Foreign workers in Taiwan are being “imprisoned” in dormitories, banned from brushing their teeth and told they will be cremated without their families if they die from Covid-19 as factories struggle to maintain production of key microchips, it is claimed.

In efforts to keep up with the global surge in demand for consumer electronics during the pandemic, technology firms are alleged to be using fear to keep workers isolated, with some telling employees they will face financial penalties if they get infected with coronavirus.

A Telegraph investigation found labour rights squeezed in Taiwan’s lucrative semiconductor industry, including at companies such as Siliconware Precision Industries (SPIL), whose products are used in PCs and business consumer electronics, and which supplies “world-leading semiconductor design houses”.

Taiwan is the world’s largest supplier of the advanced chips vital to almost all consumer appliances. A Covid outbreak that began in May triggered fears that factory disruptions could aggravate a chip crunch already plaguing global supply chains.

But the companies’ pandemic response has highlighted questionable labour practices, and accusations of discrimination against the migrant south-east Asian workers at the core of Taiwan’s dominance of the semiconductor industry.

Through interviews with employees, rights groups, and a review of more than 20 internal and staff communications documents, The Telegraph found workers are not only being locked in their dormitories, but threatened with medical costs or even financial penalties if they get infected.

Some have been warned they could lose their job if they get sick in their free time.

An example of a message from one of the silicon chip companies prohibiting employees from even going out to purchase basic necessities

‘Your family will not even see your body’

In egregious threats, labour brokers – the gatekeepers to factory jobs – have tried to scare workers into submission.

“If you die, your body will be cremated in Taiwan immediately, your family will not even be able to see your body, and your family’s finances will be immediately disconnected,” says one message.

“If you do not die, you will be responsible for all the isolation fees during isolation, medical treatment, and other people who have been in contact with you.”

Compeq Manufacturing, which specialises in printed circuit boards, is among a number of companies to restrict workers movements.

According to an internal memo and an employee, workers are allowed out once a day, up to 90 minutes. The memo says employees must “suspend going out with non-Compeq friends”.

“We don’t understand why we have these kinds of rules. It’s frustrating us,” said the worker.

Compeq denied restricting workers’ freedom of movement and said the 90-minute rule was a recommendation and not attached to penalties. It said it followed government epidemic regulations.

A Filipina employee of ASE, the world’s largest chip packaging and testing house, claimed workers there had also been ordered to return to their dorms within an hour of their shifts and monitored by swipe cards.

Failure to comply would result in a “major demerit,” she claimed, which left many fearing for their jobs. She said employees were also banned from brushing their teeth during 12-hour shifts.

“It’s like we are put in a jail. Every move or act is controlled by the company,” she said.

ASE said its “employees have the freedom to move about, but we are encouraging them to follow the CDC advisory to stay at home/dorms and avoid unnecessary trips and group gatherings”.

It said it understood staff anxiety and had offered financial subsidies, adding that epidemic measures followed labour ministry and Centres for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines, and applied to all employees. The tooth brushing prohibition was factory-wide for hygiene reasons.

An employee getting ready for work at the Siliconware Precision Industries factory

Credit: Billy H.C. Kwok/Bloomberg

Claims of discrimination against foreign workers

The restrictions on factory workers do not apply across Taiwan, where the current soft lockdown allows freedom of movement, but appear to have been fuelled by alarm over outbreaks in four factories in northwest Taiwan, where hundreds of cases prompted the local government to lock down dorms.

Foreign workers, who come mainly from the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia and Thailand, are upset because they believe that local colleagues do not face the same curbs outside of work.

“It’s very frustrating to hear that we migrant workers experience discrimination and unequal treatment,” said the ASE employee.

Lennon Wong, an activist at the Serve the People Association, said the pandemic measures highlighted systemic discrimination against foreign workers. 

“It’s not really for epidemic prevention because it’s not scientific. How can you prevent the virus if you only ban the migrants?” he said.

SPIL, an ASE subsidiary, also uses the swipe card system to enforce dormitory lockdowns, according to internal documents.

One dormitory notice states “Staying out, going out and gatherings are prohibited” and flags that swipe records will be checked.

But it also warns employees: “If the company suffers damage (loss) due to personal factors, it will seek compensation and employees shall be punished according to the work regulations or severe special infectious pneumonia (new Covid-19) special punishment measures for epidemic.”

SPIL said it was following the CDC’s epidemic prevention principles “to protect the health of all employees regardless of nationality”

Credit: Billy H.C. Kwok/Bloomberg

‘We are also human’

SPIL said it was following the CDC’s epidemic prevention principles “to protect the health of all employees regardless of nationality”. It said “special punishment measures” also applied to all employees, but did not elaborate.

Workers would also be compensated with a bonus, food subsidies and extra insurance.

Taipei-based Cameo Communications issued a similar edict to workers. A document bearing the company logo asks workers to sign and accept financial liability if they break a company-imposed lockdown and get sick.

It holds the employee responsible for potential damages suffered by the company, including to its business image. 

At least three more documents from different factories, seen by The Telegraph, make similar demands.

Cameo said the document was a formality and it did not intend to demand compensation from workers or to shirk its own responsibility for epidemic prevention.

John Eastwood, managing partner at the Eiger law firm in Taipei, said the dorm lockdowns and financial penalties were “not defensible under Taiwan law” and suggested employers should offer incentives rather than threats to minimise exposure to Covid.

The ministry and CDC were contacted for comment.

The CDC stressed migrants were not prohibited from going out and if employers restricted their movement through “improper means” they may be “criminally liable.”

It said employers who required staff to sign an agreement accepting liability for infection would still be held responsible and could lose their licence to hire foreign workers.

“It’s really sad. We migrants contribute a lot to the economy of Taiwan. It really hurts,” said another Filipina factory worker.

“It’s really sad that they can’t treat us fairly. We are also human.”

Additional reporting Dan Olanday in Manila and Dewi Loveard in Jakarta