrant who was shot had been on the run for three years having left his registered place of employment], both employers and employees should be held responsible.” He recommends that migrant workers pay a security deposit to the government upon arrival in Taiwan, ensuring they are covered for the costs of fines and the repatriation plane ticket if they abscond.

A user by the name of Huang Chun-lan (黃春蘭) argues that an entire brokerage company should not be shut down because a single migrant worker has fallen victim to unscrupulous employers or agents, because it would jeopardize the employment of Taiwanese workers.

Meanwhile, the Taiwan International Workers' Association (TIWA) on Oct. 8 launched its own mock referendum on a series of issues, notably calling for the abolishment of the high-commission-fee private brokerage system for migrant workers and its replacement by individual systems negotiated in partnership with the country from which the migrant worker hails. The overturn of a ban on migrants changing employers after arriving in Taiwan and the instatement of legal protections for live-in carers were the other two issues voted on, largely by migrant workers themselves. Unsurprisingly, all the suggested measures received overwhelming support.

A migrant worker named Sumiyati told the Central News Agency (CNA) that migrants who work as domestic caregivers in Taiwan do not have legal protections on work hours, the minimum wage and mandatory days off, and that the fees charged by the brokers who arrange their employment in Taiwan often force them into debt and effective servitude.

Under Article 59 of the Employment Service Act (就業服務法), migrant workers are not allowed to change employers except under certain circumstances, such as being employed in a role that they were not originally contracted to perform. The article will likely be softened under the amendment into a guideline rather than a hard and fast rule.

TIWA’s voting will run until Dec. 10. The association said that the final results of the vote would be announced on Dec. 17 in tandem with a rally on migrant workers' rights.

Editor: David Green

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