Reaching out to Undocumented Workers: The Best Way to Contain COVID-19 Outbreak

Written by Hong-zen Wang, Pei-chia Lan, Yen-fen Tseng, Chia-ling Wu, Chiung-chih Chen. Translated by Isabelle Cheng.

The original Chinese-language op-ed was published by the Commonwealth Magazine and can be found here.

Image credit: 新型冠狀病毒肺炎大流行期間,臺北長庚醫院一樓戴口罩等候結帳的民眾 by 玄 史生/Flickr, license CC0 1.0

On 26th February 2020, Taiwan Centre for Disease Control (CDC) announced that there had been 32 confirmed cases of infection in Taiwan. Case #32 was unknowingly infected when she was employed as the caregiver for Case #27 during the latter’s hospitalisation. After the CDC disclosed her identity as an ‘illegal’ Indonesian migrant worker, public fears surged; consequently, several county governments announced that they would tighten the measures and crackdown on undocumented workers.

Currently, the number of undocumented migrant workers in Taiwan has risen to 50,000. They became ‘undocumented’ from the government’s registration after they absconded due to a range of causes, such as recruitment fees and debt, poor working conditions, or overstaying their visa. In spite of being undocumented, in varying positions, they continue to provide critical labour and services for Taiwanese society. This is particularly evident for those families who require imminent medical care or who are waiting for the approval of employing a foreign replacement caregiver. These families cannot help but resort to hiring undocumented workers as short-term caregivers.

Medical resources for containing COVID-19 are not readily available for migrant workers because of language barriers and the lack of information. This is particularly the case for undocumented workers owing to their undocumented status and the lack of National Health Insurance (NHI) coverage. The contrast between local medical staff and foreign caregivers is a case in point. For example, take Case #27, where none of the medical staff at his hospital was infected, but the unprotected caregiver who provided personal care fell ill. Being exposed to an environment where there is a higher health risk, undocumented migrant workers and short-term caregivers must be included in an extended protection net weaved by society.

Stopping alienation or ‘manhunt’ could incentivise them to seek help

Dr Shih-chung Chen, the Minister of Health and Wealth and CDC Chief Officer, critically reminded several times that ‘no one would like to be sick’. Migrant workers are human beings, too, and would not like to be sick, either. This is more so amongst undocumented migrant workers. Once they fall ill, the prices they pay would not only be losing jobs and suffering debt bondage but also be burdened by significant medical bills and repatriation.

In two days, after the identity of Case #32 was revealed, some local county governors publicly announced to further crackdown on undocumented migrant workers. This measure actually ran against the guiding principles set by Dr Chen for containing the outbreak. Whether a heavy-handed approach to catch undocumented migrant workers is fit for purpose is questionable. Had it been effective, there would not have been more than 50,000 undocumented workers still at large. More critically, executed with penalties without incentives, an all-out campaign to round up undocumented workers up and down the island would further convince them they need to conceal their sickness and become reluctant to seek medical help. This is not conducive for containing the spread of the disease.

Furthermore, the CDC disclosed the history of activities and contacts of Case #32 between 16th and 24th February. Arguably, a good intention of making her whereabouts public knowledge is to raise awareness amongst those who might have been in the places visited by her or come in close contact with her. Nevertheless, such a press release could result in creating an atmosphere of a cyber manhunt as part of a vicious cycle. That is, undocumented workers would be discouraged from informing the health authorities of their contacts and whereabouts. Their hesitation for cooperation would not help the CDC map out their movements. A deficit of information like this would inflame stronger fears towards undocumented workers within the host society and would further exacerbate racism and stigmatisation.

Supporting and reaching out to undocumented workers

To effectively curtail the epidemic, we would like to call on the government to provide medical support, re-reach out to undocumented workers, and pardon and rectify their undocumented status. Such measures could incentivise undocumented workers to seek medical help when they fall ill rather than become ostracised. To prevent a large-scale infection, we would like to put forward the following propositions:

Firstly, the approach undertaken by the government at all administrative levels should be ‘assisting and encouraging undocumented workers to turn themselves in’ rather than ‘searching and catching’.

Secondly, making it available for undocumented workers, who are not covered by the NHI, to access resources necessary for self-protection, particularly amongst caregivers who are exposed to a higher risk. If suspected of infection, they should be provided with free medical resources and assistance.

Thirdly, facilitating a grace period during which self-reporting undocumented workers may be exempt for expulsion and ineligibility for employment in Taiwan. They shall be permitted to seek legal employment in Taiwan—as in typical cases where their employment contract can be renewed every three years.

Lastly, reviewing the current regime of migrant worker employment, and also rectifying the current policy that employers are accountable for fleeing migrant workers’ and will temporarily lose their recruitment quota. Employers who hire undocumented workers may be pardoned and exempt for punishment. These reforms may encourage employers and undocumented workers to take part in the overall efforts to prevent COVID-19 from further spreading.

Migrant workers are part of the Taiwanese community

Regardless of holding either legal or undocumented status, in varying positions, migrant workers are contributing to the running of the host society in villages, at factories, at hospitals, in homes or major construction works. They engage their hard work at considerable risk. Protecting their health and providing medical care is to show our gratitude and pay our tribute to these workers who are far away from home.

Our propositions outlined above will be beneficial for the government, employers and migrant workers. Not only would these measures fill the gap for containing the disease, but it will also create a legal and reasonable working environment. The pressing crisis may offer a critical window of opportunity for us to change social institutions. It is time for us to review, comprehensively and holistically, the current migrant worker recruitment and employment system, along with their marginalised working and living environments. The interest in disease prevention may turn out to be a source of solidarity. Migrant workers are part of the Taiwanese community. We are all in the same boat—together, we set sail and shall safely reach the shore.

Hong-zen Wang is a Professor at the Department of Sociology of the National Sun Yat-Sen University.

Pei-chia Lan is a Professor at the Department of Sociology of the National Taiwan University.

Chia-ling Wu is a Professor at the Department of Sociology of National Taiwan University.

Yen-fen Tseng is a Professor at the Department of Sociology of the National Taiwan University.

Chiung-chih Chen is a Post-Doctoral Research Fellow at the International Institute for Cultural Studies of the National Chiao Tung University.

Isabelle Cheng is a Senior Lecturer (Associate Professor) at the School of Area Studies, History, Politics and Literature of the University of Portsmouth. This article is part of a special issue on Covid-19.

Along with Taiwan Insight’s special issue on Covid-19, we also introduce a timely special issue of the International Journal of Taiwan Studies (IJTS) on “Taiwan, Public Diplomacy, and WHA”. Taiwan’s exclusion from the WHO and the WHA is now a major cause for concern. To understand the reasons, consequences and possible remedies for Taiwan’s exclusion, one has to adopt a multi-disciplinary perspective. In this IJTS’s special issue, we have brought together political scientists, IR specialists, communication scholars, and health experts. For more details, please visit here.


One comment

  1. Yes, it is a trying time, and it is becoming clearer that a soft version of the Hobbesian state of nature is looming large. Fear simply permeates and atomizes the whole humanity. Unfortunately only science and time can put an end to the epidemics. No government can make sensible policies if we continue to discover that the incubation period is longer and longer than what experts have initially assumed.


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