The 2017 Migrants May Day Rally in Taiwan was held on Sunday April 30th, one day before the International Labour Day.
As early as 10:30am, volunteers and members of the Taiwan International Workers’ Association (TIWA) gathered on Yanping North Road in front of the Ministry of Labor to lend a hand in assembling banners, preparing posters and to distribute materials as the rally began.
The rally was reported to have brought together over 400 people composed of migrant workers and a wide variety of different civil society organizations as part of the the Migrant Empowerment Network in Taiwan (MENT). Having commuted from different neighbouring cities to Taipei, everyone was united in expressing solidarity to advocate for migrants workers’ rights, the lifting of restrictions and for better employment and working conditions.
Under police escort and supervision, demonstrators left the premises of the Ministry of Labour in concert and went on to the Presidential Office to project their message on the streets of Taipei. In doing so, they passed in front of the Taipei Main Station, which has been an important social gathering site for migrant workers on weekends such as Eïd El-Fitr and other Muslim religious holidays, attracting attention and often generating discussions by commuters and the wider public.
To hold the Tsai government accountable on its campaign reform promises on labor rights, demonstrators made three clear demands: Abolish the private brokers system; Abolish Article 53 of the Employment Service Act to allow for the freedom to change employers; and a stop to the overall commercialization of long-term care.
Recent legal revisions: negligible changes?
According to official Ministry of Labor statistics of March 2017, there were 639, 326 foreign workers in Taiwan. Out of this total, 242, 397 were categorized in “social welfare” where 186,983 are from Indonesia, followed by 30,919 from the Philippines and then 23,944 from Vietnam. Workers from the Philippines were the majority in the past, but due to changes in recruiting patterns Indonesian workers now dominate the industry.
There has been a series of updates to Taiwan’s regulations on foreign workers that address several particular issues, including paid leave, brokerage fees, and the invasiveness of mandatory pregnancy tests.
Furthermore, the annual US Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report found that “domestic service workers and caregivers in Taiwan are not covered under the Labour Standards Act and are therefore not legally guaranteed a week rest day. Because of this many domestic workers are not able to attend religious services.” This finding led to the drafting of a law guaranteeing at least one day off a week.
Another revision placed a cap on the fees workers owed to brokers. Although migrant workers can stay up to 12 years overall, a previous provision required migrant workers to leave the country at least once every three years. Brokers would collect fees from workers of NT$1,800 per month in the first contract year, up to NT$1,700 per month in the second year and up to NT$1,500 per month in the third, but the rate reverted to NT$1,800 per month again in the first year after their re-entry.
In April, a limit on broker’s services was mandated, given that workers are no longer required to leave every three years per a change last fall; brokers can no longer revert to NT$1,800 per month after three years. However, this was a source of dispute given that this adjustment in the fees lagged behind the lifting of the prior requirement to leave.
Yet one more example of a highly controversial practice is the mandatory pregnancy tests, which was part of the medical examinations required of migrant workers. This was not only a violation of domestic gender equality laws, but more importantly a violation of international basic human rights standards. Taiwan has gone to great lengths to adopt these standards, and could potentially enact the International Convention of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families. The pregnancy tests were abolished in 2015, and the Ministry of Labor reiterated it is illegal to discriminate hiring or firing based on pregnancy.
The lifting of these restrictions was long overdue, but they do not address the wider, more fundamental problem how what role migrant workers play in the fabric of Taiwan’s society.
Migrant workers face not only employment restrictions, but are also not eligible for citizenship in Taiwan, even after decades of performing reproductive labour for an adoptive society. These problems continue to be a source of solidarity and advocacy between migrants and civil society actors. In many instances, the will by institutional actors to enforce already existing laws towards labour brokers and employers could prevent many unnecessary situations of abuse.
As domestic workers and live-in caregivers operate in the private sphere, their plight is tucked away from public scrutiny. Given their status as ‘low’ or ‘unskilled’ laborers, they arguably occupy the bottom tier of a regional and international hierarchy of migrants. While some foreign workers are aggressively recruited for certain sectors, others are targeted for a given range of functions undesirable for the local labor force, often along gender, racial and class lines. Unraveling these issues requires a comprehensive dialogue on the national level in Taiwan to provide migrant workers full recognition of their contribution to Taiwanese society, bringing it step closer to its civic and political ideals and helping them lead meaningful and fulfilling lives in their new home away from home.