by Brian Hioe

Photo Credit: Fcuk1203 /WikiCommons/CC BY-SA 3.0

MIGRANT WORKER advocates have reacted with anger against new regulations rolled out by the Ministry of Transportation and Communications (MOTC) requiring blue-collar migrant workers to have the consent of their employer in order to purchase electric bicycles. The new regulations began to be implemented on November 30th, with the form that employers need to fill out for their employees to purchase electric bicycles released on November 18th. 

Among those critical of the regulations are the Taiwan International Workers’ Association (TIWA) and NPP legislator Handy Chiu. The new regulations seem to be aimed at targeting the increasingly prevalent use of electric bicycles by migrant workers as a means of transport in past years. 

In a statement on the new regulations, TIWA pointed out that migrant workers specifically purchase electric bicycles because of regulations that took effect in 1994 that require the consent of employers for migrant workers to purchase scooters and other motorized vehicles of similar nature. This is one of the reasons for the proliferation of electric bicycles among migrant workers. 

Chiu, who is a legal expert by training, has criticized the law as restricting the property rights of a specific group of foreign workers in Taiwan, based on nationality. Chiu compared restricting migrant workers’ property rights in this way as tantamount to slavery. Other legal experts have suggested that the new regulations may be unconstitutional, as overstepping the authority that the MOTC has, and targets specific nationalities to restrict in terms of rights. 

Blue-collar migrant workers, who are predominantly from Southeast Asian countries, have been disproportionately targeted by police in the past over modes of transport. For example, there have been criticisms in the past of migrant workers being disproportionately targeted for drinking alcohol and riding bicycles, something that is illegal in Taiwan. Such laws are less enforced with non-Southeast Asian foreigners riding bicycles. 

Post by TIWA on the new regulations

The COVID-19 pandemic should have thrown into sharp relief the power that employers have over migrant workers, with migrant workers in electronics factories restricted to dormitories and not allowed to go outside without the permission of their employers. These restrictions remained in place even after COVID-19 clusters subsided 

Particularly since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Taiwanese government has sought to increase the power that employers have over migrant workers on several grounds. For example, although pathways to permanent residency in Taiwan for migrant workers were announced, these require prohibitively long periods of time in Taiwan, and are contingent on the permission of employers. In effect, then, making pathways for permanent residency in Taiwan for migrant workers contingent on the employer increases the power that employers have over their workers. 

In a similar timeframe, the Taiwanese government also sought to take greater control of the process for migrant workers transferring between types of work, while ensuring that the transfer process took place on a case-by-case basis, rather than establishing pathways for transferring work. This was particularly with the view from the government that migrant workers frequently hoped to transfer to higher-paid factory work out of laziness or due to angling for higher pay, never mind that many transfers were not allowed even when workers were seeking to get out of abusive work situations. 

Such restrictions, too, strengthened the power that employers had over migrant workers, as transferring employment proved difficult for migrant workers except in the case of unforeseen events such as workplace abuse by the employer, if their workplace shuts down, or if their employer dies. To this extent, Taiwanese workers self-evidently have the right to transfer employers or change their job, but this was a right denied to migrant workers. 

It is to be seen whether there will be any taken on the issue. The Tsai administration is cautious of actions that affect Taiwan’s international image, such as with regard to international condemnations of abuses of migrant fishermen on the high seas from the US and European Union. Nevertheless, politicians may have little imperative to take actions to assist migrant workers in light of the fact that they cannot vote. After all, it is probable that the MOTC was acting on complaints from Taiwanese citizens–who can vote–in pushing for restrictions on migrant workers’ transportation rights. 

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