Human rights treated as a slogan

By Hsia Hsiao-chuan  夏曉鵑

Jacqueline Liu (劉姍姍), director-general of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Kansas City, Missouri, was arrested and detained by the FBI earlier this month on charges of maltreatment of her Philippine housekeepers. Answering reporters’ questions at a pretrial hearing on Nov. 16, Liu’s lawyer said she had not intended to break the law and had merely done what she thought was right.

It is easy to believe that what the lawyer said reflected Liu’s true feelings and that she felt the charges against her were unwarranted, because the way she treated her housekeepers would be nothing out of the ordinary in Taiwan. She must have been wondering what all the fuss was about.

According to news reports, Liu forced her maids to work overtime, made heavy deductions from their pay, confiscated their passports and other important documents, and did not allow them to go out on their own. She is reported to have installed surveillance cameras to spy on them and to have warned them not to do anything rash because she had plenty of connections in high places, and so on.

The sad truth is that Liu’s behavior is by no means an isolated case. Employer abuse of migrant workers has long been the norm in Taiwan. Under Taiwanese law, blue-collar migrant workers do not have the right to freely change employers. Employers can sack them any time, and if that happens they are liable to be deported.

In order to keep their jobs, migrant workers often have to put up with employers taking deductions from their pay on various pretexts. They are often forced to work overtime and may even be pressured into signing contracts in which they “voluntarily” agree to deductions being made from their pay.

Foreign domestic workers who live in their employers’ homes are subject to even more rigorous work conditions. Since they are not covered by the Labor Standards Act (勞基法), they have to work, or at least be on call, for very long hours and are not entitled to the normal days off and holidays that other workers get.

Under the existing system, migrant workers are not free. In effect, they are slaves. They are at the mercy of their employers and labor brokers. Although, formally speaking, there is a system available for them to appeal for help, it is not very effective at safeguarding their rights. Many migrant workers leave their employers because they can no longer stand the way they are treated, but in the eyes of the government, that makes them “runaway foreign workers” and they live in fear at all times. Employers and brokers, for their part, are worried about migrant workers “running away,” so it has become common practice for employers to keep tabs on migrant workers by confiscating their identity documents.

After the news got out about Liu being arrested in the US, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as well as politicians from the Democratic Progressive Party, focused first and foremost on the question of national sovereignty. This attitude has been a target of criticism from human rights groups, but the fact is that turning a blind eye to problems of exploitation and abuse of migrant workers is the norm throughout Taiwanese society.

The things politicians of all stripes have said in relation to this incident simply reflect the way things are in Taiwan. That is why the ministry attempted to stop Liu from being tried in a US court on the grounds that, as they say, she enjoys diplomatic immunity. This attitude amounts to an open admission that Taiwan is a country that violates migrant workers’ rights.

Even if, as the ministry claims, Liu’s hiring of housekeepers was part of her official duties and thus covered by diplomatic immunity, Liu’s alleged conduct would still be illegal under Taiwanese law.

Two years ago, President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and the legislature passed a law on the implementation of the two conventions. Things like forced overtime, confiscation of passports, heavy deductions from pay, restrictions on personal freedom and threats of deportation are all at odds with the principles of labor rights and prohibition of slavery that are embodied in the conventions.

Besides, Liu’s conduct may constitute human trafficking, as defined by the Human Trafficking Prevention Act (人口販運防制法), which forbids paying wages that are not commensurate with the labor performed, as well as the use of violence, threats, intimidation, confinement and surveillance and the withholding of someone’s important documents for illicit purposes.

Given that Taiwan has such laws, why has it been necessary for human rights advocacy groups to come out and call for Liu to be tried under US law and punished if found guilty? The reason is that, based on past experience, rights groups strongly suspect these laws that appear to safeguard migrant workers’ rights are only a kind of false packaging designed to showcase Taiwan’s image as “a nation founded upon the principles of human rights.”

Premier Wu Den-yih (吳敦義) has said that the government wasn’t kidding when it signed the two UN covenants.

If that is so, then, even if Liu were granted diplomatic immunity and returned to Taiwan, the Ma administration should still put into practice the terms of the two conventions, the anti-trafficking law and other relevant laws and regulations by investigating her case. It should also make sure that no retribution is taken against anyone among our overseas diplomats who may have served as a witness in the case.

If the government handles Liu’s case the right way, it would help convince people that it is determined to build this nation on the foundation of human rights.

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 Sat, Nov 26, 2011

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