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New Taipei City to inspect condition of rental units after fatal fire

2017/11/23 22:34:09

Taipei, Nov. 23 (CNA) A day after a deadly fire claimed nine lives in Taiwan's most populous city, New Taipei, the local government on Thursday announced plans to inspect all partitioned apartments in the city and threatened to fine landlords who violate fire and public safety codes.

The announcement came as migrant and immigrant rights groups called for an extensive probe into the conditions of cheap apartments rented to students and migrant workers, after one such apartment in the city's Zhonghe District caught fire Wednesday night, killing nine of the tenants in the building and injuring two other residents.

A man is suspected of setting the building on fire after having an argument with a resident in the building.

A common practice amongst apartment owners in Taiwan's populated cities is to partition one apartment into several smaller, studio apartments and rent them out, to earn more rental income.

However, as with the case of the apartment building that went up in flames, many of these partitioned apartments are in clear violation of city's safety codes.

Deputy Mayor Hou You-yi (侯友宜) on Thursday asked relevant city government officials to inspect all partitioned apartments in the city. The local government has also asked law enforcement authorities to seize the assets of past and present owners of the apartment building.

Huang De-ching (黃德清), commissioner of the city's fire department, said that all past and present apartment owners are responsible for the deaths and injuries caused by the fire because the illegal partitions were built by the first owner and were never taken down or made to conform to city codes by subsequent owners.

Given that several of the fire victims are believed to be migrant workers, the Taiwan International Workers' Association (TIWA) commented on the fire, saying that it was unclear at the moment whether the migrants were runaway workers living in the apartment or if they were legally employed.

If they are runaway workers, then the government should look at the many reasons that have caused migrant workers to abandon their jobs, such as brokers' fees that are too high and an inability to freely switch employers, TIWA said.

If they are legally employed workers, then the government should be looking at the horrible living environment that employers have provided for them, it added.

According to TIWA's Hsu Wei-tung (許惟棟), migrant workers are each required to pay a NT$5,000 housing fee when they arrive in Taiwan. However, inspections of their living places often reveals substandard living conditions, with wood partitions and beds shared by multiple people.

In both of these cases, the government has to do better to protect the rights of migrant workers, he said.

In the aftermath of the Zhonghe fire, many of the survivors are currently displaced from their homes. The New Taipei City government's Social Welfare Department is offering assistance to those in need.

The city government will pay for the funeral expenses and has made living arrangements for those people who currently cannot reside in the apartment building.

The fire broke out at about 8:37 p.m. Wednesday night, with a suspect, surnamed Li (李), now in police custody.

An initial investigation revealed that Li had an argument with a resident on the fourth floor of the building and allegedly set the fire shortly thereafter, police said.

According to the police, this was not Li's first instance of arson. The repeat offender tried to set fire to a house and a motorcycle in May and June of this year, respectively.

Fortunately, no one was hurt in these past two cases of arson, which was not the case in the incident on Wednesday night.

It was not clear why police and prosecutors had not arrested or prosecuted him after the previous two arsons.

(By Lin Chang-shun and Kuan-lin Liu)