TAIPEI (CNA) — The Ministry of Labor (MOL) has pushed back on the idea of granting amnesty to illegal migrant workers to encourage them to seek treatment for coughs or fevers and help contain the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak.
The call for amnesty from migrant rights group Global Workers’ Organization, Taiwan (GWO) came after an undocumented female caregiver from Indonesia was confirmed last week as the 32nd patient in Taiwan to contract the coronavirus.
Concerns were raised that illegal migrant workers who get sick could be reluctant to seek treatment for fear of being deported, leaving a gap in the public health epidemic prevention system.
GWO founding chairwoman Karen Hsu (徐瑞希) said on Feb. 27 that an amnesty for illegal migrant workers would get them to come forward if they felt they made contact with a person infected with COVID-19 or had questions about the disease without fear of the consequences.
When asked about the idea, a spokesperson for the MOL’s Workforce Development Agency (WDA) reiterated the ministry’s position that under Taiwanese law undocumented workers who leave their employers will be deported and barred from working in the country again.
For an amnesty to be given to undocumented migrant workers, the law would need to be amended, which requires a consensus in society, the spokesperson told CNA.
Concerns of a crackdown were raised on Feb. 28, when WDA Deputy Director-General Tsai Meng-liang (蔡孟良) said a search system worked out in collaboration with the National Immigration Agency (NIA) will soon open to track down undocumented migrant workers in Taiwan.
The system will make it possible to check the employment or residency status of migrant workers who accompany their employers to seek care at hospitals on the spot, Tsai said.
Under such conditions, however, illegal migrant workers would be even less likely to seek care.
Health Minister Chen Shih-chung (陳時中), who heads Taiwan’s Central Epidemic Command Center (CECC), said Saturday he was opposed to cracking down on undocumented migrant caregivers at a time when Taiwan’s health care workers are already under heavy pressure.
That may have softened the WDA’s position. A WDA official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Tuesday the ministry will “follow the decisions of the CECC chief, which is to place the emphasis on disease prevention.”
Yet the New Taipei government still received an official document from the MOL for it to investigate the undocumented Indonesian female caregiver, Taiwan’s 32nd confirmed COVID-19 patient, according to local media reports.
When asked about the issue by reporters Tuesday, Labor Minister Hsu Ming-chun (許銘春) said the MOL was not going against the wishes of Chen but was simply following the law.
“We were just carrying out administrative procedure by sending out the document because it was reported that an undocumented migrant worker was diagnosed with COVID-19,” she said.
It will be up to the local government to hand out disciplinary action, as has been the case in the past, she said.
Under standard procedures, deportation would only be considered after the local government investigates the case, and the MOL said deportation would be up to the NIA.
As of Monday, 2,450 people in Taiwan have been suspected of being infected, including 42 confirmed cases, with one death, according to Taiwan Centers for Disease Control statistics.
A total of 2,135 people had been cleared of infection, with the remainder awaiting test results while under quarantine.
The WDA has tried to keep migrant workers informed amid the outbreak, uploading information on COVID-19 in English, Vietnamese, Chinese, Thai, and Indonesian on the WDA’s Transnational Labor Rights Protection Portal, the agency said.
It also has a 24-hour 1955 Hotline, which received 24 inquiries on the coronavirus and its impact between Feb. 12 and March 2, the WDA said.
There were an estimated 48,545 undocumented migrant workers in Taiwan as of the end of January, with 290 in detention centers, according to National Immigration Agency statistics.