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Migrants seek justice in Taiwan's court over dorm safety

2018/06/24 17:37:54

Nguyen Van Chac (front)/CNA file photo

By Shih Hsiu-chuan, CNA staff reporter

Most of the migrant workers who were injured and families of those who were killed in the two recent fires in Taiwan went home after accepting a settlement offered by the employers, but the family of a Vietnamese victim is seeking justice through a court.

There are relatives of Nguyen Van Trai, 20, who along with five Vietnamese working for Sican, a manufacturer of solar control window film in Pingzhen District, Taoyuan City, died in December in a fire that engulfed their dormitory.

The dormitory was on the upper level of the factory's warehouse and was made of sheet iron -- making it an illegal construction and a potential fire hazard.

"We are hoping that prosecutors would file charges against the employer and the court can order disclosure of several documents in the possession of related authorities," Chang Yu-yin (張譽尹), the attorney who is assisting the family, told CNA.

The family sued Sican's owner Chen Hung-ju (陳宏如) and head of the company's unit in Pingzhen Hsieh Chao-yi (謝朝怡) for negligent manslaughter under the Criminal Code, claiming that their disregard for fire safety caused Nguyen Van Trai's death.

The case is under investigation by Taoyuan prosecutors.

Chang has requested that the prosecutors look into several documents that contain information, which has been withheld by related authorities, that can determine whether the dormitory provided by the employer complied with building and fire safety codes.

Despite the lack of rules that ban the use of sheet-iron houses as dormitories, sheet iron is not a fire-retardant material that can withstand fires for a specific length of time as required by related building and fire codes for residential units, he said.

The already known facts -- the storage of flammable and combustible materials in the warehouse and the dormitory being divided into compartments with only one exit -- were also obvious violations of related dormitory safety rules, Chang added.

"There was only one entrance leading to the dormitory, where small spaces were partitioned by wood and there was no other way to escape. Right outside the entrance was the kitchen," Nguyen Van Chac, brother of Nguyen Van Trai, reportedly told Taiwan's media.

Nguyen Van Chac said what he wanted to achieve more than anything else was to tell judges the condition his younger brother had been forced to live in, to hold the employer responsible and to bring justice to the deceased.

After his brother's death, Nguyen Van Chac, who was also a factory worker in Taiwan, returned home, mainly because their parents were very worried about him.

Nguyen Van Chac's dormitory was not relocated outside the factory complex until May, according to Nguyen Van Hung (阮文雄), a Vietnamese priest in Taiwan.

Nguyen Van Chac will come to Taiwan to take the stand when the case is sent to a district court for hearing, said Nguyen Van Hung, head of the Vietnamese Migrant Workers and Brides Office that helps migrant workers and spouses from Vietnam.

Along with other nongovernmental organization (NGO) activists, Nguyen Van Hung had tried to reach out to five Vietnamese workers who were injured and families of the six deceased, hoping to explain to them what benefits for occupational injuries and deaths they can claim because they were unfamiliar with Taiwan's laws and language.

However, they couldn't approach any of them other than Nguyen Van Chac who, according to Nguyen Van Hung, went to him to seek his help.

Their brokers, the employer and officials with the Vietnamese representative office in Taipei did not allow the victims to talk to the NGOs, Nguyen Van Hung said.

After Nguyen Van Trai's family decided to handle compensation and other matters themselves instead of leaving his broker to negotiate with the employer, they were told by the broker that they "would not get any compensation," Nguyen Van Hung said.

"The family told me that that seemed to them like a threat," the priest said.

Liu Nien-yun (劉念雲) of the Taiwan Association for Victims of Occupational Injuries, who also tried to help the victims, said that local labor officials, in response to requests by NGOs, agreed to meet with the victims' families to inform them of their legal rights.

"But we only found out that they were sent home the morning the meeting was scheduled to take place," Liu said. "It was just on the third day after their arrival."

The same situation happened in the fire at Chin Poon, a printed circuit board manufacturer in the Taoyuan City, which was struck by a blaze in April that claimed the lives of six firefighters and two Thai migrants who were then in the dormitory located on the fourth floor of a factory building.

Hsu Wei-tung (許惟棟) of Migrants Empowerment Network in Taiwan, who also tried in vain to reach families of the Thai victims, said he had learned that a victim, whose body was found in the toilet, made a call to his daughter in Thailand after the fire broke out.

"This suggested that the victim died not because he was drunk asleep as reported. It could be that he was trying to escape from the toilet window but couldn't make it. So he called his daughter. He knew that the window was the only possible escape," Hsu said.

As with the case of Sican, the families of the Thai victims also accepted the employer's settlement offer on the third day of their arrival and were then sent home, Hsu said.

Then, almost all the migrants -- about 300 from Thailand, Vietnam, and the Philippines -- who lived in the 400-ping (1,322-square meter) dormitory had their contracts terminated by the employer and were sent home with a severance pay, he added.

Hsu said he doubted that the migrants were ever given a chance to consider whether to stay to wait for a chance of new employment, a legal right they are entitled to in situations of involuntary layoff like this.

"They just wanted to get over with the compensation as soon as possible," Hsu said, referring to the brokers, employer, and officials with Thai's representative office in Taipei.

Plenty of plastic materials are stored in a warehouse upper level of which is a dormitory for migrant workers of a factory in Taoyuan City. The stair to the upper level is the only entrance of the dormitory. (photo courtesy of Vietnamese Migrant Workers and Brides Office)

In the wake of the two high-profile tragedies, Taiwan's Ministry of Labor (MOL) has begun mulling over stipulating the need for a safe distance between dormitories for migrant workers and factories and increasing the number of labor inspectors.

Chen Hui-ju (陳慧茹), a Taoyuan labor official, said her office has also suggested restoration of an earlier rule under which the MOL would be required to approve the hiring of a migrant worker by an employer only if proof of dormitory safety is submitted.

"That way, the problem can be dealt with at source," Chen told CNA.

The previous rule under the Regulations on the Permission and Administration of the Employment of Foreign Workers, was removed no later than one year from the date the regulations were enacted, as a direct result of corporate lobbying, according to NGOs.

Nevertheless, it is still stipulated in the "Foreign Worker's Care Plan," which set forth standards for board and lodging for migrant workers, that lodging place should conform to building and fire codes, or it may result in revocation of the employer's hiring permit.

Currently employers are required by laws to submit the "Plan" to local labor authority within three days of the arrival of migrant workers, after which the agency is obliged to send inspectors to visit their dormitory to determine its compliance with the "Plan."

As exposed by the two cases, the problem may be negligence in enforcing rules and regulations concerning the rights of migrant workers, a dark side that the legal action by Nguyen Van Trai's family might be able to shed light on.