by Brian Hioe

Photo Credit: Brian Hioe

HUNDREDS OF migrant workers took to the streets of Taipei today, calling for an end to the current labor broker system and its replacement by government-to-government hiring practices. Migrant workers from Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam were in attendance.

Migrant workers and migrant worker advocacy groups have long demanded an end to the current broker system. Under the current system, broker agencies in migrant workers’ home countries arrange for their employment and travel to Taiwan. However, broker agencies impose high fees on migrant workers that often require migrant workers to take out expensive loans. Broker fees for a three-year contract may be anywhere between 60,000 to 200,000 NT, with further monthly fees and, as migrant workers are excluded from the provisions of the Labor Standards Act, they may earn less than minimum wage despite long hours.

Photo credit: Brian Hioe

As such, migrant workers and migrant worker advocacy groups have long called for the abolition of the broker system and the institution of direct hiring practices, which are to be instituted on a government-to-government basis. The Tsai administration, however, has continued to insist that there is a need for brokers, claiming that this is a necessary market mechanism.

Migrant workers began their demonstration today at the KMT central party headquarters, then marched to the DPP party headquarters, and finally marched to the Ministry of Labor, where a rally was held. This route was chosen as a way to show that migrant workers were protesting both the KMT and DPP alike, particularly seeing as 2020 presidential and legislative elections will take place next month. The Tsai administration was a particular target of criticisms, with organizers reflecting on that the Tsai administration has publicly touted the need to build stronger ties between Taiwan and Southeast Asia through the New Southbound Policy but has not taken substantive action to benefit the increasing migrant worker population in Taiwan, instead primarily orienting efforts toward white-collar workers from these countries. 

As with past years, many of the migrant workers that participated in the demonstration wore face masks, to prevent from being identified by their employers. Migrant workers also dressed in white, bloody costumes to signify the predatory nature of labor brokers. A number of migrant workers wore what appeared to be pieces of a large quilt made out of patches of fabric at a migrant workers’ demonstration in April this year. The completed quilt at the April demonstration was between 50 and 70 feet long and each patch on the quilt had a message from a migrant worker. The quilt was intended to be symbolic, since female migrant workers would make clothing out of old scraps of fabric in the past.

Migrant workers participating in the demonstration carried a large puppet with a number of hands to reference the greed of labor brokers. Workers also carried papier-mache water oxen heads, with signs during the protest likening the mistreatment of migrant workers to the mistreatment of pack animals as water oxen, and large heads with an “X” on them, which seemed intended to symbolize brokers.

Among the groups present at the demonstration were a number of progressive Taiwanese civil society organizations, including the Green Citizens’ Action Alliance, Gender/Sexuality Rights Association Taiwan, the Awakening Foundation, Youth Labor 95, religious groups as Caritas Taiwan and other church groups, as well as the Daguan Self-Help Organization. Migrant worker groups such as the Taiwan International Migrant Workers’ Association, Serve the People Association, Hope Workers’ Center, Hsinchu Migrants and Immigrants Service Center were also present.

Photo credit: Brian Hioe

One notes that migrant workers rallied last month against the broker system, demonstrating outside the Indonesia Economic and Trade Office, the Manila Cultural and Economic Office, and the Vietnam Economic and Cultural Office, all of which are located in Taipei. Between last month’s protest and today’s protest, migrant worker groups are likely aiming to raise migrant worker issues before elections next month.

Unfortunately, it does seem unlikely that migrant workers’ issues will be taken up by either of the major political parties in Taiwan before the 2020 elections. Likewise, regardless of who takes political power during the elections, it will require a great deal of struggle to push for change to benefit migrant workers. One notes, after all, that it is hard to incentivize politicians and political parties to take action to help migrant workers when are unable to vote.

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