TAIPEI, TAIWAN — By day, agile Thai workers fashion the trestles of Taipei's mass transit system, perched over a city they may never know. At end of the workday, they are bused to compounds in faraway suburbs, where they sleep under lock and key.
With passage of the Employment Services Act, Taiwan's legislature has opened the door to so-called documented foreign workers. But conditions of the act have drawn criticism, and have the island's budding labor movement scrambling to prevent an erosion in pay and rights.
The new regulations allow large companies in select industries to employ foreign workers at pay 30% to 50% below the local rate.
In the construction sector, the workers live in camps provided by management and cannot marry, bring relatives to Taiwan or change jobs. Foreign labor is slated to play a critical role in many infrastructure projects, including a north-south freeway and a high-speed railway.
Some economists support the act in the name of freedom of movement and fair trade. Workers, they argue, should be subject to the same market forces as capital and commodities.
The reality of large-scale importation is forcing Taiwan's labor movement to review its long-standing opposition to foreign workers.
An example of the shift came in early April, when Bangkok asked Taipei to increase wages of Thai nationals in Taiwan.
The Council of Labor Affairs (COLA) responded by temporarily suspending approval for employing Thai workers and threatening to recruit labor from other countries, including Burma, Vietnam and Bangladesh.
Taiwan's National Federation of Independent Trade Unions, surprisingly, called for the government to support the Thai request. Experts say the NFITU, which represents more than a dozen labor groups, is gaining influence in Taiwan's labor movement.
"Our power is not strong enough to stop them from coming in," NFITU secretary-general Wuo Young-Ie says of foreign workers. "So we demand that they get the same pay as Taiwan workers."
The federation's call for "equal pay for equal work" extends to civil liberties like freedom of travel and the right to organize. "If you have a holiday and want to go to another city, you have to register in the police station," Wuo says. "This is unconstitutional even in Taiwan."
Officials say regulations for foreign laborers are needed. "The island's crime rate is climbing right alongside the growing foreign population," reports the Free China Journal, a government mouthpiece. "But foreigners introduced legally by the government work here under proper supervision and have caused little trouble."
At the heart of the issue is race. Critics of COLA regulations say they are the product of official xenophobia. On the labor side, organizers say many Taiwanese workers still oppose uniting with their foreign counterparts.