TAIPEI, Taiwan – Officials in a county in Taiwan face a storm of criticism after banning foreign workers from going outside to eradicate a cluster of coronavirus infections among workers at several tech manufacturers.
The measures announced by authorities in the central Miaoli district last week will prevent thousands of migrant workers, mostly from Vietnam and the Philippines, from leaving their dormitories except to travel to and from their jobs in high-tech factories. Some workers expressed concerns that conditions in the cramped dormitories, where up to six people share a room, could further spread the virus.
Other workers who were in close contact with infected colleagues were confiscated in quarantine centers. In some of these facilities, activists said that the workers were served spoiled food or had no running water.
The officials did not say how long the restrictions apply. At a press conference last week, Miaoli County Magistrate Hsu Yao-chang denied complaints from migrant workers.
"They tested positive and even died from the virus," he said. "Why talk about human rights now?"
On Friday, Miaoli County reported 26 new infections, mostly among migrant workers, bringing the total number of confirmed cases related to the factories to more than 450, according to the Taiwan Centers for Disease Control. More than 300 packages were found at the hardest hit company, King Yuan Electronics, a semiconductor chip testing and packaging company.
Some workers said they understood the reasons for the restrictions, but argued that they were selecting foreign workers. Taiwanese workers, most of whom work as managers and supervisors in the factories, were allowed to come and go as they pleased, many foreign workers said.
"This is discrimination," said John Ray Tallud, 29, a Filipino equipment engineer with King Yuan Electronics, in a telephone interview from his dormitory. "Local Taiwanese can go outside anytime."
Throughout the pandemic, migrant workers were among the most vulnerable groups in the world. Singapore banned hundreds of thousands of low-paid foreign workers from leaving their dormitories for months after the major outbreaks last year. Farm laborers in the United States were considered indispensable and continued to work shoulder to shoulder in the fields, although many became infected.
Until recently, Taiwan was an exception – a covid-free island for most of the pandemic, with tight border controls making it difficult for companies to accept more migrant workers. As a result, union activists say the existing migrant workers – more than 700,000 workers, most from Southeast Asian countries – have gained bargaining power with their employers.
That changed with the recent outbreak. Migrant workers advocates have criticized the Miaoli government for creating further fear and stigmatization of foreign workers. Many said the order exposed longstanding discrimination against workers who have become a vital, if largely invisible, pillar of the Taiwanese economy – especially its important high-tech industries.
"This is a clear case of injustice," said Chang Cheng, founder of 4-Way Voice, a multilingual publication for migrant workers in Taiwan. "If we talk about Taiwan's main industries, they couldn't survive without these foreign workers."