by Brian Hioe

Photo Credit: Storm Media

THE RALLY FOR migrant workers’ rights which took place in Taipei this past Sunday would be a sign of changing times. Namely, the issue of “new residents” to Taiwan has been a hotbed issue as of late, given that the pluralization of Taiwanese society in recent years being more and more visible. Specifically, the rally was staged by migrant workers who are caregivers and called for fairer wages and an end to the current broker system.

It is that migrant workers have come to occupy an integral place in Taiwanese society as sources of domestic care work, particularly regarding female workers in the fields of childcare or care for the elderly. Countries from which migrant workers originate include high numbers from Indonesia and the Philippines, as well as Thailand and Vietnam. The increasing numbers of migrant workers marrying in Taiwan resulted in one out of every ten Taiwanese elementary school or middle school student has a foreign-born mother, although we might note the tenuous situation of foreign mothers in and of themselves. So it would be that the fabric of Taiwanese society is changing. Nevertheless, despite the growing importance of foreign labor, migrant workers acutely lack secure rights in Taiwan.

There is growing awareness of the role of migrant workers and new migrants in Taiwanese society. It is of note that the past weekend’s rally terminated at Taipei Railway Station. Arguably, it was that the role of migrant workers in Taiwanese society began to become a hotbed topic in Taiwanese society in July of this year, when migrant workers gathered in Taipei Main Station to celebrate the end of Ramadan. The massive gathering of 10,000 to 20,000 workers easily filled up Taipei Main Station, demonstrating the increasingly felt presence of migrant workers in Taiwanese society.

Obviously, the awareness of Taiwan’s growing migrant population should have come long before, given that shifting demographics in Taiwan have been long visible. But for many years, the place of migrant workers in Taiwanese society was largely invisible. In fact, some have drawn connections to that Tsai Ing-Wen’s declaration of a “New Southward Policy” for Taiwan as a campaign policy came after this, with growing awareness that Taiwanese society has become increasingly yoked to economy of Southeast Asia occurring as a result of this sudden public awareness of the growing presence of migrant workers from Southeast Asia in Taiwan.

PhotoCreditStormMediaDemonstrators on Sunday wearing shirts dyed with red paint to symbolize blood and carrying a large puppet. Photo credit: Storm Media

The role of migrant workers remains a precarious one. Apart from general social discrimination against those that look different, the predominant form of migrant labor appears to be in domestic settings. Migrant workers, usually female workers caring for the elderly, are expected to be on call 24/7 for any form of domestic work, with little consideration to that migrant workers are in Taiwan because of their own need to provide for their families.

Thus, migrant workers have a lack of holidays and any division between work hours and non-work hours, given that they often live with the families whose elderly members they are looking after. Sometimes, migrant domestic workers become emotionally invested in taking care of the elderly family members they have been hired to look after, and end up working long hours without pay as a result. This only furthers the dilemma of migrant workers.

In cases of sexual harassment, migrant workers find themselves with little legal means to defend themselves, hence the phenomenon of “runaway” migrant workers. Migrant workers also generally face low pay and exploitative fees from the broker agencies which provide their means of arranging work in Taiwan.

Where does a solution lie? Actually, it is notable that the increasing role of migrant labor in Taiwan with the need for domestic workers to care for the elderly is a product of the aging population in Taiwan. Within many East Asian countries, we broadly see the demographic trend of a declining birthrate an growing elderly population. Taiwan is no exception. But unlike Japan, for example, it is that Taiwan does not have ideological and governmental opposition to importing foreign labor to take care of the elderly, hence the increasing number of migrant workers in Taiwan working in domestic care.

Despite the fact that Taiwanese labor groups have rallied behind migrant workers in solidarity, it is only with migrant workers beginning to self-organize that their plight is beginning to be recognized. Particularly refreshing may be that elements of post-Sunflower civil society are involved in demonstrations in support of migrant workers.

But it remains that in absence of legislation, the situation of workers will not improve. This was certainly the logic behind this weekend’s demonstration culminating in front of DPP headquarters with a petition handed to Tsai Ing-Wen. Actually, this follows a pattern of recent labor protests, including the yearly “Autumn Struggle” labor demonstration, demonstrating with a focus upon targeting not the KMT, but the DPP, in expectation that the DPP will take the presidency under Tsai Ing-Wen. And if part of the problem seems to be Taiwanese racial attitudes towards Southeast Asian migrant workers, and there would likely be difficulty enforcing laws pertaining to domestic settings, it remains to be seen as to what bringing about genuine reform or change for the plight of migrant workers would entail.

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