TAIPEI, Taiwan — Officials in a county in Taiwan are facing a storm of criticism after banning foreign laborers from going outside as part of an effort to stamp out a cluster of coronavirus infections among workers at several technology manufacturing companies.
Under the measures announced last week by the authorities in the central county of Miaoli, thousands of migrant workers, mostly from Vietnam and the Philippines, are prevented from leaving their dormitories except to travel to and from their jobs at high-tech factories. Some workers expressed concern that the conditions in the cramped dormitories, where as many as six people share a room, could spread the virus further.
Other workers who were in close contact with infected colleagues have been sequestered at quarantine centers. In some of those facilities, activists say that workers were served spoiled food or had no running water.
Officials have not said how long the restrictions will be in place. At a news briefing last week, Hsu Yao-chang, the Miaoli County magistrate, dismissed migrant workers’ complaints.
“You tested positive, and even died because of 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 confirmed cases related to the factories to more than 450, according to the Taiwan Centers for Disease Control. At the hardest-hit company, King Yuan Electronics, a testing and packaging company for semiconductor chips, more than 300 cases have been found.
Some workers said they understood the reasons for the restrictions, but argued that they singled out foreign workers. Taiwanese employees, most of whom work as managers and supervisors at the factories, have been permitted to come and go at will, many foreign workers said.
“It is discrimination,” John Ray Tallud, 29, a Filipino equipment engineer at King Yuan Electronics, said in a telephone interview from his dormitory. “Local Taiwanese can go outside any time.”
Throughout the pandemic, migrant workers have been among the most vulnerable groups around the world. Singapore barred hundreds of thousands of low-paid foreign workers from leaving their dormitories for months after major outbreaks last year. Farm laborers in the United States were deemed essential and continued to work in the fields shoulder-to-shoulder, even as many became infected.
Until recently, Taiwan was an exception — a Covid-free island for most of the pandemic, with strict border controls that made it difficult for companies to bring in more migrant laborers. As a result, labor activists say that the existing migrant work force — more than 700,000 workers, most from Southeast Asian countries — had gained bargaining power with their employers.
That changed with the recent outbreak. Migrant-labor advocates have criticized the Miaoli government for provoking further fear and stigmatization of foreign workers. Many said that the order exposed longstanding discrimination against the workers, who have become an essential, if largely invisible, pillar of Taiwan’s economy — particularly its crucial 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. “When we talk about Taiwan’s most important industries, they would not be able to survive without these foreign workers.”