Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Immigration in Taiwan

From the Financial Times:

Taiwan recognises debt to migrants

By Kathrin Hille in Taipei and Amy Kazmin in Bangkok

Published: July 9 2007 17:09 | Last updated: July 9 2007 17:09

Each night, after putting in a long day on the construction of Taipei’s ­elevated light rail, groups of Thai men gather on the pavement behind a Carrefour hypermarket in the suburb of Neihu for a drink, a chat, and to watch the traffic pass.

Two years ago, they would have been denied the simple pleasure. Until a group of foreign contract workers at a construction site for a new mass rapid transit system in Kaohsiung, Taiwan’s second-largest city, rioted over their living conditions in 2005, many of Taiwan’s 350,000 foreign labourers were held in virtual captivity.

The riot brought to light the uncomfortable reality for many Taiwanese that the workers from Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines and Vietnam who build Taiwan’s infrastructure, assemble its electronic products and care for its elderly were often forced to live in cramped dormitories with strict house rules and curfews.

It also shined a torch on the politicians and businessmen who for years enriched themselves by controlling the brokerage system that brings workers in from south-east Asia.

But what the Taiwanese discovered with the 2005 riot was a symptom of an Asian phenomenon. In what were, until recently, often closed labour markets across Asia, foreign labour has become indispensable as local wages have risen and local workers have turned their noses up at jobs deemed too dirty, dangerous, or exhausting.

In Malaysia, according to the International Labour Organisation, 1.9m legal and an estimated 700,000 undocumented foreign workers – or almost 10 per cent of the 27m population – help produce labour-intensive exports such as wooden furniture. In South Korea, more than a third of the 345,579 foreign residents as of late 2005 were migrant workers with working visas. Meanwhile, Thailand’s estimated 2m foreign migrant labourers, most of whom come from neighbouring military-ruled Burma, generate up to 6.2 per cent of gross domestic product.

But as they become an increasingly important component of economies across Asia, migrant labourers are also facing hostility, systematic harassment from bribe-seeking authorities and often ruthless exploitation.

A recent survey by Bangkok’s Assumption University, found 60 per cent of respondents believed foreign workers did not deserve to receive the same wages as Thais. Fifty per cent said they should not be entitled to the same legal working conditions and nearly 60 per cent said foreign workers should not be granted any freedom of expression.

Since the 2005 riot, Taiwan has moved to try to improve living conditions and protect foreign workers’ rights.

Most workers are still brought in by brokerages which charge them fees and are given the responsibility by employers for providing room and board, a system that labour rights advocates say invites abuse.

The government has introduced a rating system for the brokerages and threatened to revoke the licenses of those that are rated within the lowest tier in two consecutive annual reviews. It has also begun inspecting all dormitories housing more than 100 workers.

“In the dorms for the Kaohsiung MRT workers there are now even pictures of the Thai king on the walls and flat panel televisions,” says Lee Lai-hsi, a senior labour policy official. “Religion and their habits must be respected. Wherever possible, we try to run a democratic system and have the food inspected by an elected workers’ representative.”

The government has also introduced standard contracts which spell out workers’ rights and limit brokerage fees to a total of T$60,000 (US$1,830, £909, €1,344) over three years. But foreign labourers are allowed to stay in Taiwan for only up to five years and then must leave and not come back.

This rule contrasts drastically with the government’s public commitment to attracting more skilled foreigners. The cabinet has submitted draft legislation to parliament under which foreigners with “special skills” would be granted residence and even allowed to apply for Taiwanese citizenship.

While, in the past, the island focused on attracting engineers for the electronics industry, under the new law just about anyone with a university degree or a profession in which talent is not widely available locally would qualify.

Allowing foreign contract labourers to pick and switch employers is also under consideration. Eventually, all labour migration will be ruled by market principles, insists Mr Lee.

For Ronnie, one of the workers behind the Carrefour, that remains a distant promise. “I have to leave next year but I want to stay,” he says. “They don’t want us here, and they don’t respect us. How could they possibly agree that we can stay?”.

No comments: