by Brian Hioe

Photo Credit: Solomon203/WikiCommons/CC

MIGRANT WORKER groups have criticized a new plan by the Ministry of Labor to require migrant workers transferring jobs to go through employment agencies run by the government. Likewise, jobs transfers will give greater priority to workers that remain in their occupational category, rather than workers trying to change between different forms of employment, and take the form of a three-way agreement between the former employer, the new employer, and the agency. 

The issue of migrant workers transferring jobs has been a contested one. In January, the National Federation of Employment Service Association (NFESA) wrote to the Ministry of Health and Welfare (MOHW) requesting that migrant workers be banned from transferring employment status. The NFESA claimed that this was a necessary measure to prevent the spread of COVID-19, although this took place at a point in which the COVID-19 situation was under control in Taiwan. As such, acting on behalf of employers and brokers, the NFESA was accused of attempting to restrict the ability of migrant workers to change jobs using COVID-19 as a pretext. 

Graphic announcing a press conference on the issue. Photo credit: TIWA/Facebook

Though the MOHW declined the NFESA’s request, this did not prevent the NFESA from circulating Chinese-language letters claiming that migrant workers could no longer change employment. The NFESA was seeking to mislead migrant workers about their ability to change employment status, taking advantage of the fact that most migrant workers cannot read Chinese. 

As such, when the Central Epidemic Command Center (CECC) that coordinates Taiwan’s COVID-19 response suspended the ability of migrant workers to transfer employers on June 5th, this prompted backlash from migrant worker advocates. The CECC justified the measure on the basis of clusters that had broken out among migrant factory workers in Miaoli, but this led to concerns that the ability of migrant workers to transfer employment would not be reinstated once the outbreak passed. 

Although the CECC did gradually restore the ability of migrant workers in home-based occupations to transfer employment, as well as the ability of employers to transfer migrant workers between work sites, this requires PCR testing before such transfers can take place. Such PCR tests are not required for Taiwanese citizens to change employment status or move between work sites, indicating that the Tsai administration still intends to enforce unequal measures for migrant workers as though they were a group inherently susceptible to COVID-19. 

To this extent, it is possible that employers or brokers will try to pass costs onto migrant workers for PCR testing, in spite of government subsidies provided for such purposes. There were previously cases of migrant workers who were sent to regular hotels instead of specialized quarantine hotels by their employers, likely hoping to save costs. This also occurred despite subsidies provided by the government for this purpose. 

Consequently, migrant worker groups are critical of what they see as an attempt by the government to further control the ability of migrant workers to change jobs. In particular, migrant workers often transfer jobs because of abuse. Yet the view among sectors of government and some members of the public seems to be that migrant workers working in homes are simply hoping to transfer to more comfortable and more well-paid factory jobs—this even though migrant workers are taking on the “dirty,” “demeaning”, and “dangerous” factory jobs that Taiwanese workers do not want to take on. As a result, this contributes to the mentality that migrant workers seeking to transfer employment simply do so out of laziness and that this is in need of government regulation. 

Counter for migrant workers in the Taoyuan International Airport. Photo credit: 玄史生/WikiCommons/CC

To this extent, migrant workers are already forced to pay exorbitant fees and are frequently in debt to the employment brokers that arrange migrant workers’ employment and transportation to and from Taiwan. As employment brokers already often enjoy a close relation to the government, it is possible that employment agencies run directly by the government may not substantially differ from currently existing brokers. That being said, one of the demands of migrant worker groups in past years has been for direct government-to-government hiring to take place, instead of going through employment brokers. 

It is to be seen whether the issue gains attention. In a news cycle that is predominantly focused on the COVID-19 outbreak or the Olympics, this is unlikely. 

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