Let widowed immigrants work

By Hsia Hsiao-chuan 夏曉鵑

The Alliance for Human Rights Legislation for Immigrants and Migrants (AHRLIM) has been promoting immigrants’ rights in Taiwan for many years. On Friday last week, three years to the day President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) took office, the alliance called a press conference to protest Ma’s failure to put into practice his campaign policy proposals about security and equality for women.

During his election campaign more than three years ago, Ma called for a broadening of the conditions under which foreign and Chinese spouses are allowed to work in Taiwan, saying that discriminatory treatment must be strictly prohibited. In reality, however, many cases in which member organizations of the AHRLIM have assisted immigrant spouses show that political slogans about guaranteeing work rights for new immigrant women have still not been turned into political practice.

In 2009, following years of effort by the AHRLIM, amendments were finally made to the Immigration Act (入出國及移民法), to the effect that an immigrant through marriage whose spouse dies, or who gets divorced because of domestic violence and is under a protection order, may continue to reside in Taiwan. This measure does uphold these new immigrant women’s right to remain, but this protection is somewhat devalued by the Council of Labor Affairs’ very strict interpretation of the Employment Services Act (就業服務法). According to the council’s interpretation of the law, immigrants through marriage who are widowed, or whose marriages break up, and who do not have children, do not have the right to work legally. Immigrant spouses in this kind of predicament often complain: “We have the right to stay, but not to work. Do they just expect us to lie down and die?”

Take the case of “Amei” from Indonesia. Her husband was diagnosed with cancer and forced to quit his job, so she had to look after him as well as make a living. After he passed away, the new version of the Immigration Act meant that she still had the right to remain in Taiwan. She found employment in a factory, but when her employer applied for her health and labor insurance, she found she had no right to work. The reason given was that her purpose of residence in Taiwan, as noted on her resident certificate, had been changed from “joining family” to “other.” Because of this, and because she had no children in Taiwan, she was not allowed to work, according to the law.

Another example is that of “Yuhua” from Thailand. After Yuhua’s husband died, she had the right to remain in Taiwan but not to work legally. Yuhua earned a living as a sales assistant, selling fish at a wet market. Although the work was irregular, with meager pay and no labor or health insurance coverage, Yuhua thought that, because her husband was dead and she had no citizen’s identity card, she would have to make do by selling her labor, earning just enough to make ends meet for herself and her child.

Although Yuhua had a child and could have applied for a work permit to work legally, she was put off by the complicated application procedure and a prejudice against immigrants in Taiwanese society. So she didn’t apply for a work permit for a long time.

The right to work for immigrants who settle in Taiwan through marriage has improved bit by bit, but only as a result of repeated protests. Previously foreign spouses who had not obtained citizenship were treated the same as foreign workers, in that they only had the right to work if their employers applied for a work permit for them and the permit was approved.

After lobbying by civic groups, the Employment Services Act was amended to allow foreign spouses who have permission to reside in Taiwan to apply directly to the council for a work permit. Although that is much more convenient than the old way, most immigrants married to Taiwanese did not know about the change. As a result, people were arrested for working illegally because they had not applied for a work permit.

There were even cases of married immigrants with young children being sent back to their home countries for working without a permit. This prompted some legislators and civic groups to drum up support for an amendment to the Employment Services Act. Thanks to this amendment, since May 2003, foreign spouses of Republic of China citizens who have a household registration in Taiwan have had the right to work without applying for a work permit. This change was a big step forward in the rights of immigrants to Taiwan.

Nonetheless, the way the council currently interprets the Employment Services Act still puts immigrants who have had the misfortune of being widowed or suffering from domestic violence in the predicament of being allowed to stay in Taiwan but not having the right to work.

This is a big retreat for immigrants’ rights, and it runs contrary to the policy themes of “human rights” and “equality” that Ma has stressed on numerous occasions. The contradiction between the government’s professed policy goals and the council’s practice of wantonly obstructing immigrants’ right to work indicates that the government doesn’t know, or doesn’t want to know, what is really going on.

It brings to mind the story of a dimwitted emperor of the Jin Dynasty who, when told that people were starving for want of grain, asked why they couldn’t eat mincemeat instead.

Hsia Hsiao-chuan is a professor and director of the Graduate Institute for Social Transformation Studies at Shih Hsin University.

TRANSLATED BY JULIAN CLEGG

Adopted from :  Taipei Times Thu, May 26, 2011

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