Migrant factory employees call for dorms to be moved offsite

TAIPEI (CNA) — A coalition of migrant rights groups and other nongovernmental organizations staged a rally in Taipei on Tuesday, calling for factory dormitories to be relocated away from the work site in the interest of safety.

The approximately 50 people, gathered outside the Ministry of Labor (MOL), cited three incidents in recent years, in which 11 migrant workers and six firefighters died in blazes that broke out at factories that had dorms on the premises.

In the most recent incident, three Vietnamese workers, who were housed in a dorm on the second floor of a metal manufacturing plant in Taichung, died when the factory went up in flames on March 22.

Firefighters at the scene of the fire at the metals production plant in Taichung / Photo courtesy of Taichung Fire Buearu

“The root of the problem is that when those factories caught fire, it also burned down the dormitories because they were part of the factory,” said Hsu Wei-tung (許惟棟) of the migrants Empowerment Network in Taiwan (MENT). “So, we are here today calling for the MOL to mandate that dormitories be located away from the workplace to save the lives of migrant workers and firefighters.”

Hsu Wei-tung (許惟棟, front, right) of the migrants Empowerment Network in Taiwan (MENT)

Prior to the Taoyuan fire earlier this month, six Vietnamese migrant workers in Taoyuan City died in December 2017 in a factory fire that engulfed their dormitory, which was on the upper level of a factory warehouse made of sheet iron. The structure belonged to Sican Co., which runs a factory that produces solar control window film.

Four months later, a blaze at a facility operated by Chin Poon, a printed circuit board factory in Taoyuan, claimed the lives of two Thai workers who were trapped in a dormitory on the factory premises, while six firefighters died in the rescue efforts.

“The firefighters rushed into the burning factory because it was their duty to save lives,” Chu Chih-yu (朱智宇), secretary general of the National Association for Firefighters’ Rights, said at Tuesday’s rally. “But if people didn’t live inside the factory, then the firefighters would not have had to put their lives on the line and enter the burning building.”

Chu Chih-yu (朱智宇, front, right), secretary general of the National Association for Firefighters’ Rights

The migrant workers at the rally, mainly from Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines, along with Taiwanese supporters, shouted slogans and burned incense at a makeshift altar in memory of those who had perished in the factory fires.

A Filipino, who asked to be identified only as Arturo, said when he was working at a factory in Taoyuan last year, he was housed in a dorm in the basement of the building with nine coworkers.

“There was once an earthquake and we felt extremely scared because there was only one exit from the basement. Imagine a fire — we all would have been trapped,” said Arturo, whose right hand was severed in a factory accident last year.

Another Philippine worker said, however, that work safety is not the sole responsibility of the employer, and there is no guarantee that factory employees will be safe even if their dorms are offsite.

“I have seen workers cooking in their rooms when they are not supposed to, plugging as many as 10 power adaptors to one outlet in the wall, and bringing cellphones into the work area,” said the woman, who asked not to be named.

Common sense is what is most important when it comes to safety, she said, adding that she works with toxic, flammable and combustible materials on a daily basis.

In response to the protesters’ calls, Huang Wei-cheng (黃偉誠), a section chief at the MOL’s Workforce Development Agency, said the ministry is planning to amend the law to make it mandatory for factories that have onsite dorms to file safety reports, which would include a declaration of any pyrophoric substances or flammable gases on the site.

Huang Wei-cheng (黃偉誠, front, right), a section chief at the MOL’s Workforce Development Agency

The legislation, which is expected to be completed by June, will also state how often safety checks will be carried out at factories, according to a statement issued later by the MOL.

Hsu, however, expressed skepticism about such safety checks, saying that there are some 100,000 dormitories throughout Taiwan for migrant workers, while the number of inspectors responsible for checking on the welfare of the workers totals only 274.

“Work safety and the general welfare checks are usually carried out once, when a migrant worker first arrives in Taiwan, due to a lack of manpower,” Hsu said.

The names of the 11 migrant workers who perished in factory fires
Some 50 migrant workers and their Taiwanese supporters shouted slogans and burned incense at a makeshift altar in memory of those who had perished in the factory fires

Among the 719,847 migrant workers in Taiwan, 455,934 are employed in the industrial sector, according to MOL statistics valid as of the end of February.

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