The outbreak of COVID-19 among the tech firms in Miaoli County — a complete failure by the brokers, firms and the local and central government, any one of whom could have taken action to prevent it — has triggered a serious outbreak of another endemic disease: racism towards migrant workers.
The firms themselves led the way, sending around circulars that warned the workers that they would have to pay for their own COVID-19 care should they become infected. One circular I saw even said that workers who contract the virus will be liable for any harm they cause the firm. The Ministry of Labor has sternly warned that such moves are illegal.
Photo: Su Fu-nan, Taipei Times
This outcome was what many of us had feared when news of the initial cluster in Taipei’s Wanhua District (萬華) broke: any excuse to place more restrictions on migrant workers.
Because the underlying treatment of migrant workers is driven by the capitalist love of slave labor and the deep racism constructed and harnessed to serve that need, many of the firms and brokers instituted lockdowns more stringent than the Level 3 regulations called for. Because of their reflexive, abusive nature, these were often ill-considered and counterproductive.
At one dorm I know of, which Apple Daily reported on, the workers had been restricted to washing clothes between 10am and 2pm, meaning that 30 to 40 people were crammed into the laundry at any moment during that time, a clear health risk. In another dorm the broker circulated rules forbidding anyone from leaving, saying that shopping could only be performed by designated shoppers. Most dorms have forbidden overnight stays (if they hadn’t already).
Minister of Health and Welfare Chen Shih-chung (陳時中), who has done yeoman work in putting up with the silly questions from the media over the last few weeks, coyly hinted that such restrictions were illegal. But he didn’t firmly say so.
Not to be outdone, local governments also lashed out at the migrant workers. Last week, Miaoli County Commissioner Hsu Yao-chang (徐耀昌), citing complaints that “foreign caregivers take elders out in wheelchairs and then ignore them while chatting in groups,” ordered that all migrant workers, including caregivers, be locked in. The police in were quickly out harassing workers who were on the streets like ordinary people and proudly posting images of themselves “apprehending” migrant workers — 21 people in one sweep — for the heinous crime of running errands in town.
When asked about the lockdown’s effect on human rights, Hsu shrugged.
“Some people died of the disease,” he reportedly said, claiming that migrant workers account for 80 percent of the observed cases in Miaoli. “So what about human rights?” he said, implying that they were unimportant.
Changhua and Nantou counties called for similar measures. ICRT Central Taiwan reporter Courtney Donovan Smith observed that those two counties have a long history of targeting migrant workers for police harassment and petty crackdowns.
The workers from King Yuan Electronics (京元電子), the firm initially affected by the outbreak among the migrant workers, were dispersed to university dorms and similar places, mostly in the south. They are in strict quarantine for two or three weeks, some only one person to a room, unable to open the door except to receive food. Nor, I was informed, with typical pointless, abusive control, can they be sent food packages, though the Philippines representative office in Taiwan has been trying to arrange something. Kudos to them.
Laudably, there were quick protests against the Miaoli lockdown from Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) Legislator Lai Hsiang-ling (賴香伶) and Miaoli County Councilor Tseng Wen-hsueh (曾玟學). Lai said that such administrative orders had to have a legal and constitutional basis, and this had neither, and was blatantly discriminatory to boot.
Taiwan Association for Human Rights also issued a statement on the stay-at-home order for migrant workers in Miaoli, saying it was constitutionally suspect. It described the order as “openly discriminatory” and warned it would have an adverse effect on the elderly with caregivers.
A major worker organization argued that the lockdowns were pointless because only migrant workers were locked down, yet they mingled at work doing exactly the same jobs as Taiwanese workers, who were not locked down. The racist implications of that are clear.
GOVERNMENT RESPONSE LACKING
As several commentators have noted, the variety of pandemic responses is leading to splits between the central and local governments. This would be a fine arena for the central government to take loud public action to suppress these racist measures and reign in local governments, which are, after all, administrative sub-entities, not local fiefdoms.
Yet, resolute action from the government is lacking. The companies will likely continue these policies, quietly. When the pandemic is over, some of these policies will linger, under the excuse that the disease is still a threat.
Where are the major parties? Silent as institutions, though individual politicians have spoken out.
Where are companies and brokers, demanding vaccinations for their workers? Do they not have a duty of care? Silence, because migrant workers are disposable commodities to them.
Where are the Taiwanese celebrities who could act as spokespeople for the workers? Silent. Migrant workers don’t rate as a safe, upper middle-class cause. If only they were all gay and trying to marry each other, Jolin Tsai (蔡依林) would be writing songs about them.
And how about the local media?
Well, it too jumped right in. A journalist asked health minister Chen on June 5, shortly after the outbreak in the worker dorms commenced, whether the outbreak was due to the “ethnic habits” of the migrant workers. That racist question was instantly shot down by Chen, who pointed out that the problem was they were crammed into dorms eight to 12 to a room.
Fortunately, the kind of question that reporter asked has been atypical. Alone among the nation’s public voices, the media has been tracking and reporting on the crackdowns, and highlighting and commenting on the verbiage camouflaging the actions of local governments, and reporting the pushback.
We need someone local to break the great silence, and claim this issue.
Remember, whatever happens to migrant workers, can happen to you.
Notes from Central Taiwan is a column written by long-term resident Michael Turton, who provides incisive commentary informed by three decades of living in and writing about his adoptive country. The views expressed here are his own.
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