by Brian Hioe

Photo Credit: 小蒯/WikiCommons/CC

COVID-19 CLUSTERS broke out among migrant workers at electronics factories in Miaoli over the weekend, with 243 workers at three factories testing positive for COVID-19. Around 70% to 80% of those that tested positive were migrant workers.

Close to 10,000 were tested, with testing delayed due to heavy rain. Over 7,000 workers were tested at a factory belonging to King Yuan, while over 2,000 were tested at a factory owned by Chao Feng, and 700 tested at a Zhibang Technology factory.

The situation seems to be temporarily under control, with Miaoli only reporting fifteen cases yesterday. However, the testing situation over the weekend was chaotic, with long lines that resulted in migrant workers waiting six hours or more in line and reports of poor social distancing measures maintained on-site. Despite the outbreak, King Yuan originally intended to continue work at the factory, and criticized government authorities for ordering that work stop at the factory, claiming government measures were heavy-handed and vague.

Miaoli County Hall. Photo credit: Yuriy kosygin/WikiCommons/CC

Nevertheless, the outbreak of the clusters among migrant workers has led local governments in Miaoli, Keelung, Taoyuan, and other places with large numbers of migrant workers to announce measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 among migrant workers. This includes carrying out inspections of migrant worker dormitories, with the Ministry of Labor announcing inspections of migrant worker dormitories with over one hundred residents, and calls for companies that employ more than 500 workers to test all of their workers.

Some regulations differ by city; for example, because Taipei does not have migrant worker dormitories with over 500 residents, migrant worker dormitories with over 20 residents will be inspected instead. Dormitories have been called on to expand the amount of living space available to migrant workers, to avoid crowded conditions. There are 1,068 migrant worker dormitories with more than 50 residents in Taiwan.

Some of the measures taken, however, have led to severe backlash from migrant worker advocates. In particular, the Miaoli County government, which is currently led by Hsu Yao-chang of the KMT, announced restrictions that migrant workers will not be allowed to leave their dormitories except to travel to and from work, as well as that they will only be allowed to purchase food or other supplies under the oversight of dormitory managers. Police are actively enforcing these restrictions, with over 20 migrant workers questioned by police to date.

The legality of this measure has been widely challenged. Namely, Taiwan is currently on level three alert status, which is short of a full lockdown. Individuals are still allowed to leave their homes, though they are required to wear masks and discouraged from doing so.

Yet the Miaoli County government is attempting to apply restrictions on fundamental freedoms of movement well to migrant workers, in a manner well beyond level three. When asked yesterday, the Central Epidemic Command Center (CECC), which coordinates Taiwan’s COVID-19 response, did not address media questions about the legality of the measures or whether these measures received the approval of the CECC beforehand. The Miaoli County government’s actions have led to immediate backlash from migrant worker advocates, with the Taiwan International Workers’ Association criticizing the measures and Miaoli residents launching a petition against such discriminatory measures targeting migrant workers.

Similarly, an announcement by the CECC that migrant workers are not allowed to transfer employment status during the outbreak, except in cases of violence or sexual assault, has been criticized by migrant worker advocates. Namely, in not allowing migrant workers to change employment status, this grants employers and brokers further powers over migrant workers and limits their ability to avoid workplace abuses by changing employers.

In January, the National Federation of Employment Service Association (NFESA) requested that the CECC suspend the right of workers to change employers, pleading that this was necessary because of COVID-19—in spite of the fact that the pandemic was under control in Taiwan at that time. The CECC denied the NFESA’s request.

But this did not prevent the NFESA from distributing Chinese-language letters among migrant workers anyway, attempting to use migrant workers’ inability to read Chinese to convince them that the CECC had agreed to suspend employment transfers. Now, with the CECC finally agreeing to suspend transfers of employment, it is accused of giving into a demand by employers and brokers that they previously sought to use COVID-19 as a pretext to pass. This has also led to reactions from migrant worker advocates.

Facebook post by Tseng Wen-hsueh

Attempts by brokers to pass on costs to migrant workers or cut costs despite risks to safety continue during the outbreak. According to independent city councilor Tseng Wen-hsueh, a former member of the NPP, migrant workers at King Yuan were separated into high-risk and low-risk groups, with high-risk groups sent to quarantine facilities managed by the central government and low-risk groups sent to dormitories. Nonetheless, pictures of the dormitories show that they are dirty, have not been disinfected, lack basic supplies such as toilet paper, and are cramped—defeating the purpose of providing migrant workers with more spacious accommodations to avoid crowding that would lead to the spread of COVID-19.

While the CECC intends to provide 1,000 NT in subsidies per day to migrant workers, as paid to the worker, some employers and brokers have stated to migrant workers that they will deduct 2,500 NT per day from the salaries of migrant workers in quarantine facilities. Tseng also pointed out that the Miaoli County government’s measures are a form of class discrimination, seeing as such measures target blue-collar migrant workers, and pointed to the potential of these measures to increase discrimination against migrant workers. That is, migrant workers may be equated with disease and these restrictions may eventually rolled out to other migrant worker groups beyond just factory workers or other cities and counties in Taiwan; one notes that some questions asked by media in daily CECC press conferences have already attributed the spread of COVID-19 to the “habits and customs” of migrant workers in a discriminatory manner.

It would not be surprising if the reaction by the government prioritizes employers over migrant workers, however. As the clusters in Miaoli occurred at electronics factories, this has raised concerns about the possibility of COVID-19 to disrupt global supply chains for semiconductor manufacturing, which are heavily reliant on Taiwan. It is in the government’s interest to maintain this reliance, seeing as this adds incentive for the international community to defend Taiwan against Chinese threats. Yet with that in mind, the government is likely to focus on keeping companies happy and production lines running over the health and safety of migrant workers.

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