A major manufacturer in Taiwan is forcing some migrant workers out of private homes and back into shared accommodation at the height of the island’s worst Covid-19 outbreak since the pandemic began, drawing accusations of discrimination and double standards.
ASE, a semiconductor manufacturer, told its workers in the Taoyuan district of Chungli, about 50km (30 miles) from capital Taipei, that those who live independently in private rentals, must “move back to their dormitories immediately”, or be given “a major demerit”. Three such demerits are punishable by dismissal, the notice says.
It stipulates residents will be banned from leaving the dorms except to go straight to and from work. Those who are late face being locked out and penalised. The workers cannot do their own shopping or have visitors.
Such restrictions do not apply to the broader Taiwanese community. The island is currently under a level 3 alert, which allows gatherings and freedom of movement.
Taiwan has recorded more than 12,000 local cases and 360 deaths since mid April. Hundreds of cases have been detected at four factories in Miaoli county, mostly among migrant workers and linked to crowded dormitory conditions.
Central government orders require that the number of people per room in migrant worker accommodation be significantly reduced to cut the threat of infection among residents but offer no further detail, such as a maximum number per room.
Footage seen by the Guardian purported to be of one of the ASE workers’ dorm rooms show rows of bunk beds on each side of the narrow room, with sheets hung around the edges to give occupants some privacy. Residents said they share bathroom facilities, sometimes with workers on different shifts or workers from other companies. Many migrant workers opt to live in private homes in which one or two people share a room.
An ASE spokeswoman confirmed both the instruction to return, and the demerits for their 3,000 migrant employees, but defended the policy.
When asked about accusations it was discriminating against its migrant workers, she said: “ASE will do our best to follow the regulation. We are working under a lot of pressure and policies which may sound draconian and unfair but we appeal to our colleagues to abide by the regulations until the case numbers have come down. We appeal to their understanding. The rules are tight for a reason.”
She said the company was not in breach of any rules, and was pulling people back to dorms “to protect them from further exposure outside, as well as to prevent cross-infections”. She said the company was also arranging other accommodation, including nearby university hostel rooms, aiming to have a maximum of four people per room.
Similar restrictions on dorm-living migrant workers have been ordered by the Miaoli county government, prompting the health and welfare minister, Chen Chih-shung, to “remind” local authorities they can only implement measures in line with level 3 restrictions, which permit freedom of movement.
The Guardian spoke to dozens of workers who fear that speaking out could see them fired or sent home. They stressed they had no issue with the job or the pandemic safety measures on the factory floor but they believed the accommodation order put them all in far greater danger than if they stayed in their own homes and practised social distancing.
“We all want to go back to the Philippines to our families and loved ones alive. We do not take risks, that’s why we’ve disagreed to returning to the dormitory,” said one woman, currently living in her own accommodation near the factory.
The spokeswoman for ASE said the company had also increased cleaning and disinfection of the dorms, implemented social distancing measures, and was providing in-house counselling for distressed employees and financial incentives to not break rules “as a gesture of support”.
‘Double standard’ for migrants
Taiwan’s migrant worker population is considered vulnerable and unlikely to speak up against employers, according to rights groups, who also note weak labour laws in Taiwan.
The situation is drawing comparisons to Singapore in early 2020, when officials were accused of overlooking migrant dormitories as part of their otherwise lauded pandemic response, leading to massive outbreaks among workers.
“We know from Singapore’s situation that migrant workers who are confined to their dorms and not allowed to leave also face psychological adjustment issues, and some of them were known to have taken their lives in Singapore,” said Roy Ngerg, a Taipei-based writer covering human rights and labor issues. He said Taiwan had ample warning of the dangers.
Lennon Ying-dah Wong, director of migrant worker policies at Taoyuan labor organisation Serve the People Association, said the decision to send workers back to dorms was “very questionable”. “The Covid-19 virus won’t be controlled merely by locking the migrant workers inside the factory.” Wong said.
“It’s totally unfair and unjustifiable to continue this double standard for migrant and Taiwanese workers in the factory.”
The ASEspokeswoman said the company was working closely with government to protect all employees “regardless of nationalities”.
“We have already strengthened precautionary measures to ensure their safety and are following strict directives from the Taiwan health and labor ministry,” she said.
“ASE is committed to international standards … that governs employee welfare and safeguards their rights. Our customers conduct audits at our sites on a regular basis, and we have always been transparent with our policies and conduct.”