South-East Asian migrant workers in Taiwan
Every “Westerner” in Taiwan probably knows what it means to be treated as a first-class foreigner.
So we (I am writing this from my personal POV) behave clumsy most of the time, do not have 5000 years of culture and our languages are not as sophisticated as Chinese, but hey – white skin means we all speak English perfectly, make tons of money and look like Hollywood stars, doesn’t it? So despite widespread latent scepticism towards foreigners, we get by quite well.
But there is another group of foreigners in Taiwan that far outnumbers us. Only we tend not to notice them so much. Those are the foreign workers from Taiwan’s poor neighbouring countries, brought in to work in factories, construction, as maids and caregivers. Basically, they are here to do the jobs the Taiwanese are not willing to do themselves, at least not for the wages being paid.
Statistics on foreign labor in Taiwan
According to the Taiwan’s official government statistics (Update: numbers for 2014), there are currently more than 550,000 foreign workers in Taiwan. About half of them work in manufacturing and construction, the other half does social work, so the gender ratio is about balanced. Most are Indonesians, Vietnamese, Filipinos or Thai. This number does not include the “foreign wives”, so the actual number of foreigners from poorer countries looking for a brighter future in Taiwan is even greater.
Discrimination and racism not unheard of
Now it would be nice if Taiwan’s society, known for its overall kindness, would extend their hospitality to each and every one who choses to come here to make a living, wouldn’t it? Unfortunately, this is not always the case.
Instead, many foreign workers in Taiwan apparently encounter exploitation, prejudices and sometimes open racism on a daily basis. A Catholic priest and professor puts it like this:
Even students who appear to be open-minded on such controversial issues as abolition of the death penalty or gender equality tend to react angrily when I suggest that too many Taiwanese employers routinely look down upon or flagrantly mistreat workers from Asian countries such as the Philippines, Vietnam, and Indonesia.
Issues that touch on the treatment of laborers belong in an ethics course as examples (often glaringly obvious) of behavior that offends principles like the dignity of the human person, fairness, and respect.
(…) at least some employers intimidate and control foreign workers by seizing control of their passports and, sometimes, their cell phones. (…) I know of a couple who once hired a worker for care-giving, but insisted she could not leave their home alone. The bosses told me they feared their worker would meet other workers and compare her situation with theirs, and return to them “unhappy.”
Just recently, the news that many employers force Indonesian Muslim employees to eat pork made headlines. Then there are the government’s plans to scrap the minimum wage requirements for foreign workers. One Western foreigner nailed it in this letter to the Taipei Times:
If, as I once read, we are to judge a society’s level of civilization by how it treats its most vulnerable members, then Taiwan is failing spectacularly. Taiwan’s migrant workers should be given medals and awards for what they have contributed to society here, not further reductions in barely subsistence-level wages — but then such actions show us just how far the present government is prepared to stoop to pay back its corporate masters.
Supporting migrant workers in Taiwan
There are actually organizations in Taiwan trying to make a difference, first and foremost the Taiwan International Workers’ Association (TIWA) that is organizing demonstrations and press conferences and advocating foreign workers’ rights.
TIWA chairperson Ku Yu-ling (顧玉玲) said the root of the problem lay in the government repeatedly delaying including migrant caregivers under the Labor Standards Act (勞動基準法) to protect their basic working rights.
As a result, caregivers are often forced to put up with poor working conditions, such as doing things that are against their religious beliefs or working for long periods of time with no days off or adequate time to rest.
Photo exhibition in Taipei
There are two reasons I am writing on this subject now. First, I just returned from a photo exhibition TIWA put up that depicts scenes from foreign workers’ life in Taiwan. I had lots of time to take a good look at the photos – I was the only one there. Little wonder, since the exhibition is tucked away in a basement corner of an expensive shopping mall near Taipei 101.
So I want to encourage everyone to go and see this exhibition. It’s only on display until May 31, and you find it on the B2 floor of the Shinkong Mitsukoshi in Xinyi, in the A9-building. There also seem to be photos on display in Ximen’s Cinema Park (which is currently being revitalized as a public art space), but I have not been there yet. More information on the exhibitions (in Chinese) on the TIWA website.
The other reason is that there is a fine movie playing right now called “Pinoy Sunday” that I cannot recommend highly enough. It focusses on two Philippino workers in Taipei on their day off. While the story superficially is about their attempts to bring a red sofa, discarded by a rich Taiwanese couple, back to their factory dorm, there are lots more layers to it. You get to se the microcosm of “Little Manila” on Zhongshan North Rd., where the workers spend their free Sundays. And while racism or discrimination is not at the story’s center, there are enough awkward situations and remarks to make you understand that being a foreign worker in Taiwan is probably not an altogether pleasant experience.
There is a fine review of “Pinoy Sunday” in the Taipei Times, and a letter by Dan Bloom who argues it deserves an Oscar nomination. Most important, there is the official website that tells you where and when you can see it. And you really should hurry, because it’s no blockbuster, and right now there are only three cinemas left screening it (two in Taipei, one in Tainan).
Go see the exhibition, watch the movie, and keep in mind: Most foreigners in Taiwan are too busy working in factories, building apartment houses or MRT lines or caring for old people to idle away their time writing or reading blogs like this. They really deserve our sympathy, solidarity and, where possible, support.
How can we do this? Suggestions are welcome.
English posts you might want to have a look at:
- Taiwanese Diaoyutai activist trusts Beijing more than Tokyo (video interview)
- Police chase away anti-Falun Gong protesters in Taipei
- Taiwanese girls dating Western foreigners. What is a Xicanmei 西餐妹?
- Taiwan’s interior minister Lee Hong-yuan is not your typical politician
- Taipei Dome construction. How Taipei citizens do not get a second forest park, but just another shopping mall
- Jingmei Prison shows how Taiwan does not deal with its past