There is a silent and invisible apartheid in Taiwan. This is unheard of in large part because only a few, outside of the predominantly anti-migrant local media, will talk about it. Even fewer will listen with an open mind, a sense of true objectivity, and an eye toward finding real, tangible solutions, although that number is increasing.
This is not seen, for the most part, because discriminated people are, as in most systems of racial oppression, separated from the empowered and privileged majority. It also goes unnoticed because it’s unpleasant to look at, and like most unsightly things, it’s much easier to look away.
Of course, I’m talking about the mistreatment of Southeast Asian migrant workers from Taiwan, especially, in this case, those employed by the tens of thousands in factories in Taiwan.
It is only now, as the Covid-19 pandemic hits the shores of Taiwan more than a year after affecting the rest of the world, that Taiwan’s two-tier approach to its foreign residents has truly emerged.
Across the country, like most locals and white-collar Western expats in cities from north to south, east to west, live under âlevel 3â restrictions on gatherings, Asian blue-collar workers from the South East to Miaoli can only dream of such freedoms as going out to buy their own food, or even going out at all, for that matter.
County Magistrate Hsu Yao-chang announced in a Facebook post on Tuesday that not all migrant workers in Miaoli are allowed to leave their homes. Since then, workers in the semiconductor industry in Miaoli, employed at facilities with a workforce numbering in the thousands, have been illegally confined to their dormitories, have been summarily arrested and questioned and threatened with death. fines by the police if they were found on the street, and apparently in some cases were forced to sign documents stating that, if they contract Covid-19, they alone will bear the cost of their treatment.
On June 9, Miaoli County also extended the general stay-at-home order to caregivers, after residents complained that caregivers, when they were taking out their elderly wards to get some fresh air and / or exercise, “group discussion”. According to a statement released by the Miaoli County government, all migrant workers, if they live apart from their employer, can only travel to and from work if they are transported either by their employer or by their agent. placement.
In response to Miaoli’s order, the Central Epidemic Command Center, which decides Taiwan’s Covid-19 policies, the local government yesterday to implement regulations based on the level 3 alert for Covid-19. The government took no action to revoke the policy, although lawmakers have the legality of the order.
It would be shocking if it was something new. But this is not the case. Rather, it is simply an extension of what has always been Taiwan’s system of migrant labor laws – a set of rules that amount to legalized oppression and sustained racism. by law.
Talk to any migrant worker employed in a factory (if you can find one outside factory property, that is), and they will explain to you what their life is confined to. Most often, their existence is linked to two places: the factory floor and the factory dormitory. Dorms have a curfew. Staying outside beyond the appointed time, and the worker risks losing his job, his work visa, and therefore his ability to stay in Taiwan. Dormitories are often spartan and overcrowded places, sometimes with as many as a dozen workers sharing a single small room, sleeping military-style on narrow bunks.
Unlike Western white-collar workers, migrants from Southeast Asia cannot get a job search visa if they lose their job, for whatever reason. If they are fired for breaking the curfew, their fate is most likely deportation and possible blacklisting among the employment brokers who control access to factory work in Taiwan. In other words, something as simple as staying out too late can lead to loss of livelihood and legal status.
Imagine a population – a minority group – whose movements are arbitrarily controlled. Imagine that they were governed by a completely separate set of laws, and a lesser set, offering them fewer protections, more restrictions and far fewer freedoms. What would you call it?
Although factory workers are covered by Taiwanese labor standards law (while caregivers and deep-sea fishermen are not), it is enforced in a way far from equal to that granted to locals and western expatriates. Instead, it is subject to caveats and asterisks.
This is the Labor Standards Act Lite, in which factory workers can be protected, but also in which agreements or extralegal measures, such as confinement, payment out of pocket for the treatment of an injury or illness suffered at work, and various other wrongdoings imposed on migrant workers by the corrupt labor brokerage system that imposes crippling fines, fees and interest payments on loans taken out just so that they can come to Taiwan from people who, more often than not, enter into unilateral contracts from a place of disadvantage.
Elsewhere in the world, the word that has been used to describe such circumstances is apartheid, a word so terrible that saying it out loud or reading it on the screen or on the printed page is like conjuring up terrible images in the world. spirit – the worst of the worst of mankind. Now, unfortunately, that is a word that must be applied to Taiwan, a country that is otherwise a beacon of hope, diversity, acceptance and democracy in Asia.
There is hardly a government on planet Earth that does not have blood on its hands, even those considered democratic and progressive. Such is the nature of modern, liberal and ultra-capitalist governance that there are people whom the systems in place exploit, take for granted or, in the milder cases, simply neglect, allowing them to slip through the cracks. of the net.
The peoples of Southeast Asia who come to Taiwan to work in the country’s factories, care for the sick and the elderly, and do the dangerous and extremely underpaid work in the fishing fleet, are being exploited, they are taken for granted and they are summarily neglected, and have been taken for granted by successive governments since the 1990s who have organized their coming here to help build Taiwan’s prosperity.
Taiwan’s democracy, its wealth, has come at a cost – a human cost that is not measured only in the lives of the Taiwanese themselves who sacrificed themselves for this great land, but in the lives of those who have never obtained the path of citizenship or even permanent residence, except marriage, in the nation which they have helped to build and maintain by giving their strength, skill and character.
Taiwanese administrations from the relatively recent dawn of Taiwanese democracy until today have told those from the Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam and Thailand that they could stay, for a while, as as guests. They can strengthen the social fabric of Taiwan with their needed manpower. But when their time is up (12 years, or four three-year contracts), they have to go elsewhere. Their job is done. Their value, in the eyes of labor officials, businessmen and society itself, is exhausted.
So, sadly, it comes as no surprise when, as the pandemic has taken hold in Taiwan in recent weeks, we have witnessed the continuation of policies that have distinguished Southeast Asian ‘migrants’ to Taiwan from the locals. , and the most vaunted “expatriates”.
While the Tsai administration is facilitating immigration for so-called high value-added workers in finance, education and other white-collar industries through the Employment Gold Card program and other initiatives undertaken to making this country a destination of choice for highly skilled professionals, she forgets that it’s not the astute founder of the startup who does a 12-hour shift in the factory, making the most semiconductor chips the world’s coveted – the backbone of the Taiwanese economy. It is not the crypto-trader fleeing the Covid crisis in his own country who takes care of the elderly and infirm in this country.
And yet it is the trader and founder, the white entrepreneur, that Taiwan covets and treats the best. These are the people featured in puff pieces dubbing Taiwan the âbest place in the world for expatsâ. It is the factory worker and the caregiver that he treats after the fact, if at all. It is only when times are at their worst that Southeast Asians in Taiwan are considered, it seems, and when considered, they are seen as one thing and one: as scapegoats.
It is neither fair, nor just, nor justified. This, like any apartheid system, is shameful. Taiwan has dominated Asia in many aspects in recent years, such as marriage equality. He can once again lead the way in how he treats his most vulnerable and underrated people. But he hasn’t done it yet. And if the current situation continues, where migrant workers are wrongly accused of spreading Covid, when in fact they are contracting it due to being trapped in criminally overcrowded dormitories and forced to continue working in cramped conditions, then Taiwan has no reason to boast of being a bastion of human rights and progressive ideals.
In order for Taiwan to truly be what it claims to be, it has to face this uncomfortable truth.
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TNL Editor: Bryan Chou, Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)
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