Polly Chien, Pitt Law '12, writes about the rights of migrant workers in her home country of Taiwan...
any Americans need a cup of coffee in the morning.
As a first year law student, I walk down the street from the law school to McDonald's to buy mine. Sometimes, the clerk is not fluent in English, and I have to repeat myself a couple times to get the correct order. This experience is typical for many Americans living in big cities and is representative of the issues arising in an economy that is reliant on migrant and other foreign workers to fill basic jobs. Every year, hundreds of thousands of immigrants, many with limited employment skills, flow into the United States in search of better jobs and a better life. With limited resources, most immigrants are confined to minimum wage and seasonal jobs concentrated in restaurants and other similar establishments, and they rarely enjoy social welfare protection. Often, immigrants without legal immigration status are cut off from most social aid services, and the controversy surrounding this issue is intense on both sides.
This phenomenon is not confined to the United States. In Taiwan, there are approximately 360,000 migrant workers, of whom nearly 160,000 are domestic workers or caretakers. In addition, Taiwan has a robust guest worker program, in which foreign workers from other, typically less-developed countries, are sponsored by employers in Taiwan, and allowed to travel to the country and stay there for purposes of their pre-arranged employment. The workers are barred from the general benefits and protections of Taiwan's Labor Standard Act (LSA) and are also vulnerable to physical abuse and mistreatment from employers.
I first became aware of the troubles facing foreign and migrant workers in Taiwan in September of 2005, when a huge scandal was uncovered at the Kaohsiung Municipal Subway Construction Project. Nearly 1,700 migrant Thai workers rioted, attacking police and destroying property in protest against working conditions at the project. The workers' employer had allegedly struck two of the Thai laborers with electric clubs. The migrant workers also claimed that they were deprived of their basic rights, consistently abused, housed in a segregated camp at the construction site, and barred from contact with the local Taiwanese population. They claimed that they were forced to work 18-20 hours a day for a salary of about $300 a month.
I was fortunate to attend the Migrant Worker Rally on World Human Rights Day in 2008. The rally that year, organized around the theme of "No Slave Labor," was intended to draw attention to the poor working conditions and violations of basic rights at the Koahsiung Subway Construction Project. The parade eventually became a biennial demonstration seeking legislative change to combat the trafficking of illegal workers and to increase the protection of workers' rights under the Taiwanese guest worker program.
Guest worker programs are especially popular in developing, socially homogeneous, Asian and European countries that base their immigration policies on the principles of jus sanguinis. According to jus sanguinis, nationality is determined by ancestry rather than birthplace. In 1989, the Taiwanese government adopted a guest worker program modeled after Germany's that allows foreign nationals to work temporarily in Taiwan in an attempt to address the country's ongoing labor shortage. The program differentiates between unskilled laborers and white-collar professionals from Western countries, and many of the restrictions only apply to the unskilled migrant workers. For example, guest workers may stay in Taiwan for a maximum of six years, may not bring their families with them, and may not marry during their employment. Additionally, each laborer is required to undergo a complete physical health examination every six months.
The Council of Labor Affairs (CLA) is the agency responsible for enforcing the LSA, but has only limited power to regulate laborers and protect their rights. For example, the LSA allows migrant workers to bring claims against their employers for violating their basic rights. However, this protection is ineffective since the laborers cannot afford to bear the economic burden of a lawsuit. Rather than challenge their mistreatment, they are forced to return to their home countries and "voluntarily" end their employment in Taiwan. This unfortunate situation was somewhat ameliorated by a 2007 amendment to the country's Immigration Act, which allowed migrant workers to extend their residency status in Taiwan during the pendency of a lawsuit against an employer.
The theme of the most recent Migrant Worker Rally on December 13, 2009, was "The Robot Also Gets Tired." Friends currently employed with the International Workers Association (IWA) discussed the organization's plans for amending the LSA to better protect domestic workers' legal rights. In particular, the IWA is focused on ensuring workers' rights to rest and leisure. The group's planned amendment brought to mind interviews I conducted in 2005 with migrant domestic workers in Taiwan. Most of the interviewees were 20- to 30-year old women from the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam who cared for the elderly or sick as home nurses or at senior citizen homes, known as senior sanctuaries in Taiwan. The women who work at the senior sanctuaries are generally in a better position than the others because they are allowed rest breaks during their shifts and are able to spend time with friends on and off duty, among other benefits, due to their protection under the LSA. However, those working in individual homes are not as lucky, since the LSA does not protect migrant or guest workers employed in private homes.
My very first interview was with a woman named Alice (name changed). She was caring for a 72 year old man who had suffered numerous strokes and had a very bad temper. Since the man only slept four hours a day, Alice was required to work 20 hours a day, seven days a week, and was rarely allowed time off on the weekends. As a result, she was close to suffering a nervous breakdown as a result of her exhausting work situation. Her story was typical of the other home caretakers I interviewed.
In order to prevent the abuse of migrant home caretakers, the Taiwanese government has attempted to lessen demand for their employment by introducing legislation that provides national health care coverage to senior citizens. However, this coverage is not available to senior citizens who employ migrant domestic workers. The impact of this legislation is that workers in private homes are still not allowed breaks since the households have no temporary assistance during a migrant worker's absence. If the employer is unwilling or unable to allow the worker rest or time off, the worker is permanently on duty, and still outside the LSA's protections. This troubling development is in direct contravention of Article 24 of the Universal Declaration of Human rights, which guarantees workers' fundamental rights to rest and leisure. Without these rights, migrant workers have become isolated machines deprived of the freedom and opportunity to claim and exercise their rights.
Those who attended last year's Migrant Worker Rally are seeking additional protections for foreign and migrant workers. The rally's organizers and supporters want the government to loosen regulations on senior citizen health care in private homes in order to protect currently-employed migrant workers. Notably, many employers marched in the rally side-by-side with their employees to fight for workers' rights and to demand government protection of their fundamental freedoms. Through the efforts of the International Workers Association and the Migrant Worker Rallies, I believe that more Taiwanese people will become aware of migrant workers, their rights, and the troublesome issues that many of them currently face. Hopefully, Taiwanese citizens will then realize that these workers are indispensable to the national economy and deserve the protection of Taiwanese labor laws.
Photos courtesy of: Pei-Ran Syu
Mentioned in this article:
Taiwan International Workers Association
Universal Declaration of Human Rights