OPINION: Time for Taiwan to Modernize Its Views on Migrant Workers

OPINION: Time for Taiwan to Modernize Its Views on Migrant Workers
Photo Credit: Lordcolus @ Flickr CC BY 2.0
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Taiwan is a major employer of Southeast Asian migrant workers. We spoke with Archie, who has toiled in a factory for six years, and found a man not in the least bit deserving of the scorn and vitriol so often directed towards foreign workers in Taiwan.

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By Lin Shengyi (林勝毅)

The machines clang and clatter with a deafening ferocity as the factory whizzes along. Inside its walls, workers roast like turkeys in an oven in the hot summer heat. When the winter comes along, they set down their hot soy milk and watch it turn to ice the moment they start to work. This is life inside a Taiwanese industrial park – an experience shared by a decreasing number of locals, who opt out of long hours of arduous manual labor and let the tasks fall to Taiwan’s 680,000 migrant workers.

Archie, a Filipino, is one of them. Six years ago, he became the only one of his four siblings to venture to Taiwan for work. He has been working in the same factory for six years.

In Taiwan, migrant workers must sign new contracts every three years. Their jobs essentially depend on whether the owners wish to extend their employment. The amended Employment Services Act (ESA) allows workers to transfer employers after three years without restarting the costly recruitment process – but these rules are still flouted from time to time. Archie, knowing his employer is in control, has worked very hard to keep his job.

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Photo Credit: Taiwan Observer
A member of the National Home-based Worker's Union, which advocates for the rights of foreign domestic workers in Taiwan.

Archie told The News Lens that, in his hometown, his monthly wage was about NT$16,000 (US$522) – just a tad higher than the monthly salary of fresh graduates, who earn up to 20,000 Philippine pesos (about NT$14,000). In Taiwan, many migrant workers earn the monthly minimum wage of NT$22,000, before deductions to third-party brokers both at home and in Taiwan.

Archie said he is still coming out ahead. He said that, when working in the Philippines, he had to buy lunch with his own money, but this is subsidized by his factory in Taiwan, allowing Archie to save at least NT$1,000 per month – money, he told us, could allow him to eat for a couple of weeks in the Philippines. His accommodation is also provided by the company, so his rent is cheaper than it would be back home.

Archie said that he saved NT$30,000 in three years of working in Taiwan – more than enough for him to build a house in his hometown. Even if he worked for ten years back home, he said, there is no guarantee he would make anything close to the amount of money needed to build a house. He also mentioned that he would have to spend more time and money jumping through administrative hoops if he wanted to go to other countries, such as the United States – proof of past work and travel abroad is generally seen as a positive on visa applications.

Once he arrived in Taiwan, however, he quickly realized things were not as simple as he had first imagined.

The factory where he works mainly does laser cutting and employs a rotating eight-hour shift schedule. To cope with a lack of manpower, the owner might decide to immediately adjust the worker schedule – making it common to work the early shift one day, then the night shift the next. This is permissible under the current ESA and the Labor Standards Act (LSA). For Archie, it means he often goes without enough rest and has a wildly unpredictable sleep schedule. But the salary is better, so he grits his teeth and deals with it.

When Archie first started working in the factory, the heavy lifting and physical work always fell to him. If he did not do it, he would be reported to the boss. Even though there were machines and tools in the factory to help with the work, he said he had to wait until the local employees were finished before he could use them. When he finally had the chance to use the machines, his shift was almost over – leaving him little time to complete his work, and no time to even think about complaining.

Life outside of the factory was not exactly redeeming. He mentioned one incident that soured his view of Taiwan – the first time he took the bus. The driver cursed at him in Taiwanese because he did not know where the stop bell was. Even though Archie understood, he played it dumb and smiled so that others wouldn’t know – but this led to the driver making fun of him to the other passengers. Later, when a Taiwanese passenger asked the driver a question, his attitude changed completely and he was very friendly.

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Photo Credit: Migrante International
Migrant workers in Taiwan protest after filing suit against their former employer, Siliconware Precision Industries Co. Ltd. (SPIL), for labor rights violations.

Unfortunately, incidents like this are normal for migrant workers like Archie. The only thing he can do is keep swallowing these bitter pills whenever they come. He also likes to pay it forward – when a fellow countryman arrives, he takes them under his wing and tells them what they can expect in Taiwan with hopes that they will not go through the same experience.

Archie’s experiences have not all been bad, however. He said he has many happy memories in Taiwan. Every Chinese New Year, the owner gives out red envelopes on top of their wages. In the Philippines, Archie never received holiday bonuses. He has also befriended some of his Taiwanese coworkers, who bring him snacks during his night shifts and check up on him when he is sick, even taking him to the doctor when necessary. For Archie, it is easier to overcome the myriad difficulties he faces when he is consistently exposed to Taiwan’s warmer, more compassionate side.

Even though there were machines and tools in the factory to help with the work, he said he had to wait until the local employees were finished before he could use them. When he finally had the chance to use the machines, his shift was almost over.

Archie has been working in Taiwan for six years. He said he appreciates how safe Taiwan is as in the Philippines, if you look away for a split-second, something as large as a scooter can be stolen and sold before you even have time to react. Even stepping out for a smoke in a secluded area is dangerous, as you may be robbed before you finish your cigarette.

Gun violence and armed robbery are common in the Philippines, he said. Convenience and department stores are protected by armed security guards, even in safer areas like Manila’s upscale Makati district. He appreciates walking on Taiwanese sidewalks without having to clutch his valuables and keep one eye over his shoulder.

Safe sidewalks are no cure for homesickness, of course. Archie constantly keeps an eye on events in the Philippines. The Philippine government has set up a voting station in Taichung and the Taipei-based Manila Economic and Cultural Office (MECO) aids overseas Filipinos who want to vote in their country’s elections.

Archie counts himself among the many supporters of President Rodrigo Duterte, pointing to his administration’s anti-drug campaign as an example. His voice became more serious as he spoke about how rampant drug use is in his home country. Some people even steal vehicles to fuel their drug addictions, he said. Archie was adamant that reports criticizing Duterte stemmed from rumors started by his opponents. He said that Duterte’s policies have, at the very least, made workers overseas feel that their country is making progress, and given them hope for the future.

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Photo Credit: Nick Aspinwall
Activists protesting the policies of President Rodrigo Duterte meet a representative of the Manila Economic and Cultural Office (MECO) in Taipei, April 3, 2018.

Archie said he plans to continue to work in Taiwan for another six years, reaching the 12-year limit afforded to migrant workers in Taiwan. When he last visited his hometown, he saw the house built with the money he saved – the fulfillment of a childhood dream. He instantly felt that all his hard work was worthwhile. However, he is not ready to go back home once he finishes his stint in Taiwan. After his 12-year limit expires, Archie wants to work in the United States and experience a different way of life while he is still young. He also does not mind that, unlike in Taiwan, English is the lingua franca in the U.S.

Archie has a similar outlook on life to that of many young Taiwanese people. He is clearly focused on his personal goal: to work hard and make as much money as possible. He, and the hundreds of thousands of migrant workers in Taiwan who have taken the same path, were unafraid to brave unfamiliarity and find unconventional avenues to realize their dreams.

Despite unfair treatment and discrimination detailed by a never-ending cascade of media reports (in this publication and elsewhere), migrant workers are still willing to leave home and work in Taiwan. What, exactly, keeps the views towards migrant workers by Taiwan’s intolerant – people like that bus driver – so firmly entrenched in the past?

Read Next: Taiwan Is Better Than Selfish Bosses and Their Heartless Wage Threats

This article originally appeared on the Chinese-language ASEAN edition of The News Lens. The original can be found here.

Translator: Zeke Li

Editor: Nick Aspinwall