by Brian Hioe

Photo Credit: 移工大遊行Migrant Workers Rally/Facebook

MIGRANT WORKERS rallied yesterday to demand the right to transfer jobs. Counts place the number of participants at over 400. The rally took the form of a march from the DPP’s headquarters near Shandao Temple to the Ministry of Labor near the 228 Memorial Park/ 

In particular, current laws restrict migrant workers from changing jobs except under extenuating circumstances. This applies specifically to blue-collar migrant workers, however, who work taking care of the elderly, as domestic workers, in factories, as migrant fishermen, in agriculture, or forestry, and are primarily from southeast Asian countries. This does not apply to non-blue collar migrant workers primarily from western countries, such as English teachers, who do have the legal right to transfer work. And, as should also go without saying, Taiwanese workers have the legal right to freely change employers. 

Under current laws, then, blue-collar migrant workers are slotted into the category of migrant work that they enter Taiwan for. Legal restrictions aim to make it difficult for migrant workers to change occupational status, unless due to unforeseen events such as workplace abuse by the employer, if their workplace shuts down, or if their employer dies. 

This inability for blue-collar migrant workers to transfer employment strengthens the hold that brokers who arrange for migrant workers’ employment in Taiwan and transportation to and from their home countries have over them, as well as that of employers. Migrant workers are only allowed to transfer jobs on a case-by-case basis. 

Likewise, many migrant workers are not allowed to transfer work in spite of harsh work conditions, with domestic caregivers subject to working around the clock to take care of the elderly. Other categories of migrant workers, such as migrant fishermen, too, have around-the-clock work conditions and many migrant workers face potential violence from their employers. 

Stream of the rally

Abolishing the broker system and instituting direct government-to-government hiring practices has been a demand of migrant worker groups in past years. There has been some modicum of progress on this front, with the Philippines’ representative to Taiwan recently calling for the abolition of brokers, and the Indonesian government also taking the stance that broker fees should be abolished. Nevertheless, as the Taiwanese government has pushed back on the issue, further pressure may be necessary. 

Either way, the issue of migrant workers’ ability to freely change their work has been a salient issue during COVID-19. In January last year, 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 necessary to prevent the spread of COVID-19, though this was long before the COVID-19 outbreak that took place in May, which has to date been the only major COVID-19 outbreak experienced by Taiwan to date. As a result, the NFESA was accused of using COVID-19 as a pretext to try and restrict the rights of migrant workers. Though the MOHW did not approve of this request, the NFESA began circulating Chinese-language letters claiming that migrant workers could no longer transfer employment. 

Later on, in June, the MOHW did restrict the ability of migrant workers to change employment, following the development of COVID-19 clusters in electronics factories in Miaoli among migrant workers. This was later restored once the COVID-19 stabilized, though PCR testing requirements not required of Taiwanese workers were instituted for blue-collar migrant workers. 

Nevertheless, the prevailing view among some sectors of government is that migrant workers who wish to transfer employment are simply lazy, or that they are angling for higher-paid work. This is the view regarding migrant workers that seek to transfer to factory work, for example, in light of the fact that factory work often pays better. 

However, to take this view is to fail to note that migrant workers make below the minimum wage in Taiwan and work long hours. A Ministry of Labor survey this month found that migrant workers, on average, work ten-hour days and make 20,209 NT a month, well below the 25,250 NT minimum monthly wage. Furthermore, this survey was based on self-reported statistics from employers, rather than migrant workers themselves, which suggests that the actual situation for migrant workers is even direr. At the same time, it proves difficult to push policymakers on the issue when migrant workers cannot vote, and it is their employers that can, something that disincentivizes action from politicians. 

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