Taiwan Labor Ministry Gives Migrant Caregivers' Appeals Short Shrift

Photo Credit: James X Morris
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The Ministry of Labor declined to sit down with protesters because Sunday was their day off.

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Southeast Asian domestic caregivers protested in front of Taiwan's Ministry of Labor (MoL) in Taipei Sunday to highlight the failure of officials to protect their contract rights, and demand the Labor Standards Act (LSA) be extended to include their profession.

Protest leaders had expected a sit-down meeting with ministry officials, but said they were forced to make do with a street-level visit after the MoL suggested Friday that they would be unable to meet on Sunday because it is a day off, an irony that did not escape those assembled at the ministry gates.

The event, promoted as the “Campaign for DAY OFF-National Domestic Worker's Day" (國際家務勞動者日陳情行動), was hosted by the Taoyuan-based Domestic Caretakers Union (DCU) alongside other unions representing the interests of migrant workers providing domestic care.

The protesters complained they are overworked, underpaid, and exploited by an unfair one-sided application of existing laws, particularly the failure of employers to allow them the one day off every week to which many of their contracts stipulate they are entitled.

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Photo Credit: James X Morris
Migrant domestic workers, workers unions, and NGOs rally in front of the Ministry of Labor on Sunday, Taipei

Eventually an MoL representative, an inspector surnamed Chen emerged, escorted by a cadre of police officers to meet the protest leaders. He accepted the protesters’ petition on behalf of the ministry and listened to the complaints and demands of the protest leaders.

One migrant worker from the Philippines displayed her contract, authenticated by the government in the Philippines. Section 4.2 of the contract stipulates “The CARETAKER shall be entitled to one (1) rest day in every period of seven (7) days.”

“Why put [this] in the contract?” Ver Marie Dimalaluan, a Filipino domestic caregiver and one of DCU’s directors, asked the MoL representative. “Do you think these people have no friends? If you will not give us one Sunday to meet us, then enforce the law.”

Chen indicated that the Ministry had heard their petitions before returning inside. No resolutions were forthcoming. The MoL declined to respond to requests for comment from The News Lens.

Exposed to abuses

MoL data shows that at the end of 2017 there were about a quarter of a million migrant workers employed as caregivers in Taiwan out of a total migrant worker population of about 676,000.

Aside from appealing for the LSA to be amended and the government to protect their rights, the demonstration called for Taiwan's government to ratify the International Labor Organization’s Domestic Workers Convention No. 189 concerning decent work, which was passed in Geneva in 2011. The ILO works with government, employer groups and labor representatives to formulate and monitor best practice policies under the principle of "decent work for all".

The protest was timed to coincide with a weekend close to June 16, International Domestic Workers’ Day, which falls on the anniversary of the creation of the ILO Domestic Workers Convention.

Taiwan ratified several ILO conventions while it was still a member of the United Nations, but since 1971 and its replacement at the UN by China, it has not held the right to sign off on any further documents. Communist Party of China influence has also resulted in Taiwan being blocked from attending ILO meetings as an observer, in much the same way that its experts were forbidden from attending the recent World Health Assembly in Geneva.

However, the Taiwan government has previously amended domestic law to match existing ILO conventions, notably when it joined the World Trade Organization in 2002. As this International Trade Union Confederation report makes clear, Taiwan's failure to ratify ILO Convention No. 29, the Forced Labor Convention, and its neglect to include domestic caregivers under the LSA, leaves large sections of the workforce vulnerable to violations of their basic rights, including being subject to bonded labor.

That status of bonded labor is a result of the broker system, under which migrant workers are often denied access to their passports until contracts are completed -- ostensibly a check against them absconding -- and must also handover substantial fees in order to secure contracts in Taiwan, as well as additional payments for broker services once they arrive.

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Photo Credit: James X Morris
Song, dance and performances were a part of the demonstration in front of the Ministry of Labor.

The protest called for the abolition of the broker system and the promotion of direct hiring. The MoL in 2016 launched an online application system to allow employers to hire overseas workers directly. Last year, 7,746 employers successfully recruited domestic helpers via the system, which protesters said is difficult to use.

Finally, demonstrators demanded that migrant workers be given the freedom to transfer to a new employer while in Taiwan. They made the appeals because they feel their contracts are not being fairly enforced under existing laws.

Protest voices

“It’s a very weak law,” said DCU director Dimalaluan. “It’s very easy to solve. Implement the law. It’s implemented on the caretaker side, but not on the employer’s side,” she added. “It’s so unfair.”

The protesters -- mostly women who took the day off from caregiving to attend -- chanted “We want a day off. We are workers. We are not slaves. We are human.”

“We are taking care of your family. You need to take care of us” urged one demonstrator from the Philippines named Daisy. “I speak for those who don’t have a day off. We are bleeding. It’s not just sweat.” Daisy, a member of the KaSaPi union, has worked as a caregiver in Taiwan for eight years to support her children through education. “We are against the sweatshop of the long-term care system” she said.

The phrase “sweatshops of the long-term care system” refers to the 24-hour working conditions with little time off for migrant workers. Taiwanese families find it necessary to hire cheap labor, often paid only NTD20,000 (US$670) per month to provide constant care for their elderly and handicapped family members.

Taiwanese families are only subsidized by the government for the cost of a few hours’ worth of domestic care per week. Hardly enough to care for an elderly parent or handicapped family member. The result is that families search for cheaper alternatives who can fill the 24-hour needs.

Another protest organizer and DCU director, Grace Huang (黃姿華), expressed her disappointment that the MoL representative did not respond to their demands. She said that a future meeting does not seem likely based on the ministry's cold response.

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Photo Credit: James X Morris
Directors of the Domestic Caregivers Union (DCU), Ver Marie Dimalaluan, Grace Huang, and Jasmin Sanchez, demand answers from an officer in the Ministry of Labor.

“I’m surprised the Ministry of Labor doesn’t want to meet even though the workers used a very rare day off,” she said, adding that about 60 percent of domestic caregivers in Taiwan do not receive a day off.

“Everyone in Taiwan can claim [for a day off]” said Huang, “but the Ministry of Labor doesn’t tell employers [of migrant workers] to enforce it,” she said.

Another director of DCU, Jasmin Sanchez joined her colleague Dimalaluan in prodding the MoL official. “Please, just give us one Sunday” Sanchez asked. “Just two hours [to meet].”

Longstanding grievances

Very few migrant workers in Taiwan are unionized according to Lennon Ying-dah Wong (汪英達), an organizer at Serve the People Association (SPA), a Taiwan-based NGO offering help and support to Taiwan’s migrant workers who often find themselves exploited. Filipino workers are more unionized than others, though Vietnamese and Indonesian workers are represented to a smaller degree.

Lennon has been following the plight of migrant workers in Taiwan for 18 years. In that time little has changed, he said. Two areas that have improved are the institutionalization of the “1955” hotline, a number migrant workers can call to address exploitation and abuse. The other is official authentication of migrant workers who return home.

In the past, employers were able to breach contracts, summarily fire migrant workers, and send them to their home country. Now if a migrant worker returns home they are first asked if it is their decision. Still, some brokers leverage threats against migrant workers who are unaware of their rights in order to convince them to go home.

Brokers prefer to hire migrants whose contracts stipulate they must return home upon completing their jobs. They know they will earn more brokerage fees from migrant laborers who re-apply for new brokered jobs.

Migrante Taiwan, a union of migrant workers in Taiwan, issued a press statement to coincide with the protest. Written and signed by its chairperson, Gilda Banugan, a former domestic worker herself, it said: “There are a lot of home-based workers who suffer different kinds of abuses from the hands of their brokers and employers. These abuses range from sexual abuse, overwork contract violation, to non-granting of [days off].”

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