Addressing Challenges Faced by Taiwan’s Migrant Workers

Taiwan has relied heavily on migrant workers who make huge contributions in the manufacturing and electronic sectors. While these workers are helping sustain the growth of Taiwan’s economy, their rights and dignity often take second place after company profits.

In general, migrant workers have faced enduring physical and emotional stress while the infrastructure for addressing their concerns remains limited and often difficult to access.

There have been complaints about migrant workers being forced to stay in overcrowded dormitories with insufficient facilities and almost no private space, exposing them to physical health problems due to the confined and sometimes squalid environments. In the era of COVID-19, these challenges remain peculiarly pressing. Workers also face harsh conditions on the job, often taking on undesirable 3D (dirty, dangerous and difficult) jobs, particularly in manufacturing and construction.

International observers have brought attention to the situation of migrant workers in Taiwan. A 2020 report on human rights practices in Taiwan by the U.S. State Department, voiced concerns on the alarming issue of “forced labor” occurring in sectors reliant on migrant workers, including domestic services, fishing, farming, manufacturing, meat processing, and construction.

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Nancy Hsu, a staff member at Brilliant Time Bookstore, which has sought to share migrant workers’ stories with the public through educational programs, said that migrant workers usually take on jobs or tasks that most Taiwanese are unwilling to do. In the words of Hsu, “With the help from migrant workers, as in-home caretakers, professional women can focus more on their ambitious goals. In Taiwan, women are primarily viewed as caregivers. So migrant caretakers could help them.”

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Migrant workers also face mental stress, not to mention the hardships of daily life. Anthika Manowong, assistant professor in the department of Southeast Asian studies at Wenzao Ursuline University of Languages, told the author in an interview that migrant workers face emotional stress due to unfair treatment and the lack of effective channels to communicate their concerns.

Essentially, “language barriers have constrained migrant workers from communicating with their employers, and accidents happen occasionally due to the misunderstanding between blue-collar workers and their bosses,” Anthika clarified her observations.

Participating in social activities is also a challenge for migrant workers. Suchawadee Japue, who worked at a Taipei-based employment service agency for a year, said that migrant workers found it virtually impossible to pursue language classes or leisure activities, as they are overwhelmed with work and have trouble reaching out to Taiwanese people.

According to Suchawadee, “They just come to work, and then get back to dormitories or logging houses to sleep.” To migrant workers, socialization with the Taiwanese community and facing unfair treatment or judgment are antecedents of psychological distress.

The grievances about everyday wellbeing voiced by migrant workers are just the tip of the iceberg. Underneath poor labor conditions and the lack of social engagement is skepticism found among a large part of the Taiwanese society. These contested issues concerning the rights and benefits of migrant workers are deeply embedded within the context of Taiwan’s society, and have influenced various aspects of the archipelago’s cultural, economic, and political life.

Hsu shared her observation that Taiwanese people ignored or pretended not to see migrant workers as if they had nothing to do with them. There are many migrant workers in Taiwan, and people can encounter them in the market, on the way to work, or in many other places, but, in the words of Hsu, “Most of us ignore their existence. We seldom truly see them.”

Kuei (阿桂), while hosting the author at the Brilliant Time Bookstore, explained that most Taiwanese people are not familiar with Southeast Asian culture, rendering their understanding of people from the region superficial. He further shared his experience: “Sometimes, Taiwanese people may have negative impressions of migrant workers. For instance, my grandma once told me: ‘Remember to lock your bicycle. Otherwise, migrant workers may steal it. They look dirty, and I can’t understand what they are talking about.’”

However, poll data studying attitudes from nationals vis-à-vis migrant workers in Taiwan is limited. The November 2019 survey exploring Taiwanese perceptions on immigration, including framed questions on the immigration of Southeast Asian workers, conducted by associate professor Timothy S. Rich at Western Kentucky University, has been a rare exception.

The lack of updated studies on this topic is a major hindrance to the pursuit of a nuanced understanding of migrant workers, and has slowed down the process of updating programming to help them with physical and mental challenges.

Studying public attitudes toward migrant workers could serve as crucial leverage for initiatives for eradicating discriminatory treatment, enhancing perceptions, and strengthening the protective treatment of migrant workers. This is the very first step toward concrete measures to help migrant workers in law and policy.

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Nevertheless, the Taiwanese government has not paid sufficient consideration to migrant workers. Put differently, the topic of migrant workers has been neglected by the incumbent administration. In her 2020 inaugural address, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen made a bold claim to “globalize Taiwan’s workforce,” but migrant workers were absent from her speech.

The Tsai administration should include migrant workers in its New Southbound Policy (NSP), a flagship policy adopted in 2016 to enhance Taiwan’s ties with 18 countries in Southeast Asia, including the ASEAN member states. According to data released by Taiwan’s Ministry of Labor in October 2021, there are 680,517 migrant workers working in Taiwan. All of them come from Southeast Asian countries, including Indonesia (35.36 percent), Vietnam (35.05 percent), the Philippines (21.17 percent), and Thailand (8.42 percent).

At the fifth anniversary of the NSP organized in August 2021, both Taiwanese officials and scholars underscored that the people-centric value of the NSP should remain the nucleus of Taiwan’s strategy of enhancing ties with its regional partners and like-minded countries. But people like migrant workers are excluded from Taiwan’s ambitious strategy. Since there has been an ongoing discussion about the need for a NSP 2.0, intended to be implemented in 2022, migrant workers should be included within the improved version of the NSP. Recognizing the important role of migrant workers in the updated version of the NSP could help forge greater ties with these countries while underlining Taiwan’s priority of boosting people-to-people linkages with its partners.

In general, the Taiwanese authorities did step in to help migrant workers. Both central and local governments have been providing free Mandarin Chinese and Taiwanese Hokkien classes, hosting cultural events, depicting migrant workers’ lives and broadcasting their unique voices via exhibitions. However, most migrant workers are too busy to pursue language classes, which have made their possession of adequate Mandarin ability virtually unattainable.

Systemic obstacles have prevented migrant workers from seeking language classes. For domestic care workers, being excluded from the Labor Standard Act granted them no equal legal protections and rights, such as no regulation on maximum weekly working hours, as those of locals or migrants working in other sectors. For migrant workers in manufacturing, their lives are confined to factories and dorms, with limited access to information and educational activities. In both cases, forced overtime has been an enduring issue that migrant workers have claimed and voiced protests, calling for the inclusion of two days off per week in Taiwan’s regulations.

Additionally, cultural events and exhibitions could very easily turn into instances of cultural appropriation and tokenism as culture is hard to manage through top-down solutions. While cultural events could promote the multi-dimensional image of migrant workers and enrich Taiwanese people’s perceptions of foreign workers, they could hardly improve or change the root of migrant workers being treated unfairly.

Therefore, the Taiwanese government’s cultural programming should be geared towards a meaningful inclusion of migrant workers in the local community’s social, educational, and cultural activities. By participating in social and cultural lives of Taiwan, migrant workers could have their voices heard in a more nuanced way.

Enriching the lives of migrant workers, by nature, is the enhancement of human rights — a strategy of defining Taiwanese values, as stated by Tsai. The year 2022 could be an opportune time for the incumbent government to ease lingering pressures on migrant workers.