What you need to know
In the aftermath of Saturday’s Chin Poon fire, workers’ rights and firefighter’s groups are demanding a streamlined approach to safety at industrial sites – and are calling on Taiwan’s Ministry of Labor to step up.
Tuesday’s May Day labor protests brought several thousand workers and union members to the streets of Taipei. Protestors demanded wage hikes across the board in response to stagnant salaries and called for a referendum to reverse recent changes to the Labor Standards Act (LSA) which granted employers more flexibility in managing overtime pay, mandatory leave, and rest days.
The rally was also attended by firefighters, who called for better workplace safety standards and labor inspections at potential industrial fire sites – demands which are particularly poignant after last Saturday’s Chin Poon (敬鵬工業) factory fire in Taoyuan claimed the lives of five firemen and two Thai migrant workers.
According to Ministry of Labor (MoL) data, Chin Poon has been fined 10 times since last year for violations of the LSA and the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA). Control Yuan member Kao Feng-hsien (高鳳仙) said the factory contained highly flammable and explosive materials, making it difficult to safely fight the fire.
Zhu Zhiyu (朱智宇) of the National Association for Firefighter’s Rights (消防員權益促進會) described the scene of the fire as disorganized and chaotic, saying that firefighters did not receive clear, concise information from Chin Poon to safely fight the blaze.
Companies like Chin Poon should be bound by law to provide useful information which will help firefighters know where hazardous materials are stored and efficiently assess the situation, said Zhu. After the Chin Poon fire, Interior Minister Yeh Jiunn-rong (葉俊榮) pledged to make this information available, but questions remain as to how this will be enforced.
Moreover, the blaze exposed unsafe conditions not only for firefighters, but for the workers inhabiting dormitories constructed dangerously close to factories.
Bringing hazardous workplaces home
Workers’ rights groups have long called for the enforcement of existing safety standards in Taiwanese factories and dormitories. On April 23, about 300 Vietnamese women protested against conditions in their dormitory.
Among other things, their living space is overcrowded, creating an environment which is unsafe for both inhabitants and firefighters, said Wu Jing-ru (吳靜如) of the Taiwan International Workers Association (TIWA).
Firefighters and TIWA are thus calling for a more effective, centralized implementation of current safety standards. They are also demanding a new regulation ordering all dormitories to be constructed at a safe distance from factories.
“Companies like Chin Poon construct the migrant workers’ dormitories so close to the factories themselves,” said Wu. “Their dangerous working conditions continue, even when they’re off work.”
Taiwan’s industrial fire safety record was already marred when a December fire at Taoyuan’s Sican Plastics (矽卡有限公司) factory spread from a dormitory to an adjacent warehouse storing flammable materials, killing six Vietnamese workers.
An investigation is still ongoing, but the Taoyuan Construction Management Office suspected at the time that the dormitory had been illegally constructed. A Taoyuan Fire Department chief said the blaze had started in the building’s only stairwell, trapping workers inside.
Wu said that the Sican fire should have served as an impetus for improving the safety standards in migrant worker dormitories. Current MoL safety regulations allow for adjacent working and living premises, as long as dormitories are not constructed near industrial sites housing explosive materials.
MoL official Wang Shujin (王淑津) told The News Lens that the Industrial Bureau of the Ministry of Economic Affairs, not the MoL, is responsible for deciding whether dormitories can be legally constructed near factories.
However, the coalition of workers and firefighters insists that the MoL – the architect of existing regulations governing dormitory safety standards – must take responsibility.
“The MoL should change its regulations to mandate the separation of factories and dormitories,” Wu said. “Eight workers have died in a half year already, in dorms offered by employers.”
Eight workers have died in a half year already, in dorms offered by employers. — Wu Jing-ru, Taiwan International Workers Association
At present, existing MoL safety regulations are enforced by local labor bureaus. Information on how many dormitories are constructed on industrial sites is kept by local bureaus, rather than in a central database, said Wang.
Companies which do not comply with MoL regulations can lose their permits to employ migrant workers. Wu said it is far more common for companies like Chin Poon to be fined, which is ineffective. “The financial penalty compared to their capital is small,” she said.
Regulations mandating dormitory safety standards – including maximum capacity and access to fire escapes – are only published in Chinese. “The MoL’s laws and regulations have to be translated into different languages,” said Wu. Most Southeast Asian migrant workers cannot read Chinese characters, and usually do not know that safety regulations exist, she said.
This can create unnecessarily dangerous environments in which workers live in unsafe, unregulated conditions, and do not know how to react to emergency situations – a state of affairs which also puts the lives of firefighters at risk.
Problems with information exchange
After the Chin Poon fire, Interior Minister Yeh instructed the National Fire Agency (NFA) to make information available to firefighters which detail quantities of toxic chemicals and the facilities where they are located.
Centralizing the dissemination of information is a positive step, said Zhu. However, his organization believes that new national legislation is needed to ensure that companies remain compliant with the needs of fire departments.
NFA Deputy Director Chiang Chi-jen (江濟人) said that Chin Poon failed to provide Taoyuan firefighters with coherent information, including floor plans of the factory’s layout and the locations of people trapped in the fire. Zhu said that Chin Poon gave the firefighters a large amount of information all at once which was impossible to immediately comprehend. Firefighters did not know whether it was safe to go inside, or where hazardous chemicals were located.
At present, local fire departments gather information by corresponding with company management at the scene of a fire. Zhu said that this exchange of information can be hectic and unreliable. Miscommunications in critical moments between firefighters and company officials can put lives in danger.
Zhu said that cities with more funding are able to upgrade facilities, increase personnel, and provide training, but departments in remote areas or secondary cities cannot. This also means that methods for exchanging information vary wildly between different regions.
It has thus been easy for firefighters and workers to find common ground – in both cases, decentralized regulations create hazardous working conditions. Wu said that TIWA and the National Association for Firefighter’s Rights will schedule a demonstration at the MoL building in the near future.
The May 1 protests primarily addressed longstanding issues with the LSA, minimum wage, and national holidays, but the Chin Poon fire gave the rally a sense of urgency – especially for the firefighters and migrant workers who fear that government inaction will keep them unsafe.
When asked whether he was satisfied with the Democratic Progressive Party government's response to the May 1 protests, Chen Baiqian (陳柏謙) of the Taiwan Higher Education Industry Union said, “Totally unsatisfied! The DPP government has made absolutely no meaningful and specific response to our demands.”
Many of the 10,000 participants that police and organizers indicated attended Tuesday’s rally left feeling the same way. For firefighters and migrant workers living in dormitories on factory premises, however, further government inaction feels especially perilous.
Editor: David Green