By Yu-Chien Lorna Kung 龔尤倩

Jun 05, 2007

After several years of lobbying, on May 30 the legislature agreed to extend the maximum allowable stay for foreign laborers to nine years from the previous maximum of six years. The new limit, pending approval in the legislature, will apply to all blue-collar and domestic workers.

During the deliberations, however, Council of Labor Affairs (CLA) representatives adopted a conservative view on the extension, with CLA Deputy Chairwoman Tsao Ai-lan (曹愛蘭) citing the situation in Germany, where “guest workers,” she said, had developed into a poorly integrated immigrant population. Taiwan, she said, should avoid allowing migrant workers to bring their families and settle in the country.

Germany’s failure to prevent migrants from becoming immigrants was seen as a mistake by Taiwanese policymakers — hence the promotion of a rigid control policy on immigrants.

In the past century, not only Germany but most West European countries recruited guest workers to fuel the postwar economic boom. Such migration systems share similarities with indentured labor, as a continuation of the historical processes that began in the 15th century with European colonial expansion.

The 1955 German guest-worker program was designed to plug the country’s labor shortage, satisfy Germany’s demand for cheaper labor and prevent labor-intensive companies from moving to low-wage countries.

A ban on labor recruitment began in 1973, but millions of guest workers remained. Family reunification and humanitarian considerations added to Germany’s growing immigrant population.

Family reunions often result in family members seeking permanent residence in Germany, a phenomenon that is compounded by a few things.

First, family reunification is mentioned in international conventions. In 1950, the European Convention on Human Rights addressed “the right of migrant workers and their families to protection and assistance.”

Second, after the 1960s, different groups within German society also requested that the state facilitate family reunions. Employers believed workers would only settle properly if they could stay with their family and were also in favor of recruiting a worker’s spouse.

In Italy, Catholic communities were convinced that family separation would destroy family values of and lead individuals to a life of crime.

German authorities, for their part, feared that their country’s image could suffer if the country appeared to act inhumanely.

President of the Federal Institute for Job Placement and Unemployment Insurance Neue Rhein Zeitung said in 1964 that people had to realize that the employment of foreigners was not merely an economic question and that the separation of families was unacceptable. Consequently, immigration challenged Germany’s policies on citizenship and social integration.

Since then, most Western European countries have faced similar challenges: Guest workers have become permanent settlers and integration has become a major policy concern. Even Germany, which has held onto its policy on temporary migration, has gradually moved toward recognition of settlement policies.

Germany’s mistake, therefore, was not a failure in immigration control. Rather, it was to believe that it could turn flows of migrant workers on and off as if with a tap and ignore universal human rights, the migratory process itself and the influence of international institutions.

Through interaction between employers and social groups, international institutions and local societies, laws and policies to protect the rights of migrant workers were promulgated. The premise was that migrants rights could not be sacrificed in the name of economic efficiency.

It is no mean feat to reconcile guest-worker policies with the prevailing market principles, not to mention democratic norms.

In addressing the vulnerabilities of migrants, there is a need for a complex protection system consisting of international and national laws.

The Taiwanese government, to its merit, has said it will abide by international humanitarian principles.

A lack of international influence and exchanges, however, has hampered Taiwan’s effort to achieve this objective. As a result, the oppression and exploitation of temporary migrant workers has accompanied a widespread view that migrant workers are unworthy of citizenship and therefore cannot enter the immigration stream.

Taiwanese employers and non-governmental organizations have been lobbying for longer possible working periods for migrant workers, but rarely will the issue of family reunion be raised. Moreover, some have looked at these policies with apprehension, fearing that more rights and long-term employment for migrant workers could lead to more mobility.

Allowing for a stable labor force that benefits employers but fails to address family reunification is inhuman.

It is therefore incumbent on Taiwan to rethink its position on migrant workers and their families.

Yu-Chien Lorna Kung is general secretary of the Scalabrini International Migration Network.
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