Just as most people were celebrating the Mid-Autumn Festival, on the first day of the three-day holiday weekend, we learned of a shocking and tragic case from the media: A Vietnamese worker with a Thai surname who was working at a recycling factory was ground into chopped meat by a shredding machine!

Migrant workers often labor in dirty, dangerous, and difficult jobs (the “3D” occupations) .  They use the best years of their lives to come to Taiwan and contribute their labor, but because their labor environment is so unsafe, they are placed in even more danger.  It’s not at all uncommon for them to lose a hand or a leg. [1] That Vietnamese worker was entirely ground to bits — and the factory only realized he was gone at roll call?

We have not yet been able to contact the victim’s family, but from the news we know that local authorities have already gone through the broker to try to reach the victim’s family in Vietnam.  In our experience, this is often “Plan A” – to “make big problems little and make little problems disappear.” 

Seeing this kind of report, it really makes one worried.

For the past several decades, in cases of migrant workers’ workplace injuries — especially serious ones, the ones that make the news – the authorities’ standard response is: “We’ve already asked the other country’s representative office for help, and are going through the broker to contact the family.”  Then, after a few days have passed, you see another news report that says, “The employer has already reached an agreement with the family,” and the case disappears from the public’s view.  It seems like this is a script that’s repeated over and over.

However, what we want to ask is: Between the workplace injury happening and the agreement between the employer and the victim’s family, what does the injured worker experience?  What difficulties will the family run into?  What structural problems exist?  How has “reaching a settlement” so easily become the solution to the problem?  Why do we see these problems keep happening, and hear the authorities keep making the same response?

Dilemma 1: assigning blame + the difficulties of finding evidence

First, after a workplace accident happens, regardless of whether the worker loses a hand, a leg, or even their life, the first level of suspicion the migrant worker faces is: Why didn’t anyone else get hurt? Why was it only you who suffered this workplace injury? Wasn’t it that you weren’t careful?  And then all of the negative stereotypes of migrant workers will come out and pile on top of each other:  “disobedient,” “lazy,” “drunk,” even “personal life and relationships,” will all be used to construct a portrait of them as a “bad migrant worker.” 

These tropes aren’t just strategies to use in the lawsuit.   Painting this picture of the victim as a “bad migrant worker” also serves to make the injured migrant worker or their family waver in their determination to fight for their rights.   Add to that that for a long time, the government has failed to provide guidance and information to migrant workers about the relevant laws and what to do if they are injured on the job, so it is easy for migrant workers to think, “I was also at fault, so it’s best to reach an agreement with the employer as soon as possible.” 

Even though a small number of migrant workers can get help from NGOs, and understand their rights as injured workers, they still face difficulties.  They have to ask, “How can I prove that the accident wasn’t my fault?  Or beyond that, prove that the employer was at fault?”  Since surveillance cameras are in the hands of the employers, it often turns out that the screen went black, and after an accident happens, safety measures which were illegally turned off are secretly turned back on.  Team leaders of the same nationality as the injured worker will be threatened and told, “If you say there’s something wrong with the company, well, you’re the team leader, so you’re also responsible,” and they don’t dare to testify.  When all of these problems are seen as reasonable and taken for granted, when workers are told “It’s you who have to negotiate with the employer,” how can a migrant worker, with no power and unable to communicate in their own language, hope to get a fair settlement?  What can they do to avoid being easily forced to accept a compromise?

Dilemma #2: Brokers + the foreign government representatives

Secondly, unlike with local workers who are injured on the job, with migrant workers, there is a highly influential figure standing in between them and their employers: the broker.

In theory, migrant workers pay a “service fee” every month to their broker, and the broker should provide services to the migrant worker.  However, under the deformed system in Taiwan, the employer holds the “quota” to hire migrant workers, and a migrant worker can only be brought in if there’s a quota, and only if migrant workers are brought in can the broker earn their placement fee and brokers’ service fee.  So in order to gain quotas, the broker has to suck up to the employer by any means necessary, including by translating, taking care of documents, taking the workers to the doctor, etc..  The brokers always say, “We provide myriad services,” but actually, their services only meet the needs of the employers, not those of the migrant workers.

Needless to say, when conflicts between workers and employers happen, and negotiation meetings are held at the Labor Bureau, we have never once seen a broker speak on behalf of the migrant worker.  The broker always sits with the employer, even attending on behalf of the employer, helping the employer to “make big problems small and make small problems disappear.”

Under this kind of system, when there are cases of occupational injuries and disputes over compensation and benefits, you might see the broker, but they will never fight for the worker’s benefit.  In fact, there are many lousy brokers who help employers cover up illegal activities, or privately go through the broker in the sending country to pressure the injured worker’s family there, and give out false information, and use all kinds of hard and soft force to pressure the worker into accepting the employer’s offer.

And when the representative offices of the sending countries in Taiwan run into serious occupational injury cases, they don’t always stand with the worker either.  Most also take the attitude of “make big problems small, make small problems disappear.”  Some even demonize the NGOs, saying “they’re all troublemakers,” and get in the way of the NGOs helping the workers in the case.[2]

From the point of view of the workers, the brokers and their home governments’ offices are the two units most closely related to them.  At least they speak the workers’ native language.  But when they get into a dispute over benefits with their employer, these two units only encourage them to give up struggling for their rights, to drop their legal cases, and to choose to accept settlements with the employers or even go back to their home countries. 

Dilemma #3: Language barrier + incapacitated government

When a migrant worker has been injured on the job, and they or their family want to handle the labor insurance payment themselves, they discover that all of the application forms are in Chinese.  If they want to apply for a labor inspection on their own, they find that the inspector who comes is relying on the broker to translate.  If they want to find out whether the company has broken the law, not only is there no legal information openly available in different languages, often even local workers don’t know how to find the information.  And needless to say, when they follow up by suing, do the Taiwanese courts provide suitable interpreters to support migrant workers?  When faced with these difficult problems that have to do with language, our great Taiwanese government has only one response:  “The government will supervise the broker to take care of it.  If the migrant worker has a problem, they can call 1955.”

With all their resources and possible interventions, the government actively chooses to shirk their responsibility and make it the broker’s responsibility.  At the same time they passively wait for the worker to dial 1955 to make a complaint, and even after the worker does that, they may not be of any use.  All of the resources regarding occupational injury that the government has “laid on the table” are just there to help the government dodge bullets when a case comes up.  At the beginning of this year, the Control Yuan held a press conference where they brought up that in the past 10 years, the amount of compensation for loss of ability that migrant workers who were injured on the job should have received, but have not yet received, is as high as 40,000,000 NT, and even the insurance benefits set by law, the Taiwan government is unable to help injured migrant workers apply for.  In this situation, many migrant workers with occupational injuries cannot get any aid, and ultimately have no choice but to agree to a settlement – this is nothing new.

When “settlement” becomes the pattern

The above observations and analysis come from our experience of encountering and handling migrant workers’ occupational injury cases.  But we are not saying that all cases of migrant workers suffering occupational injuries and reaching settlements are the result of workers being forced to give up on fighting for their rights.  Rather, what we hope to point out is:

  1. Amid such heavy difficulties, even if a migrant worker’s occupational injury  case is a big one and attracts the attention of the public (such as the Sican Co. factory fire case, the Chin-Poon Industrial Co. factory fire case, the Tyntek Corporation acid spill case, the San Yeong Ironworks Prayuan case), and even when NGOs can get involved to help, the process of seeking compensation is extremely hard, to the extent that many migrant workers simply give up.  And how many more cases don’t receive the attention of Taiwanese society?  How many migrant workers who have suffered injuries or been killed on the job have been treated like disposable chopsticks and thrown back to their home countries?
  2. In the process of these discussions in which all the critical details are skipped over, in the cases where there’s a direct “agreement summary,” in the end, the government sees them all as “individual cases.”  So up to now, society has no way to even start to discuss and change the problem of “migrant workers’ extremely dangerous work environment and frequent occupational injuries.”  And there is no way to improve support for migrant workers who are injured or killed on the job and their families in their slow process of seeking compensation.  Time after time, an individual case reaches a settlement, it makes it even harder for the collective problem to reach a solution.
  3. A settlement becomes a kind of negative model: After a workplace accident occurs, the employer’s first thought is to ask the broker to wrap up the case as soon as possible.  In order to make things “fast,” suing draws out the daily fees, and reaching a settlement becomes a “necessary evil.”  At the same time, in order to prevent the migrant worker from suing, forcing them to return to their home countries becomes the most surefire method.  These negative models are what make the broker look good, like someone who “knows how to get things done,” in the eyes of the employer.  But this is also what makes the problem of the high rate of workplace disasters and the dangerous work environment even worse.  After all, if I can spend 100,000NT to settle with the injured migrant worker, why should I spend 1,000,000NT to make the workplace safer?

Is the government throwing around money to save their reputation?  Are the employers paying money to get rid of the problem?

We know that right now, the Labor Bureau of the Changhua County government (the responsible local authority) has ordered the factory to stop work, and fined them 30 to 300 thousand NT.  The Changhua County government established the “Work Safety Alliance” just this May.  But when they encounter such a serious case of a workplace accident, all they can do is fine the employer some small amount?  The National Ministry of Labor above and the Changhua County Labor Department below, what have they actually done in terms of preventing occupational injuries?  They’ve spent money to make a bulletin board, they’ve held press conferences – they’ve just thrown around money to buy a good name for themselves, but in reality, what have they provided the workers in terms of guaranteeing their safety?  In such an important and cruel case, in terms of investigation and prevention, has the local government met their obligation?  Has anyone taken real responsibility?  

When the Ministry of Labor got the Control Yuan’s report, their answer was, the MOL has a “Dangerous Occupations Unit” to specially supervise and regulate. What we want to ask is, in this case of the clearly extremely dangerous garbage recycling work unit, what have they been supervising and regulating?  What have they “specially” done?  Is there any information in multiple languages that has been given to migrant workers in “very dangerous” occupations?  Can it be that the MOL has absolutely no responsibility in this instance of such a serious workplace accident?

Also, the employers who ignore the workers’ safety in order to cut costs – when an incident happens, is their only responsibility to pay money?  Although the worker can file a civil suit against the employer for “negligent occupational injury,” in the end it still holds that there is “no trial without a complaint.”  To use this unfortunate Vietnamese migrant worker as an example, who will cross the ocean to bring a lawsuit on his behalf?  And this May, when the “Worker Occupational Injury Insurance and Protection Act” was launched, the President of the Executive Yuan, Su Tseng-chang, stated, “The Ts’ai administration takes care of the workers the most.”  In reality, they just let the employer pay an insurance fee, and let the employer use a tiny amount of money to take care of workplace injury incidents.  Can it really be that in Taiwan, a “country grounded in human rights,”  just spending some money can sweep away the fact of a human life ground into meat – the life of a person who lived together with us on this island?

[1] According to the Control Yuan’s investigation report, the “rate of loss of capability cases from workplace injuries” among migrant workers in the manufacturing sector is twice as high as that of local workers.  According to the Ministry of Labor’s statistics, over 1500 foreign workers per year request labor insurance compensation.  This implies that “on average, a workplace injury occurs every 2 hours” and “on average, 1.6 migrant workers lose capability or die in workplace accidents every 2 days.”  In 2019, for example, 270 workers suffered debilitating injuries or death.  If you figure in those injuries that were not reported, the total is definitely over 300 people.  This abstract description, “300 migrant workers lost capability or died in workplace accidents in one year,” refers to a gory reality, that a living person had their hand cut off, or their head snapped off by a machine, and every year this happens almost 300 times.  https://reurl.cc/KQOgLn

[2] After this case happened, the family were immediately warned by the broker, “You must not contact any Taiwanese NGOs.”  Then the broker company gave the deceased’s parents a power of attorney form to sign, which gave them not only the power to handle the body, the labor insurance, including making all the related arrangements, but even included the power to settle with the employer.  Ironically, the people who were entrusted with these powers included not only the deceased’s sister, but also the employer, Tyntek, the broker, and the Manila Economic and Cultural Office in Taiwan (MECO).  When the family members arrived in Taiwan on September 10, an NGO took them to MECO to take back the power of attorney form, and they were told by the broker and MECO that the complete form could not be returned until it had been notarized.  They also told the family that if the NGO caused any more trouble, it would hinder the return of the body to the Philippines.  While the family members were in Taiwan, the broker learned that the NGO wanted to take the family to the funeral home to view the body, and they told the family,”You are not allowed to go with the NGO.  If the broker company isn’t with you, you will be sued.”

Now, the family in the Philippines have been told by the broker and MECO that the body will arrive in the Philippines on September 18 at dawn.  The company is willing to speak with the family on September 17, on the condition that the NGO does not accompany them.  If the family has a lawyer, they may accompany them, but they cannot bring their own interpreter.  The family in Taiwan have been constantly told by the broker and MECO that the company has already admitted fault, and if they agree to a settlement all will be well.  They say the body will be returned on September 18, and the easiest way to solve all the problems and ensure the body is returned without delays, is to make sure the NGO doesn’t cause trouble.  https://reurl.cc/Zblxql

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