Taiwan’s foreign factory workers face rights violations amid latest Covid outbreak

Taiwan's foreign factory workers face rights violations amid latest Covid outbreak

Chemical troops disinfect various places, including public transport, following a surge in domestic Covid-19 cases and related deaths, in Taipei, Taiwan, 31 May 2021.

(Ceng Shou Yi/NurPhoto)

Taiwan may be at the tail-end of its worst Covid outbreak since the pandemic began, but migrant workers are still facing draconian lockdown measures that rights advocates describe as “discriminatory”. Between mid-May and mid-July, over 14,000 people in Taiwan were infected with the coronavirus, compared with a total number of 1,199 cases since the pandemic broke out in February 2020 up until May 2021. The outbreak hit some of the dormitories which house South-East Asian employees at several tech companies based in Miaoli County particularly badly, and in response, the local government forbade migrant workers from going outside except to go to work between 7-28 June. As these rules did not apply to the general population, advocates have condemned these measures, which they say highlights the way in which the Taiwan government fails migrant factory workers and has created a three-decade-long, legally mandated two-tier society thanks to the country’s labour brokerage system.

As the world’s largest supplier of computer microchips, Taiwan relies heavily on foreign workers to keep up with the surging demand for consumer electronics amid a global shortage in semiconductors. But while these workers serve as the backbone of Taiwan’s economy, their rights and dignity often take second place to company profits.

Tens of thousands of workers were under lockdown orders for nearly a month starting in early June, and among the dozen or so migrant tech workers Equal Times talked to for this article, some are still living under Covid restriction orders, even though cluster infections among migrant workers have slowed down since early July.

Regina*, a Filipina worker at a chip plant for ASE, the world’s largest chip packaging and testing manufacturer, shares a cramped room with six double-bunk beds and 11 other workers in Zhongli, north-west Taiwan. There are suitcases and personal belongings piled up, with clothes hung up to dry inside the room. She tells Equal Times that for 30 days between 7 June and 6 July she was not allowed to go outside of her dormitory except to go to work. She had to return to her dormitory within one hour of finishing her shift.

“We feel like prisoners. It’s like the company controls every aspect of our lives,” says Regina, who was interviewed by Equal Times while she was still under the restrictions that have now been lifted.

At her company, like in many others, there are security guards at the gates of her factory and dormitory, and workers have to swipe their company ID cards to get in or out of either location.

She says that ASE not only confined the movement of foreign factory workers, but it also limited the food they were able to eat and even mandated them to do laundry at certain times. “It is very suffocating,” Regina laments. “It is unfair that Taiwanese workers are not ordered to follow all these rules,” she says. To date, no migrant worker at ASE has contracted Covid-19.

In keeping with epidemic regulations?

With about 6,000 migrant employees across Taiwan, ASE announced that it would be restricting the movement of factory workers on 7 June, ostensibly to protect workers from further exposure to the virus. Any worker that violated the rules would be issued with a major demerit (with three demerits punishable by a dismissal), according to an internal document viewed by Equal Times. Before the announcement, the company had ordered hundreds of migrant workers out of private rentals into shared company accommodation, creating a total number of about 3,000 residents between two dorms.

An ASE spokesperson told Equal Times that while they understood that the company’s safety measures may have caused anxiety amongst workers, it was only following epidemic regulations laid out by the government. “We recognise the significant contribution of our migrant employees towards the success of the company and the Taiwan economy,” the company said in a written statement on 1 July, emphasising that it sought to allay the anxieties of migrant workers by providing them with financial support.

In total, Taiwan has more than 711,000 migrant workers, mostly from the Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam and Thailand. Migrant workers account for 8 per cent of the country’s workforce and more than 60 per cent work in the industrial sector, including in the microchip industry.

During and immediately after Taiwan’s worst community outbreak, some employers were reportedly resorting to scare tactics to get migrant workers to comply to strict company rules, such as telling workers that they would be cremated in Taiwan if they died of Covid-19 rather than being repatriated home for burial, or telling workers that they would be financially responsible for any fees incurred if they became infected with the virus.

“The stay-at-dorm policy is very discriminatory,” says Wu Jing-ru, executive director of the Taiwan International Workers Association. “Migrant workers vital to Taiwan’s economy are perceived merely as a workforce, not as humans. During the busiest period for these electronics companies, they didn’t want to stop operations.”

The Ministry of Labor initially responded to the employers’ targeted lockdown measures with silence before announcing at the end of June that any employer who deprives migrant workers of their freedom of movement or threatens to obstruct their ability to exercise of their rights will be in violation of the country’s criminal law. However, no authority or company has yet been punished for doing so.

But it is not only tech companies that have been playing foul against migrant workers. The Miaoli magistrate Hsu Yao-chang issued a ‘lockdorm’ order on 7 June after the first few cluster infections erupted in migrant worker dormitories in the Jhunan Science Park in Miaoli County, where there are around 15,000 industrial foreign workers.

When migrant workers and human rights groups complained that the orders only prohibited freedom of movement for one group of workers, Hsu said during a press conference: “You tested positive, and even died because of the virus. Why talk about human rights now?”

Unsafe quarantine and Covid-19 prevention measures

KYEC, a major semiconductor supplier to global tech companies such as Apple and Intel, is where the first and largest foreign worker Covid outbreak took place, with more than 340 workers infected. The company confined migrant workers at its Miaoli plant to their dormitories when off duty and imposed epidemiologically questionable quarantine methods.

Kathy*, a worker at KYEC, says she was put into quarantine in early June in a room where co-workers infected with Covid-19 had stayed right before she and her other colleagues moved in.

“The rooms were dirty and not properly disinfected, and my colleagues even found used PPE in their rooms,” she says. “I was mentally and physically drained by the experience because I didn’t know what would happen to me next. If someone tests positive, everyone in the same room is pulled out from the dormitory [and put into quarantine],” Kathy explains. “The company’s policy is very wrong.”

Speaking on the phone to Equal Times, a KYEC representative admitted that mistakes were made in the rush to respond quickly to the fast-spreading virus. “But these problems have been solved. Workers who were under quarantine are gradually returning back to work, and the company measures are now following the nationwide soft lockdown measures.”

For Father Joy Tajonera, a priest who has worked as a migrant workers’ rights advocate for over 20 years, the pandemic has merely exposed a pre-existing issue. “The problem is not Covid-19. The problem is that the government allows the broker system to remain in Taiwan,” says Tajonera.

Since 1989, when Taiwan opened up its job market to foreign workers, the country’s two-tier broker system has allowed factory employers to subcontract migrant workers and to provide workers with required services such as accommodation and translators. In most cases, the brokers charge employers very few or no fees; instead, they charge migrant workers 1,500 to 1,800 Taiwanese dollars (approximately US$53.40 to US$64) in service fees per month.

Yet when workers need help with improving their living conditions or defending their rights at work, the brokers are often absent. “It is a real system of control. The government should take more responsibility to protect the human rights of migrant workers.” Father Tajonera says.

Taiwan’s Centers for Disease Control (CDC) says that it has never prohibited migrants from going out and that it has made great efforts to tackle the spread of the virus among migrant communities. “Migrant workers have left their hometowns to contribute to Taiwan’s economic prosperity. The people of Taiwan have always been grateful for this and do not discriminate against migrant workers due to their infections,” the CDC told Equal Times in a statement.

As of 29 July, Taiwan has recorded 15,637 confirmed cases of the coronavirus and 787 deaths. The CDC said that migrant worker cluster infections are now under control and almost cleared. While Taiwan’s relative success in containing the coronavirus can be attributed to its decisive and fast-reacting measures, rights advocates note that it is illegal and immoral to only apply such stringent measures to one segment of the population. Even though the government denies targeting lockdown measures towards migrant workers, it did not stop the authorities and companies that did from doing so.

*Regina and Kathy are not their real names