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The 2019 Migrant Workers' March

Updated: Dec 12, 2019

It’s 12:45 and i’m rushing to Kuomintang (KMT) headquarters where people are gathering for the migrant workers’ march. I’m late and imagining how difficult tracking the marchers down might be with my terrible sense of direction when Z, a friend visiting from China, sends a message saying he just got there and things haven’t gotten underway yet. I met Z through organizing circles in Ithaca so we are using WhatsApp as opposed to Line, which is ubiquitous in Taiwan. He is visiting activists here and lying low after facing some pressure from local authorities. I slow down since i’m carrying a loaded backpack – Allison gave a talk in Taipei the evening before and i stayed overnight in the city. The December sun feels good after weeks of steady rain in Nanfang’ao, but i’m not trying to show up drenched in sweat before the march even starts.

Banner for the 2019 Migrant Workers' March

The Migrant Empowerment Network in Taiwan (MENT), a coalition of groups led by the Taiwan International Workers’ Association (TIWA), is organizing the march. Their main demand is to abolish the private labor brokerage system (廢中介) and implement direct government-to-government direct hiring (要G-to-G). This is the ninth iteration of the migrant workers’ march, which has been held every two years since 2003. The official imagery of this year’s march includes an ox and a villainous figure representing a private labor broker. The former represents a source of livelihood sold off in order for migrant workers to access the financial means to pay enormous labor broker fees.

Labor Broker and Ox

Some migrant labor activists have grown skeptical of the march and its demands. Part of this skepticism stems from a corrosive climate of pettiness in social movement organizing in Taiwan. Criticism is necessary to reflect on, and refine, the ideologies, tactics, and strategies of revolutionary theory and praxis. But social movement organizers and activists often go far beyond productive criticism by attacking and refusing to collaborate with particular individuals and organizations.

This pettiness cannot be blamed solely on partisan politics or positions on independence and unification. Individuals and groups with similar stances are also relentlessly at each other’s throats. It would be a stretch to say that activists harbor more anger towards fellow activists than towards those who exercise power to exploit and dominate. But at times it feels like organizers reserve a particularly bitter venom for the former.

During his visit to Nanfang’ao a day earlier, Z taught me the phrase “一山不容二虎” (“one mountain can’t abide two tigers”) to describe the often territorial nature of social movement organizing in Taiwan. This toxic environment should not be reduced to power plays though. It is much more personal than that. Despite what hegemonic ideologies teach, politics are fundamentally matters of the heart, and it is those who are closest to us that are capable of hurting us the most. It often feels like there are a lot of bruised egos from past experiences in the relatively small spaces of movement organizing in Taiwan. In any case, there are legitimate reasons to offer friendly criticism of the politics of the migrant workers’ march.

I get to KMT headquarters just before 1 and people are still milling around. Peels of laughter fill the air as people point out festive costumes and creative marching gear that catch their eye. A group holding a banner in Thai is wearing white quarter masks evoking the phantom of the opera. Others are dressed in homemade slip-overs with messages scrawled in bahasa Indonesia on multi-colored squares of fabric. Vampires are a recurring theme. I spot people sporting ghoulish face paint wrapped in white sheets with red streaks and “Agency” written in bold blue lettering.

Near the stage is a massive papier-mâché head with black cloth flowing from its neck in thick strips attached to numerous orange hands. I learn later that this is meant to symbolize a labor broker, with dollar signs as pupils representing labor brokers’ insatiable greed. A row of ox and labor broker heads on pikes draws plenty of attention from march-goers. Added to this are the banners and flags of organizations supporting the march, a standard of public actions in Taiwan, fluttering in the noon sunlight. People armed with cameras dart in and out among the crowd. I recognize a reporter who covers migrant labor issues and we greet each other before he rushes off to snap more photos.

Papier-mâché Labor Broker

KMT legislative candidate and convener of the Taiwan Labor Welfare Alliance Wang Yu-wen (王裕文) comes out to meet the marchers after a series of speeches in Mandarin, bahasa Indonesia, Tagalog, Vietnamese, and Thai. Wang fails to acknowledge migrant workers in his welcoming remarks, referring instead to “friends in attendance” (在場的朋友們). Chen Hsiu-lien of TIWA rebukes him for this, making a general distaste for politicians forcefully clear. Stating his support for abolishing private labor brokers, Wang leads the crowd in chanting the marches’ slogans – “廢仲介, 要G-to-G” – which is met with a lackluster response.

Wang’s oversight crystallizes Taiwanese society’s patronizing attitude towards migrant workers. Excluded from government forums, discounted in social movement organizing, and infantilized in public discourse, migrant workers are generally talked about and for with seemingly no awareness that migrant workers exist as real people.

KMT Legislative Candidate Wang Yu-wen (王裕文)

The reception is no better at the next stop, the headquarters of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). It’s already well past 1:30 and, although the crowd has swelled with new participants, many people are hanging around the edges smoking or sitting on a curb at the edge of a park opposite DPP HQ. DPP spokeswoman Lee Ming-li (李明俐) receives the marchers. She gives a milquetoast response to the demands, arguing that the Taiwanese government is helpless to abolish private labor brokers in the face of resistance from the governments of labor-sending countries.

Some migrant labor advocates echo this pessimism regarding the feasibility of establishing G-to-G direct hiring. They point out that the Taiwanese government has already explored the possibility of establishing G-to-G direct hiring and, indeed, faced resistance from the representative offices of labor-sending countries. Labor brokerage is an exceedingly lucrative venture and there are powerful vested interests in favor of maintaining the current system. The ox head imagery used in the march, for example, can also be taken to represent “cow heads” (牛頭), or powerful local labor recruiters, who operate in rural villages in countries of origin and exert influence on government policy. Collusion and blurred boundaries between labor brokers and public officials is not a monopoly of Taiwan.

A defeatist reading of the Taiwanese government’s ability to establish G-to-G direct hiring downplays the efficacy of collective organizing. Still, there are more damaging criticisms of the demand to implement G-to-G direct hiring. Labor movement activists point out, for example, that labor brokers play an indispensable role within the guest worker program. There are serious questions regarding the government’s capacity to replace the function of private labor brokers. More importantly, it is doubtful whether replacing private labor brokers with government agencies would improve the living and working conditions of migrant workers given the state’s active role in cheapening and disciplining migrant workers for the benefit of Taiwanese capital.

An alternative approach to transforming relations of exploitation and domination is to erode the conditions fostering the existence of migrant labor brokers. This would entail allowing migrant workers to change employers at will, eliminating labor market restrictions that limit migrants to jobs in care work, manufacturing, construction, and fishing/agriculture, and securing migrants’ rights to social welfare benefits and protections regardless of employment status. Protecting migrant workers’ fundamental human right of mobility without fear of deportation would go a long way towards undercutting the role of labor brokers. Labor brokers exercise tremendous power over migrant workers because of the precarious legal status of the latter. It is utterly indefensible to use unfreedom - the requirement of being bound to an employer for residency status and social protection while restricting the right to change employers - to exploit migrant workers. Several of these demands, such as eliminating the cap on total years working in Taiwan, have already been made by migrant workers and were visible on banners at the migrant workers’ march.

Placard Demanding the Elimination of Maximum Years

After a brief stop at the DPP HQ, we continue on to the Ministry of Labor (MoL), the terminal stop. A stage has already been set up when we arrive and there are police officers lining the entrance to the MoL building. The crowd has thinned out somewhat at this point, although the atmosphere is still festive. People are anticipating the theatrics with the papier-mâché labor broker as organizers summarize the demands of the march and give closing speeches. Members of the International Socialist Forward distribute leaflets and talk with folks, and a reporter asks to interview a group with signs demanding that marchers “stand with Yuli” in reference to the deportation of an Indonesian caregiver from Hong Kong. The grand finale of the march involves tearing apart the papier-mâché labor broker in an act of catharsis.

There is much to be said for coming together across socio-cultural boundaries to organize the migrant workers’ march and claiming space in the city through visible collective presence. Nevertheless, the failure to articulate viable paths forward is a missed opportunity. More specifically, organizers of the march put forward demands but failed to propose a timeline or road map for future steps. Organizers of the Black freedom struggle understood the importance of embodying a clear political vision in all aspects of life - from the day to day to mass demonstrations. This includes not only making a demand, but also proposing a hoped for response from particular actors along with a deadline for action in the context of the latter. In her autobiography, Grace Lee Boggs observed that,

“… every demonstration has to conclude with something very specific, very concrete for people to do. Otherwise, you are just getting people all fired up and disempowering them because you are not providing them with a way to make a difference and thereby discover their own powers.”

Organizers could have, for instance, demanded that the MoL announce a date for an open forum to address the demand to abolish the private labor brokerage system before the end of the year. Including a credible threat matching the strength of the movement in the event that the MoL failed to do so would be crucial.

The MoL responded to the migrant workers’ march with a blasé reference to the free market. Some commenters suggest that the state has failed to respond to the demand to abolish private labor brokers because migrant workers lack the right to vote. This perspective fetishizes bourgeoisie liberal democracy and cannot account for the fact that governments act against the interests of voters all the time – by appropriating land, providing tax exemptions for corporations and the wealthy, mindlessly increasing the military budget, cutting social benefits and protections, etc. Instead, the MoL’s utter dismissal of the migrant workers’ march by alluding to the free market makes sense in the context of grounded class struggle. In the absence of a concrete demand, the MoL has no reason to respond against its interests and the interests of capital. As Frederick Douglass famously noted, “power concedes nothing without a demand.” And as the limitations of the migrant workers’ march make clear, demands must be backed with collective power.

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