The China Post news staff

TAIPEI, Taiwan — President Tsai Ing-wen’s administration vowed to continue improving working conditions, after the U.S. State Department criticized Taiwan over its exploitation of and discrimination against migrant workers. The 2016 “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices,” released March 3, highlighted Taiwan’s exploitation of foreign workers. In particular, it identified caregivers and foreign crew members on long-haul fishing vessels as Taiwan’s biggest human rights challenge. The report said such workers were often victims of domestic violence and corruption. Presidential Office spokesman Alex Huang (黃重諺) responded that the government had continually made safeguarding the rights of all workers — whether foreign or local — a top priority. In order to improve labor conditions, the administration had raised the minimum wage and passed a labor law that would free migrant workers from the costly process of having to reenter the country every three years to renew work contracts, he said. The U.S. report also pinpointed other rights issues including media self-censorship, vote buying, overwork, gender inequality, rising child abuse and a lack of accessible transport for those with disabilities. The Foreign Ministry replied in a statement that safeguarding human rights had long been a government priority, adding that it had ordered the relevant agencies to communicate with the U.S. and address the concerns laid out in the report. In addition, the Labor Ministry said it would push to pass the Household Service Act to grant migrant workers the protection of the Labor Standards Act.

But Sandy Yeh (葉毓蘭), a committee member of the Cabinet’s anti-human trafficking task force, questioned the speed at which such rules were being processed, noting the bill had yet to make it onto the legislative roster. “Taiwan’s Human Trafficking Prevention Act can put violating employers in jail for up to seven years. But the reality is that the government fails to effectively prevent cases of abuse or exploitation. Agencies should recognize the severity of the issue and make improvements immediately. “As a black market for household workers and grueling manual work persists in Taiwan, around 50,000 migrant workers have ‘run away’ from their employers.”

Democratic Progressive Party Legislator Lin Ching-yi (林靜儀) said the law could only improve the working environment for migrant workers up to a point. Lin pointed to the difficulty of gaining access to inspect the workplaces of migrants and the influence of politicians and powerful local figures in preventing enforcement as examples of the law’s limited reach. Public action may be a solution, Lin said, adding that she would strive to let people know where their seafood came from.

“Migrant workers’ rights can be protected when people come together and seek to improve the working environment for foreign fishermen, when public opinion goes against the exploiters and government power steps in.”