Deadly fires highlight housing safety issues for migrant workers
By Joseph Yeh, CNA staff reporter
In the past two months, 15 people, including at least seven from Southeast Asia, have died in two fires that ravaged buildings in northern Taiwan.
The first incident occurred Nov. 22 at an apartment building in New Taipei City's Zhonghe District, killing nine people, some of whom were living in an illegally constructed fifth-floor apartment that had no fire safety features.
On Dec. 14, six of 12 Vietnamese migrant workers housed in a factory dormitory in Taoyuan died in a fire that destroyed a factory warehouse, which was also the site of an illegally designated dorm.
The deaths of the 15 individuals have highlighted the issue of low-income housing safety and standards in Taiwan and turned the spotlight in particular on accommodation for migrant workers.
"The latest incident in Taoyuan showed major negligence on the part of the local government, which apparently failed to detect the factory's violation of safety protocols despite several inspections by the relevant city authorities," said Kuomintang (KMT) Legislator Lin Li-chan (林麗蟬), Taiwan's first new immigrant lawmaker.
According to Taoyuan authorities, the most recent inspection of the factory site was in August and the owners were fined NT$30,000 (US$1,000) for safety issues at the factory itself.
However, there was no inspection of the factory warehouse, where the 12 Vietnamese workers were housed in a 48-square meter dormitory in a second-floor space that was not licensed for such a purpose.
In Taiwan, there are many such factory dormitories, but Taoyuan labor affairs officials said that under the law, they are not required to inspect those facilities.
The paradox lies in the fact that factory owners are required by law to provide accommodation for their migrant workers, either by allocating space to them in a dormitory, or giving them off-dorm housing for which NT$5,000 per month is deducted from the worker's pay, according to Karen Hsu (徐瑞希), secretary-general of the Global Workers' Organization in Taiwan.
In many cases, factory dormitories, like the one in Taoyuan, are built without any attention to fire prevention because the factory operators are trying to save money, said Hsu whose organization provides foreign workers with information about living, working and studying in Taiwan.
In the case of the New Taipei City incident, the units were small spaces with flimsy partitions, which were in violation of the city's safety codes and quickly went up in flames when an arsonist lit a fire in the stairwell of the building.
"It's like living in a powder keg that could explode at any moment," Hsu said of the housing situation for migrant workers and new immigrants.
Calling for better regulations
In the wake of the two fatal fires, migrant and immigrant rights groups and others have been calling for better regulations and extensive investigations into the conditions of dormitories and cheap accommodation offered to blue-collar migrant workers.
"Before granting Taiwanese employers licenses to import workers, the relevant government authorities should first inspect the dormitories provided by those employers," Peter Nguyen, founder of the Vietnamese Migrant Workers and Brides Office in Taoyuan, suggested earlier this month.
Meanwhile, some blue-collar migrant workers in Taiwan are engaging in networking in an effort to protect their safety.
While there is no panic among migrant workers at this time, they are trying to exchange information among themselves about which residential facilities to avoid and similar matters relating to safety, said Nia from Indonesia.
Concerns have also been expressed among migrant workers about reports that no insurance will be paid to the families of the six Vietnamese workers who perished in the Taoyuan fire since the workers were not on the job at the time.
"It's unfair because they were asked to live in the dormitory in the first place," Vietnamese migrant worker Vu Thi Thuy Hang said.
Such reports in the aftermath of the two fatal fires have also brought to the forefront other issues related to migrant workers, such as poor treatment by employers, long hours, and high wage deductions by brokers.
Legislator Lin said the government only pays lip service to the protection of their rights of the 610,000 blue-collar migrant workers in Taiwan.
"In a country that places high importance on the protection of human rights, the government should make stronger efforts to safeguard the basic rights of migrant workers," she said. "Otherwise, the administration would hardly be able to meet its goal of recruiting and keeping foreign talent."
Authorities addressing the situation
Authorities, however, have said they are already taking steps to address the situation.
For example, since the fire in New Taipei in November, the city government has said it is giving priority to safety checks on small partitioned living units like those in Zhonghe where the immigrants died.
The central government has also become involved, holding several meetings with local governments to ask that they take stronger measures to deal with the issues, in particular the problem of illegal structures, Deputy Minister of Interior Hua Ching-chun (花敬群) said.
"We will also see what we can do to give the local governments more resources and more flexible mechanisms to demolish such structures," he said. "This is a matter that concerns not only migrant workers but underprivileged citizens, who all are entitled to a safe residential environment."
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