Migrant workers in Taiwan allege discrimination as Covid-19 hits tech industry

TAIPEI – Migrant workers in Taiwan are crying foul over recent restrictions imposed on them to contain a rise in Covid-19 cases in the tech industry.

Many say they are victims of discrimination.

“We can’t even go out and buy food and necessities but the Taiwanese can. How is that fair?” said Ms Thuy Binh, a Vietnamese migrant worker at a King Yuan Electronics factory in Miaoli county.

The majority of tech companies, which play a key part in Taiwan’s booming chip industry, have most of their factories located in the western counties of Miaoli and Hsinchu.

King Yuan Electronics, a chip packaging company, was in the headlines last month after at least four of its factories in Miaoli county were affected by Covid-19 involving migrant workers.

Within a week, the number of infected employees grew from 45 to over 300, more than two-thirds of whom were migrant workers from the Philippines, Vietnam and Indonesia.

Figures from the Ministry of Labour Affairs show there are currently about 713,000 migrant workers in Taiwan, with at least 60 per cent of them working in the manufacturing sector.

Although it is unclear how many are supporting the tech industry, the world’s biggest semiconductor assembly company Advanced Semiconductor Engineering currently employs around 10,000 migrant workers, which makes up almost 20 per cent of its entire workforce. King Yuan has 2,000 such workers.

Taiwan is currently under level three alert which does not restrict people from going out.

Among other things, masks are mandatory, social gatherings are restricted to five people indoors and 10 outdoors, and indoor dining at food and beverage sectors have been suspended.

On June 7, Miaoli County magistrate Hsu Yao-chang announced that migrant workers based in the county are not allowed to leave their living quarters for any reason, a move some saw as a desperate attempt to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

Employers and broker agencies that allow migrant workers to leave their dorms would be fined, according to the rules.

“Our rest days and hours off are the only times when we can spend time with each other, doing what we want to do, but now even that is stripped from us,” said Mr Raymond, a Filipino migrant worker who works as a machine operator for ITEQ Corporation. He asked to be identified only by his first name.

Now with the movement restrictions, migrant workers like Mr Raymond and Ms Thuy can only ask their brokers and employers to buy food and daily necessities for them.

Migrant workers in Taiwan are forced to live in dormitories with 12 to 16 people per room, and can only pin up makeshift curtains to have some privacy in the pandemic. PHOTOS: COURTESY OF TAIWAN INTERNATIONAL WORKER ASSOCIATION

But in response to public backlash on the Miaoli magistrate’s announcement, the authorities reminded the local government to stick to level three alert guidelines.

The magistrate lifted the ban on June 29, the same day the Ministry of Labour Affairs released a statement warning that such arbitrary restrictions would be treated as “a criminal offence”.

Although Miaoli county is the only one to openly announce banning migrant workers from leaving their dorms, migrant workers’ rights groups say similar restrictions have been in place around the island for a while.

“Employers based in other areas also have these bans, for caregivers, fishermen, factory workers alike,” said Mr Wong Wing-dah, a director at Serve the People Association (SPA) who works with migrant workers in Taoyuan.

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In a recent survey released by SPA, more than 60 per cent of Filipino migrant workers say they were no longer allowed to leave their dorms outside of work hours.

“This is double the number from surveys conducted pre-Covid-19,” said Mr Wong.

Meanwhile, Ms Chen Hsiu-lien, a representative at the Taiwan International Workers Association, has raised the possibility that the workers’ living conditions could contribute to the spread of Covid-19, saying that she has received complaints from workers who live in dorm rooms with 12 to 16 people crammed together.

“They are worried that the cramped quarters will mean getting infected faster because they cannot be socially distanced from one another,” said Ms Chen.

The government has begun to conduct checks on the living conditions of the migrant workers.

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