A Wake-Up Call to Improve Factory Working Procedures in a Time of Crisis

Written by Chan-Yuan Wong, Ker-Hsuan Chien, and Mei-Chih Hu.

Image credit: Worker by We Make Noise/Flickr, license CC BY-ND 2.0

As the world enters the second year of the Covid-19 pandemic crisis, Taiwan – previously acknowledged as a Covid-free nation – encountered a new outbreak in mid-May 2021. This wave of infection has been deemed critical, as the number of infection cases has surpassed 700, and the infectivity rate is as contagious as measles. To date, Taiwan encountered 635 death cases related to Covid-19 – of which 98% are attributed to the recent outbreak since 15 May 2021.

Although the number of infection cases, compared to the international level, is relatively low, this outbreak has shaken the semiconductor companies on the island and the global semiconductor production value chain. As many parts of the world are dependent on Taiwan to supply integrated circuits (ICs) and semiconductor-related processing services, a disruption of its manufacturing activities would significantly impact the current global semiconductor supply chain. In June 2021, more than 400 factory workers from Jhunan Science Park, Miaoli County, were infected with Covid-19. Out of these 400 cases, more than 80% were migrant workers from Southeast Asia. These cluster infections were mainly from King Yuan Electronics and Greatek Electronics, the IC packaging and testing companies providing services to IC design houses, including Intel, Qualcomm, NVIDIA, and MediaTek. As semiconductor packaging and testing are very labour-intensive processes, the company had capitalised on importing lower paid migrant workers from Southeast Asia to accomplish its manufacturing tasks.

As worries about a mass virus spread began to circulate, different measures were implemented by companies and local authorities to respond to the crisis, especially in the neighbouring Hsinchu Science Parks. On the government side, six COVID-19 testing stations were set up; mass testing was carried out to detect infected individuals across science parks in Taiwan. Firms were ordered to triage and isolate the workers to prevent infections. On 6 June, the incident command post established by the Central Epidemic Command Center in response to the cluster infections rolled out 5 COVID-19 control measures, including suspending works for all foreign migrant workers, placing migrant workers in group quarantine facilities or under self-isolation on-site, launching epidemiological investigations, providing medical care for all infected workers, and reducing production work. The Ministry of Labor also amended the guidelines for managing migrant workers under COVID-19, including disinfected working and dormitory areas, shutdown common areas, increased individual living space and tightened management of the dormitories. The Miaoli County Government even made a controversial move on 7 June to prohibit all migrant workers from leaving their factories and dormitories. Once the migrant workers were found outside the factories or dormitories, their employers would be fined for mismanagement. This order soon triggered strong criticism from local politicians, small businesses, and NGOs, e.g., Taiwan International Workers Association, Taiwan Association for Human Rights, etc.

On the company side, King Yuan reduced the workload, mobilised local workers to respond to the labour shortage. It also shifted part of the manufacturing activities to companies in Kaohsiung (e.g., ASE and ChipMOS) in response to the temporary suspension. Meanwhile, to cope with the governments’ demand, human resource agencies contracted to manage the migrant workers had to relocate migrant workers to other dormitory facilities. That is to say, the costs for managing migrant workers during the COVID surge are largely being passed down to the human resource agencies, which are often run with low-profit margins due to the low entry barrier of the industry. With the imperfect governing mechanism, the sudden demand for more accommodation spaces and more rigorous migrant worker management had generated new issues for migrant workers. The company’s relocation exercise was hasty and seen as “ridiculous, chaotic and inhumane”. Furthermore, given that local governments threatened employers with fines, many manufacturing employers pushed their employees to sign a declaration form acknowledging their agreement to bear the costs for quarantine, medical assistance, and any other sequential costs themselves should they contract Covid-19.

While the swift action by the government to break the chain of Covid-19 infection in the dormitories of migrant workers is commendable, some pitfalls revealed in this incident do need more scrutiny and profound change—for one, the insufficient living space for migrant workers. According to the guidelines amended by the Ministry of Labour early this year, the required average living space for each migrant worker is 3.6 square meters. This is much smaller than the similar rules in Singapore, which is 6 square meters for each migrant worker. Indeed, based on a recent report from The Reporter, in the dormitory facilities provided by King Yuan Electronics, one room is often shared by seven migrant workers. In addition, up to 119 people often share the bathrooms on the same floor. This lack of living space could increase the risk of cluster infection in the dormitories, consequently leading to production disruption. Therefore, adequate guidelines are needed to ensure the living condition for migrant workers, mitigating the risk of migrant workers having cluster infections in the future.

Secondly, there is the issue of the one-sided policy formulating process. The previously mentioned cases have shown that while the state aimed to mobilise companies as the primary vehicle to convey the responsive measures, we often found out that companies can and will pass the cost of the measures down through the supply chains onto those with lower pay: migrant workers. Therefore, we must have a more inclusive policy formulating process. Then, the governing authorities and companies can negotiate, and the related NGOs and migrant workers can have their voices heard.

Third, the discriminative attitude toward migrant workers. Though the rule that prohibited migrant workers from leaving their factories and dormitories was declared unlawful by the Ministry of Labour on 29 June, it actually reflected Miaoli Government’s discriminative attitude toward migrant workers. By treating migrant workers as one homogeneous group, regardless of their different work types and personal contact (or, more precisely, not contact) histories, policymakers can miss the chance to develop an adequate governing framework to better complement the actual situation. As for the employers and human resource agencies, they can lose orders from major buyers if they fail to follow the code of conduct made by international organisations, e.g., Responsible Business Alliance, RBA.

Taiwan is a nation that seeks a path to economic vibrancy in tandem with inclusive growth and equitable development agendas. Taiwan – a poster child of 2020 – has to some extent proven itself, boasting both a democratic, progressive society and a resilient economy in the time of crisis. That said, hasty measures in handling the relocation of migrant workers in the recent outbreak do not seem to gel with any of the nation’s aspirations. Worse, this may pave a routine towards adopting uncompassionate and unthoughtful measures whenever an outbreak occurs among working migrants.

It is understandable that a decision made by the authorities in a highly uncertain environment can be hasty and sometimes unwittingly lead to arduous and distressing consequences. In this article, we wish to highlight this critical issue that needs to be noted amidst the recent outbreak. We hope that Taiwan – with its aspiration towards an equitable and inclusive society in Asia – would rectify its measures in handling the Covid-19 outbreak among its working migrant community. Furthermore, we hope the authorities and the companies hiring migrant workers would extend their compassion and willingness to help and safeguard the wellbeing of the working migrants, especially so in a time of crisis. At the end of the day, developing proper ways of governing migrant workers will not only benefit migrant workers in the industry but also contribute to the building of resilient supply chains, preventing productive activities from future disruption due to similar incidents, and securing the supply of chips in the global production value chain.

All three authors are affiliated with the Institute of Technology Management at National Tsing Hua University, Taiwan. Chan-Yuan Wong is an Associate Professor specialising in science and technology policy and research evaluation. Ker-Hsuan Chien is an Assistant Professor focusing on socio-technical systems and regional development. Finally, Mei-Chih Hu is a Professor with expertise in innovation systems and emerging markets.

This article was published as part of a special issue on Taiwan’s Covid-19 Spike. You can find all articles in the special issue here.

Chan-Yuan Wong

Research Fellow and Codirector in Rural Development and Revitalization Research Team

Ker-Hsuan Chien

Research Fellow and Codirector in Value Chain Analysis Research Team