Taiwan might have a budding reputation for being a beacon of liberal democracy and human rights, but November saw some shocking tragedies that exposed severe domestic problems.

It was bad enough that a female legislator suddenly reported having been violently assaulted by her ex-boyfriend at the end of the month, but this was preceded by the death of a convenience store clerk who was killed by a customer who objected to being told to wear a mask. 

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Taiwanese legislator Kao chia-yu. Photo: Kao Jia-yu via Facebook.

When Legislator Kao Chia-yu reported to the police that she had been physically assaulted by her ex-boyfriend, that was terrible news in itself. But the fact that it had actually taken place almost three weeks before, and that she had allegedly been confined to a hotel room for several days by her attacker after the attack was just as appalling. In addition, she had reported the violent assault only after a local magazine published an article about it earlier that same day. 

It is understandable that sometimes women who suffer domestic violence might feel afraid or shamed into keeping silent, but if even a national politician feels intimidated enough to refuse to go to the police right away, that is a sad state of affairs.

What made it even more worrying is that Kao is not just a legislator, but a high-profile politician considered a rising star in the ruling DPP who often appears in the media.  The abuser was soon arrested and is being held by the police, but his past soon became public.

The man had also assaulted an ex-girlfriend, a single mother, and threatened her child. He was reported to have kept compromising photos and videos of exes and threatened them with this material. The attacker has also been alleged to be friends with several DPP legislators, after photos surfaced online of him posing with them on various occasions.

aTaiwanese lawmaker Kao Chia-yu sustained injuries after she was assaulted by a former partner.
Taiwanese lawmaker Kao Chia-yu sustained injuries when she was assaulted by a former partner. Photo: Kao Chia-yu’s office.

This raises a lot of serious questions, especially when one considers that Kao’s party leader happens to be the president Tsai Ing-wen. As Taiwan’s first female head of state, Tsai has often been held up as an example of how strong women’s rights are in Taiwan. But Tsai’s response to this case has been disappointingly low-key, reportedly just a statement issued through her spokesman. 

On the surface, Taiwan does seem like a very safe place, especially for women, except that horrible crimes do happen. Domestic violence is also prevalent, with over 178,000 cases reported for 2020, which was up significantly from the roughly 161,000 reported in 2019, according to health and welfare ministry figures. This compares to 132,155 cases in Japan from April-November 2020, 50,000 cases in South Korea for 2019, and 2,601 “spouse/cohabitant battering” cases in Hong Kong for 2020. 

A recent partner violence survey conducted by the same Taiwan ministry also showed that one in five female respondents in Taiwan reported having experienced abuse by their partners at some point in their lives. 

Besides Kao’s shocking assault, Taiwan was rocked by a horrible murder on November 21 when a convenience store clerk was stabbed to death by a customer angered at having been told to wear a facemask in keeping with Covid-19 regulations. 

As terrible as this tragedy was, it was not a one-off, but the most violent in a spate of attacks on convenience store clerks in recent months, which prompted the police to announce they would start conducting late-night patrols of convenience stores.

While the other attacks did not result in deaths, one female clerk had her eyes gouged badly enough that she reportedly suffered serious damage to her vision. This is really a deep shame since convenience store clerks are not well paid but are among the most essential workers in Taiwanese society. These stores are open 24 hours daily, even during typhoons and holidays, and perform many “extra” services for their customers, including making coffee and sorting delivery parcels for patrons to pick up. 

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Taiwanese legislator Kao Chia-yu (right). Photo: 反光鏡的視野 via Flickr.

Physical attacks on workers are not the only way their lives are at risk; hundreds of workers die every year from hazards encountered at work. This was announced by the opposition New Power Party when they held a press conference on November 30 urging the government to do more to protect workers.

In a grim coincidence that highlighted this problem, on that very same day, three workers died in three separate work accidents across Taiwan, including one who was sucked into a drainage pipe while working on a roadside project.

While violent attacks on store clerks and the lack of regard for worker safety may seem to be different issues, they share a core factor which is a callous disregard and exploitation of labour in Taiwan.

While this is often highlighted by the discriminatory and abusive treatment of foreign migrant workers, local labour can also be affected. Indeed, on November 20, the collapse of scaffolding at a rapid transit construction site resulted in the deaths of three workers, one from Thailand and the other two locals.

Whether it be workers’ rights and the treatment of local and foreign labourers, or domestic violence against women, these are serious problems that Taiwan seems to have a lot of trouble in resolving.

Solutions should include firming up laws on worker safety and domestic violence, with harsher penalties, clearer guidelines, and better enforcement. For instance, just on December 3, a new law came into being that specifically raised the punishment for stalking and harassment, which used to be laughably lenient. This could also be said of a lot of laws in Taiwan.

Meanwhile, companies that have repeatedly violated safety regulations are still allowed to bid for public construction contracts, a practice which opposition parties have criticised. One does not need to look hard in Taiwan cities to see construction sites with workers wearing minimal safety gear or work involving heavy equipment being done alongside road traffic and with flimsy barriers.

The significant use of migrant workers in factory, fishing and construction work needs to be more regulated to prevent abuses such as unsafe conditions, underpayment, overwork and physical abuse of workers.

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Taiwanese legislator Kao Chia-yu. Photo: Kao Jia-yu via Facebook.

Human rights are not about nice-sounding slogans or gimmicky projects, but about making sure people across society are protected and have a decent standard of life. When workers are treated as disposable and their safety disregarded, or women are subject to assault or harassment or worse while being shamed into keeping quiet, there is something seriously wrong with society.

Until these problems are seriously improved upon, all the glowing press about Taiwan’s supposedly being a liberal democratic haven must be taken with a heavy pinch of salt.

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Hilton Yip is a writer who has worked in Taipei, Beijing, and Hong Kong over the past decade. He has a strong interest in China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan issues.