MOL punts on plan to expand migrant workforce in construction

09/29/2020 04:28 PM
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Migrant workers
Migrant workers' groups protest outside the Ministry of Labor in Taipei. CNA photo Sept. 29, 2020

Taipei, Sept. 29 (CNA) The Ministry of Labor (MOL) said on Tuesday that a proposal to expand the use of migrant labor in large-scale construction projects requires additional evaluation, amid calls from migrant workers' groups to focus instead on resolving wage disparities between local and foreign workers.

Citing labor shortages in the construction industry, the Ministry of the Interior submitted a proposal to the MOL earlier this month to allow the recruitment of additional migrant workers for residential and commercial building projects with lot sizes of at least 5,000 square meters or total floor spaces of at least 20,000 square meters, and construction periods of over one year.

In remarks last week, however, Deputy Interior Minister Hua Ching-chun (花敬群) sparked debate by suggesting that the proposal would not only address labor shortages, but would also "slow the rise in construction costs and even affect housing prices."

On Tuesday, as the MOL was scheduled to begin discussions on the proposal, a coalition of migrant workers' associations rallied outside the ministry building calling for the proposal to be scrapped and for the government to instead address the long-standing wage disparities between local and migrant workers.

Regardless of workers' nationalities and the industry, migrant workers' groups have always opposed the recruitment of cheap labor, said Hsu Wei-tung (許惟棟) of the Migrants Empowerment Network in Taiwan.

In the 30 years since Taiwan opened its manufacturing and fishing industries to migrant workers, salaries have remained stagnant, Hsu said, adding that an industry's reliance on cheap migrant labor is a sign that it is "more or less dead."

Wu Jing-ru (吳靜如), a researcher at the Taiwan International Workers' Association, cited MOL statistics showing that local workers' salaries have stagnated and have occasionally fallen, since the admission of new groups of migrant workers.

"This shows that the MOL's long-term policy of using low wages to cater to boosting capital has in fact been detrimental to the entire labor force," Wu said.

Lennon Ying-dah Wong (汪英達), director of the service center and shelter for migrant workers under the Serve the People Association in Taoyuan, called it "a fantasy" that bringing in migrant workers could control housing prices, since labor costs are not the main factor in their rise.

The proposal is beneficial only to employment brokers and small-scale contractors, and the ministry should instead focus on the real issues facing migrant workers, he said.

After two hours of discussion, an MOL advisory committee voted to request that the Ministry of the Interior conduct a thorough evaluation of the construction industry's labor needs and to assess the proposal from the perspective of the public good.

According to Hsueh Chien-chung (薛鑑忠), a section chief of the MOL's Workforce Development Agency who heads the committee, some advisors suggested that the expansion could be carried out on a trial basis, similar to the expansion of the number of migrant workers employed in agriculture announced in February.

However, others questioned whether a similar expansion is necessary, citing pre-COVID-19 pandemic statistics from August 2019 showing that the construction industry's 2.62 percent job vacancy rate was lower than the 2.69 percent of the service industry, he said.

Hsueh also acknowledged the position of labor groups, which have argued that the construction industry's labor shortages are the result of low wages.

Aside from the current proposal, Taiwan has twice this year lowered the requirements for hiring migrant workers on government- funded construction projects.

In March, it lowered its threshold from a project value of NT$10 billion (US$344 million) to NT$1 billion, which was lowered again to NT$100 million in August.

(By Wu Hsin-yun and Matthew Mazzetta)

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