by Andi Kao

Photo Credit: TIWA/Facebook

THE INTERNATIONAL Center for Cultural Studies at National Chiao Tung University recently held a conference on “Dialogue between Law and Society – A Seminar on Migrant Workers’ Labor Rights and Government Policies.” The forum is part of a series of events engaging with the theory and praxis of social struggle organized by scholars from the field of legal studies, the social sciences and humanities. Participants included members of the Taiwan International Workers’ Association (TIWA), Serve the People Association (SPA), Taoyuan Domestic Caregivers’ Union (DCU), Yilan Migrant Fishermen Union (YMFU), Rumahku 志工團, Migrante International – Taiwan Chapter, representatives of the Ministry of Labor (MoL) and Labor Affairs Department of Yilan County, and labor brokers.

Presenters described how migrants navigate the socio-legal terrain of labor, immigration, gender equality, and human rights law while making a life in Taiwan. Each panel featured two presentations by scholars related to a particular topic followed by impressions from a discussant from a civil society organization. Among the topics covered were residency and naturalization rights, unionization and collective bargaining, and sexual harassment and assault. On the one hand, the structure of panels reinforced power relations by positioning scholars as privileged producers of knowledge. On the other hand, the structure destabilized authority over knowledge by having social movement organizers provide critical remarks.

Foreign worker consulting counter in the Taoyuan International Airport. Photo credit: 玄史生/WikiCommons/CC

A number of presentations productively blurred the boundaries between theory and practice. Reflecting on decades of organizing experience, Director-General Wu Jing-Ju (吳靜如) of TIWA underscored the centrality of struggling against “everyday forms of injustice” (一般日常生活之不利益地位) that immediately shape migrants’ feelings of dignity and self-worth. Wu adopted an autonomous Marxist approach, which emphasizes the creative activity of people rather than the machinations of state and capital in shaping capitalist development, in arguing that the “law always lags behind social progress” (法律永遠落後在社會的進步). Giving pride of place to the dreams, hopes, and aspirations of migrant workers themselves, Wu suggested that migrant workers might not necessarily want to immigrate to Taiwan. In doing so, Wu challenged the prevailing narrative that migrant workers should feel grateful for the opportunity to be exploited in a modern democratic country. This, however, should not mean that migrant workers are denied the right to make decisions about policies directly impacting their lives. In this vein, Wu discussed TIWA’s campaign for institutionalizing non-citizen political rights (非公民政治權) as a way of undermining the exclusionary logic of citizenship.

Meanwhile, Professor Chen Chien-Wen (陳建文) of the National Taipei University of Technology described student projects involving the creation of cultural products in collaboration with migrant workers. Echoing Director-General Wu, Chen suggested that hegemonic rights frameworks seek to manage foreign residents and are therefore fundamentally patronizing and oppressive forms of approaching overseas migration. Spoofing on the popular discourse of the “head-down tribe” (低頭族) referring to youths addicted to mobile phones, students exhibited artwork at the height of a cell phone in one’s hand to highlight the social importance of mobile phones for migrant workers physically separated from their loved ones.

Far and away the most controversial topic discussed over the course of the two-day conference was the labor brokerage system. Migrant labor organizations have been campaigning for years to abolish the system of private labor brokers. Brian Hioe has argued that the most recent demonstration in early November was significant for targeting the Indonesian, Filipino, and Vietnamese representative offices. To this, Director General Wu added that the demonstrations were unprecedented for being organized through the initiative of migrant workers and migrant worker organizations. Organizations such as TIWA took a backseat in planning the demonstrations, immediately recognizable in the fact that the coordinated demonstrations were conducted primarily in Bahasa Indonesia, Tagalog, and Vietnamese.

Recent government forums addressing labor brokers’ proposed legalization of “job-buying fees” have also increased the visibility of the system of private labor brokerage in the public eye. Migrant labor organizations berated the Ministry of Labor (MoL) for choosing to host these sessions at the behest of labor brokers while steadfastly refusing to entertain the possibility of abolishing private broker agencies despite years of campaigning. Although the MoL has indicated that the legalization of such fees will not be discussed in the short term, it has also continued to defend its position on private labor brokers through a flawed economistic logic.

The fault lines of conflict over the system of private labor brokerage are far from clear-cut. Labor brokers are generally content with the existing system and perceive migrant worker organizations as mortal enemies irrationally seeking to drive them out of business. In public forums, private labor brokers have argued that there are both good and bad labor brokers. Nevertheless, private brokers provide a highly professionalized service essential to matching employers who lack the time and resources with migrant workers who lack the knowledge and skills to fill labor market vacancies that domestic workers are unwilling to enter. Labor brokers, by and large, support the existing system of brokerage regulation based on a market logic wherein the government hands out performance grades according to service provision, handling worker complaints, and responding to “runaway” cases.

Photo credit: TIWA/Facebook

Whereas labor brokers are more or less politically unified regarding the system of private labor brokerage despite being in economic competition, migrant workers and migrant worker organizations lack consensus on the direction of change. Roughly speaking, the divisions correspond to debates concerning dispatch workers: whether social movements should focus on demanding better regulation or elimination. From the perspective of those seeking better regulation, there are serious barriers to recruiting migrant workers from rural Southeast Asian countries to work in Taiwan. Private labor brokers act as crucial nodes linking employers in Taiwan with potential employees who would otherwise be unable to meet in the labor market. Brokers not only facilitate labor migration but also smooth over the bureaucratic and social hurdles of crossing geopolitical and cultural borders through translation and mobility services.

The dominant perspective within the movement to abolish private labor brokers supports replacing the current system with government-to-government (G-to-G) direct hiring. Advocates point to a memorandum of understanding signed between South Korea and Indonesia as a model for this approach. Instead of for-profit private entities, government agencies would provide the services currently required for labor migration. Supporters of G-to-G brokerage have generally failed to articulate an adequate response to the question of whether public institutions can seamlessly replace private businesses in the absence of broader changes.  Significantly, such a vision requires transformation not only in the Taiwanese state apparatus, but also in the state apparatuses of sending countries. This presents a particularly difficult task due to Taiwan’s sovereignty status. There are also serious doubts concerning state capacity to replace the role of the approximately 1,600 legal labor brokerage firms currently operating in Taiwan.

Crucial voices consider the abolishment of the system of private labor brokers as inseparable from wider demands. The Forum Komunikasi Pekerja Migran Indonesia di Taiwan (FKPMIT), for instance, has made four demands as part of the recent demonstrations: 1) Eliminate the system of private labor brokers; 2) Implement G-to-G; 3) Include domestic care workers within the Labor Standards Law; and, 4) Eliminate contract term limitations. According to this perspective, situating the role of private labor brokers within the guest worker system is crucial for formulating visions of alternative futures.

The guest worker scheme dictates the length of the contract (3 years) and maximum years of residency (generally 12 years, 14 years for care workers whose “performance” is up to par). Migrant workers are restricted to jobs in the manufacturing, construction, care work, and fishing and agricultural sectors. The state imposes strict conditions on changing employers. Migrant workers are only eligible to do so in the event of the “death or emigration of a caregiver, the closure of a factory, the closure of a business, and personal injury.” The essential function of the guest worker program is to cheapen and discipline Southeast Asian migrants to facilitate the exploitation of their labor power for the benefit of Taiwanese state and capital.

The reality of the guest worker program raises serious doubts as to whether replacing the system of private labor brokerage with G-to-G direct hiring will improve the living and working conditions of migrant workers in Taiwan in the absence of more fundamental changes. An alternative path towards addressing the exploitation and abuse of the private labor brokerage system focuses on transforming the social and political conditions that allow brokerage agencies to exist. Central to these conditions are the oppressive restrictions limiting the length of residency and labor market activities of migrant workers. Eliminating the discriminatory temporal and spatial policies of the guest worker program would go a long way towards cutting the ground out from under the predatory system of migrant labor brokerage. In a just world, migrant workers could exercise freedoms to reside in Taiwan without being bound to an employer, work in any profession, and change employers at will.

Photo credit: TIWA/Facebook

Migrant care workers’ responses to a question posed at the recent conference regarding their ideal vision of a future are telling in this regard. A Filipina care worker who has spent time in Macau, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Taiwan spoke of a deep-seated yearning for equality. A hope for the future is to be treated with equal personhood without discrimination against nationality, ethnicity, class, gender, or any other form of social differentiation. She spoke to me of encountering stronger ethnonationalism in Taiwan when compared with other destination countries. A member of Migrante International followed by saying that, for her, freedom is essential. Referencing sex as a basic human right and desire, she blasted Taiwanese society for appropriating the right to exercise control over care workers’ bodies. Employers legitimize such control over sexual partners, clothing, leisure activities, etc. through infantilizing and sanctimonious discourses about the need to protect migrant workers. Her vision corresponds with an idea of freedom as the capacity to live and express oneself as one wishes without having one’s integrity violated, so long as one does not violate the integrity of others.

Although some might belittle the relevance of radical hopes, dreams, desires, and aspirations for the theory and praxis of social struggle, they are in reality the essential spirit of such struggle. As Max Weber once noted, “Certainly all historical experience confirms the truth – that man [sic] would not have attained the possible unless time and again he had reached out for the impossible.” Fundamentally transforming the relations of violence, exploitation, and abuse within the guest worker system cannot happen without reaching for utopias where human dignity and peace are uncompromisable.

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