The Ministry of Labor recently announced draft amendments to the Employment Services Act, which regulates the employment of foreign blue-collar workers in Taiwan. The changes included increased fines and restrictions on exploitative actions such as unnecessarily withholding a foreign employee’s identification and travel documents, as well as new regulations relating to the sexual abuse and trafficking of foreign laborers.
These changes are meant to strengthen protections for foreign laborers. But while employment agents who sexually abuse or traffic foreign workers would be barred from hiring foreign workers for life, one of the proposed changes bars employers who do the same from hiring for a period of only 2-5 years, and would face permanent ban only on repeat offenses.
Although the criminal code would also ostensibly apply and could bring other sentences including jail time, a mere 2-5 year ban on employing a foreign worker is not enough. In fact, it reflects the lack of regard the government, and to some extent the Taiwanese society, has for migrant workers—female foreign labor, in particular.
The majority of trafficked and sexually abused foreign laborers are women, and in Taiwan, the majority are domestic workers.. In many cases, they are the ones who ensure comfort and dignity to Taiwan’s elderly, and deserve both respect and protection. Working in a home is a unique kind of employment: you live at your workplace and share your living quarters with your boss. In a dire situation, there is no easy escape; leaving means running away from both your home and your place of employment. Although sexual abuse can occur in any workplace, it is easier to commit in such private, intimate quarters.
Simply put, nobody who has abused an employee in this way should be allowed to bring another person into the same circumstances. This must be permanent. A person convicted of a sex crime is barred from working as a teacher in Taiwan, and this is not considered an undue impingement on that person’s rights. The same ought to be true of the right to hire a domestic worker after committing such a crime.
Although it is possible for sex offenders to be rehabilitated, recidivism rates are nearly impossible to calculate; experts agree that true rates of both sexual abuse and recidivism are likely vastly underreported. Given this, some rights, once revoked, are best never restored. There is no reason, no argument that makes it acceptable to bring a new employee into the same situation in which a previous one was sexually violated.
Taiwanese women are not legally protected, either. As the law stands now, someone who sexually abuses a Taiwanese domestic employee is not barred from employing another such employee once they have served their sentence. While this, too, must change, the vast majority of domestic laborers are foreign female laborers, and they are in a more precarious position than citizens.
Consider the specific circumstances of foreigners in Taiwan. They may not speak Chinese well, may not have many resources to escape or know where to go, and may not fully understand his or her rights. It is in the interest of the brokerage firms, who often thrive on the exploitation of foreign labor, to keep them as ill-informed as possible. Wages are low, domestic workers are not covered under the Labor Standards Act, visa situations are often precarious and many are charged by brokerage firms to come, often in the form of loans they must pay back. It is difficult to form a community or access support networks. For all of these reasons, they are in a much more vulnerable situation.
I am myself a foreign immigrant, but of comparative privilege: a foreign professional, generally welcomed in Taiwan, and I consider Taiwan my home. However, I empathize with my fellow foreigners. I, too, have struggled with the language barrier, not fully understood my rights, and been employed by companies who tried to keep information from me, assuming it was best if the foreigner simply didn’t know the law or whom to contact. This is, sadly, a normal situation for foreign workers in Taiwan.
What calculus, then, did the Ministry of Labor use to arrive at this so-called “punishment” for one instance of sexual abuse? What is one assault worth to them—just 2 to 5 years before the employer is allowed to recreate the circumstances of their original crime? This is a time-out chair more suitable for a child’s minor infraction than a punishment for an unconscionable crime. Is one assault not serious enough? Is it only a problem when more than one woman’s body is violated? What is one woman’s body worth?
Migrant women are women too; their lives and bodies are no less valuable and no less worthy than mine or that of any Taiwanese woman. I would never want to unwittingly work in the home of someone convicted of sexual abuse or trafficking, and I doubt any Taiwanese woman would, either. Simply put, it is unacceptable that convicted sex offenders are free to rehire domestic workers, whether they be citizens or immigrants, who are even more vulnerable.
That lawmakers on both ends of the Taiwanese political spectrum, from blue to green to even yellow, find this proposal acceptable—and do not protest strongly against it—is embarrassing both in terms of how Taiwan treats its migrant workers, but also women. The Taiwanese left, especially, must do better. They claim to speak for those who seek justice and equal rights, and this is one important way to act on those values.
Recently, there has been quite a bit of discussion in Taiwanese civil society about how it is not enough for Taiwan to simply consider formal independence. It also must decide what kind of nation it wants to be. Treatment of migrant workers and women certainly belong on the to-do list of building a better Taiwanese state.
If Taiwanese employers are allowed to continue to hire foreign workers even after one instance of sexual abuse, I have to ask: is this the kind of society Taiwan wants to be?
Or, perhaps, can we be better?
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