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Broken laws and unprotected workers: the conditions of foreign workers in Taiwan

Care workers in Taiwan are being worked to the point of exhaustion, with dangerous consequences. Could basic rights make life better for workers and recipients alike?

Geoff Livingston/Flickr. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

In 1989, the import of foreign workers' was legalised as a special case to satisfy labour gaps for the labour-intensive Ten Major Construction Projects. In 1992, the Employment Service Act that legalised the hiring of blue-collar international workers from the Philippines, Vietnam, and Thailand was also put into effect. Workers were categorised under 'industrial' and 'caregiver' roles – the 'industrial' category included fishing, factory, and construction jobs while the 'caregiver' category included organisational caregiver, private nursing, and household worker roles. Taiwan has approximately 40,000 national domestic and care workers in the country, which is a small number in comparison to the 250,000 foreign workers.

Due to gaps in the social welfare system, the Taiwanese government has failed to provide a care system. In legalising the import of foreign caregivers, the government left the responsibility of long-term care to families. In addition to conveniently outsourcing the problem, the government’s management system of foreign workers has led to many human rights violations. For example, the system limits the length of time foreign workers are allowed to stay in Taiwan and workers are unable to choose or change employers at free will.

In addition, domestic workers – both foreign and domestic – are not protected by the Labour Standards Act. They are paid below minimum wage, work overtime, and are required to live in the homes of the recipients of care. According to data released by the Ministry of Labour, foreign nursing workers work an average of 13 hours a day and up to 34.5% of these workers don't have any days off throughout the whole year. These conditions often lead to cases of overworking, illnesses, and physical abnormalities among foreign workers. They could also trigger aggressive behaviour, such as harming care-receivers. Nevertheless, the government has yet to actively tackle the issue.

Founded in 1999, the Taiwan International Workers’ Association (TIWA) was established as a result of numerous foreign workers' complaints, an event which increased awareness about domestic workers' living and work conditions among advocates. In 2003, after the unfortunate death of Liu Xia – a late national policy advisor to the president, Xia was killed by her care-giver who, suffering from delusions due to over work, thought she was saving her charge from an earthquake – TIWA partnered with grassroots organisations serving foreign workers to launch the Promotion Alliance for the Household Services Act and drafted the Household Services Act within the same year.

TIWA proposed the legislation of the Household Service Act in 2004, calling for laws to provide protection to household caregivers and workers' right to use respite service. Respite service allows caregivers to take reasonable leaves of absence, improving the quality of care to care-receivers while providing job opportunities to local care-givers. However, despite these legislative developments, Taiwan's government has been delaying its efforts to contain the situation and thus leaves slavery-like labour conditions unresolved.

Continuing the struggle

Over the past few years, TIWA has also focused on issues like long-term care by cooperating with Members of Labor Struggle and other Taiwan-based labour unions. We have supporters that make donations on a monthly basis. Meanwhile, we also work for governmental projects and apply for funding. Some of the employers with disabilities keep in touch with us and recognise the need to organise foreign workers associations. They are convinced that the labouring conditions of foreign workers should be protected and that the government should also provide care.

In 2007, the Promoting Alliance for Household Service Act changed its name to the Migrants Empowerment Network in Taiwan, or MENT for short. The organisation officially expanded its work to promote the welfare of all foreign workers. MENT holds the Foreign Worker March once every two years, with a different theme for each march. In 2003, the theme was "Anti- slave" and in 2005, it called for "Valuing foreign workers' contribution". MENT also assisted in the launch of the Filipino organisation KASAPI and the Indonesian IPIT, two organisations that serve as foreign workers' representation platforms. In the marches of 2007, 2009, and 2011, the themes were "I Want My Day Off", "I Want My Day Off-Still Not Allowed" and "Where is My Day Off".  They urged the government to improve nursing workers' work environment and enact the Household Services Act.

Over the past few years, due to the shift in population structure, the aging society has been urging Taiwan's government to work on the Long-term Care Services Act, to fill gaps in terms of human resources in long-term care. However, this act left out the 200,000 foreign workers that have been providing service to the area. Taiwan's government continues to exclude foreign workers from the workforce by keeping individual caretaker recruitment services. In 2013, under the theme “Say NO to sweatshop long-term care, Say YES to minimum wage", the march mocked the mistaken development of Taiwan's long-term care system. In 2015, MENT expanded its focus to the problem confronting minorities, arguing that nursing workers and care-receivers should both enjoy non-exploitative caring conditions.

Over the past few years, foreign nursing workers' poor working conditions and the lack of legal protections triggered hundreds of marching activities, protests, and press conferences as well as higher exposure in the news. While these actions garnered sympathy, they did not lead to concrete changes of the situation. Many showed their sympathy by commenting that foreign workers in Taiwan simply want to make a living and are therefore entitled to days off. Yet, it is not uncommon to hear comments like "they are making way higher in Taiwan compared to their home country", "why are you helping foreign workers?" or "foreign workers are dangerous" and so on. Based on accumulated experience in dealing with foreign workers' issues, we are aware that it’s difficult to pressure the government to act while at the same time changing the mentality of Taiwanese people towards foreign workers, as well as pushing for the improvement of an incomplete social-welfare system. However, working towards promoting and accelerating foreign workers' basic human rights is a quest that cannot be given up.

About the author

Chen Betty 陳容柔 has been the coordinator of the Taiwan International Workers’ Association since 2009. She is also the director of the documentary ‘Run away’.


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