Taiwan is rightly proud of its progress over the last few decades out of third-world poverty to something approaching first-world status. However, there are still areas where you have to wonder if Taiwan has made any progress at all – it’s treatment of overseas workers is one of the main ones.
Last weeks riot by Thai workers in Kaohsiung highlighted the plight of about 300,000 legal overseas workers (mainly from Thailand, the Philippines and Vietnam). Some of the things the workers in Kaohsiung had to put up with was Taiwanese bosses using electric cattle prods to ‘control’ them, a wage lower than the minimal wage, not getting paid properly for their overtime, dormitories with individual space less than prison cells, bans on use of mobile phones, ridiculous fines for trivial offenses (NT$3000 fine for ‘riding a bicycle’!) and being paid in ‘tokens’ instead of cash (only useable in the overpriced company stores).
Although it remains to be seen whether anything will be done about the overall problem of overseas workers rights, the issue does seem to be getting a fair amount of play in the local press. Today, the Taipei Times (a paper which has often been criticized for shying away from negative stories about Taiwan) has a series of reports which highlight the numerous problems:
- Some more issues with the Kaohsiung workers
- The corrupt brokerage system which hires the workers – which usually requires a large up-front fee from each worker (loaned to the worker, to ensure he is in heavy debt)
- The problems of domestic workers – who usually end up in homes with little or no legal support or protection if they get abused or exploited.
- The disparity between the governments championing of human rights, and the reality on the ground.
Note that all the problems above are ones for legal overseas workers. Some people estimate there are another 300,000 workers here illegally. One shudders to imagine the conditions they have to put up with.
There are a range of obvious actions which could and should be taken by the Taiwanese government if they want to improve the situation (a complete reform of the way workers are hired from overseas, basic protection for all workers under the Basic Labor Law, legal support for workers in disputes). However, does the government have the stomach for real change (which will affect all those companies who rely on this plentiful cheap labour)?
Chen Shui-bian has been publicly asking for input for his next round of constitutional reform. Perhaps someone should mention to him that basic human rights should be protected for all people – not just citizens.