by Brian Hioe

Photo Credit: Tseng Wen-hsueh/Facebook

THERE HAS BEEN increased international attention to the plight of migrant workers in Taiwan, after clusters broke out among migrant workers at eight electronics factories in Miaoli over the last month. The Miaoli clusters consisted of a total of 471 individuals, of which 400 were migrant workers, and of which 71 were Taiwanese. 

As such, 85% of the clusters consisted of migrant workers, while 15% were Taiwanese. Ultimately, 26,250 were tested in connection to the clusters. The Central Epidemic Command Center, which coordinates Taiwan’s response to COVID-19, divided workers into high-risk, medium-risk, and low-risk groups for further rounds of testing. 130 of 1,705 workers in the high-risk group or 9.4% later tested positive, while 44 were found positive in the medium-risk group, and two in the low-risk group. 

At present, the clusters seem to have been managed, with Miaoli reporting low cases in the past days. The majority of the cases were concentrated at one factory, King Yuan, which had 342 cases, while there were 82 cases at the second most affected factory, then 22 cases, 17 cases, and less than five at other factories. In this respect, Taiwan may have been lucky regarding the limited effects of the clusters. The clusters did not seem to have spread outside of the factories to any significant extent. 

Facebook post by Miaoli city councilor Tseng Wen-hsueh showing the dirty conditions of migrant worker quarantine facilities

The clusters at the electronics factory have led to greater focus on migrant factory workers in international media reports in the Financial Times and The Guardian, seeing as the Miaoli county government ordered restrictions that prevented migrant workers from leaving dorms unattended. Such restrictions were mandated despite the fact that Taiwan is currently on a level three alert, which is not a full lockdown. Individuals are still allowed to go outside, though outdoor gatherings of more than ten and indoor gatherings of more than five are forbidden. 

But the restrictions on movement were specifically mandated for migrant workers and not Taiwanese in a discriminatory move. As confining migrant workers in potentially crowded dorms could lead to the further spread of COVID-19 among them and with pictures of densely packed, dirty dormitory facilities circulated online, this has led to concerns that the Miaoli county government simply intended to lock migrant workers away and leave them to their fates. Since then, it has emerged that some factories threw away the belongings of migrant workers from their dorms while they were placed in quarantine facilities, and that despite stipends provided from the government to house migrant workers in such facilities, some employers and brokers tried to pass the costs down to the workers, and make them pay for their own quarantines. 

Similarly, migrant workers at a company in Taoyuan, the ASE Group, were ordered to vacate the apartments they were living in and quarantine with other migrant workers. This proves an illogical policy, seeing as migrant workers in apartments would be in more danger of catching COVID-19 or getting other migrant workers infected with COVID-19 if they were put into crowded dorm facilities. Such policies also indicate the racist treatment of migrant workers, with migrant workers viewed as especially prone to be vectors for COVID-19, but not their Taiwanese counterparts. 

There has been pushback against such policies from some members of Taiwanese society, with Miaoli residents organizing a petition against the restrictions, and Miaoli city councilor Tseng Wen-hsueh having been highly critical of the actions of the Miaoli government. Miaoli county magistrate Hsu Yao-chang of the KMT has lashed out against human rights defenders critical of his actions, however, claiming that “You can’t talk about human rights when you’re dead.” 

Yet attention on migrant factory workers in Taiwan is long due. Migrant factory workers in Taiwan are, in fact, among the largest migrant worker group in Taiwan, with 450,000 of a total population of around 700,000 migrant workers being factory, construction, or agriculture workers. Consequently, migrant factory workers constitute around 63% of migrant workers in Taiwan. Migrant factory workers are called on to undertake the “dirty, dangerous, and demeaning” jobs that Taiwanese workers do not want to do.

Facebook post by Tseng Wen-hsueh showing belongings of migrant workers thrown out from their dorms while they were in quarantine at King Yuan

However, migrant factory workers receive less exposure compared to domestic caretakers, because the latter group is highly visible in urban areas. By contrast, many factories are located in remote countryside areas. And while migrant fishermen that work on distant water fishing vessels are also not particularly visible in urban areas, reports by international NGOs in past years have shed light on their labor conditions, and led to condemnations of such conditions—sometimes characterized as “modern slavery.” There has not been such a focus on migrant factory workers in Taiwan. 

Ironically, one notes the centrality of factory work by migrant workers to Taiwan’s economy. Global shortages as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic have led to sudden international awareness of Taiwan’s centrality to global supply chains, particularly where semiconductor manufacturing is concerned. The Tsai administration hopes that the world’s reliance on Taiwanese semiconductor manufacturing in global supply chains will incentivize international actors to defend Taiwan from the threat of Chinese military invasion.

Nonetheless, Taiwanese electronics factories are heavily reliant on migrant labor. One notes that King Yuan is, for example, the world’s leading provider of chip testing services. This is the hidden human cost of Taiwan’s centrality to global supply chains, then. 

This centrality has granted such electronics factories much leverage in dealing with the government, even during the emergency measures passed to fight COVID-19. King Yuan, for example, originally did not want to half work in response to the outbreak and after being ordered to do so, it still tried to push back against the government. Measures by the ASE Group have been defended by the Ministry of Economic Affairs. As such, it can be expected that Taiwanese electronics factories will justify abuses of migrant workers and poor labor conditions using this fact. Conditions for migrant factory workers will not improve without greater exposure on the issue. 

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