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Human Rights Day 2023 in Taipei: Marching for Migrant Rights

Photo by Taiwan Office of European Values

What is happening?

On December 10, Human Rights Day, the Migrants Empowerment Network in Taiwan held a protest under the theme “No Justice in Cross-Border Employment, Where Is the Responsibility of the Government?”. Attracting close to 2000 participants, the biennial rally drew attention to the discriminatory treatment of the 751 thousand-strong community of migrant workers in Taiwan, which remains a major human rights issue in Taiwan and a source of concern for the country’s democratic partners, including the European Union. The specific focus of this year’s march was the call to abolish private labor brokers and agencies who charge employees exuberant fees and engage in exploitative behavior, including debt bondage, without providing the necessary services. Labor activists have described the migrant worker private brokerage system as “modern slavery.

What is the broader picture?

Since it began its transition to democracy in late 1980s, Taiwan developed a vibrant and democratic political system with a robust system of protections for civil liberties. Despite its exclusion from the United Nations system, Taiwan successfully incorporated the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights into its domestic law and installed a local model of the international review process.

Yet, Taiwan’s migrant labor force, hailing predominantly from Vietnam, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Thailand, continues to face discriminatory treatment which intensified during the COVID-19 pandemic. Often undertaking undesirable “3D” (dirty, dangerous, and difficult) jobs, migrant workers fill in gaps in labor supply in critical industries, from construction and manufacturing to domestic and institutional eldercare.

The situation of the migrant workers remains a critical issue for the EU and the US government. One of the key concerns highlighted in the 2021 EU Annual Human Rights Report is Taiwan’s failure to integrate the International Labor Organization’s (ILO) C188 Work in Fishing Convention into domestic law. The convention, which came into force internationally in November 2017, safeguards fishers’ right to decent conditions of work on board fishing vessels. The Taiwan 2022 Human Rights Report published by the American Institute in Taiwan also highlights the issues of forced labor, debt bondage, abuse faced by migrant fisherfolk, and excessive work hours violating the general work conditions of foreign workers.

Speaking at the rally on Human Rights Day, an Indonesian labor representative elaborated on the links between the private broker system and limitations in access to civil rights which the migrant community continues to face. “In case of sexual harassment at work, violent treatment, or workplace accidents, it is useless to ask for help from an agent, who will either tell [the worker] to be patient or to go back to Indonesia; or if they are lucky enough to have the opportunity to change employers, the agent will force them to pay for the purchase of a job,” she said.

In response to the organizers of the rally, the Workforce Development Agency (WDA) under the Ministry of Labor said in a statement that the current channels for hiring migrant workers were “diverse” and “allowed employers to choose based on their needs”. This involves either directly hiring migrant workers from their home countries through the government-run Direct Hiring Service Center or relying on brokers for the hiring process, the agency said. Focus Taiwan, the English-language platform of Taiwan’s Central News Agency, also emphasizes that WDA announced initiatives to improve the management and oversight of brokers to address the problem of excessive fees, yet did not provide a specific timeline or content of this scheme.

Why does it matter?

Given the confluence of normative, legal, and economic ramifications of human rights violations on the Taiwanese distant water fleet and in the manufacturing sector, enhanced EU action on this issue is currently highly opportune. The European Parliament and the Taiwanese government are urging the European Commission to accelerate the work on the Bilateral Investment Agreement (BIA). As a “normative power” or an ideational actor seeking to harmonize international economic regulation with its fundamental rights regime, the EU promotes human rights clauses in its investment and trade agreements. Consequently, the prospect of a looming impact assessment of an EU-Taiwan BIA could serve as a catalyst for improving the human rights situation in Taiwan.