Has Tsai's New Southbound Policy Opened the Floodgates to Exploitation?

Has Tsai's New Southbound Policy Opened the Floodgates to Exploitation?
Credit: Reuters / TPG
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Recent cases of alleged labor abuse raise serious questions of whether the policy exploits by design.

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In a recent interview with CNN, President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) warned of the threat posed by Beijing to the global world order, urging the democratic world to stand with Taiwan. “If it’s Taiwan today, people should ask who’s next?” she said. “Our challenge is whether our independent existence, security, prosperity and democracy can be maintained. This is the biggest issue for Taiwan.”

Under Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), Taiwan has asked global protectors of democracy and human rights to recognize and support its plight. As a country priding itself on it own protection of human rights, however, Taiwan has categorically failed to protect the rights of its 700,000 Southeast Asian migrant workers and its rapidly growing number of international students.

Tsai’s signature New Southbound Policy, which aims to bolster ties with South and Southeast Asian countries and promote people-to-people exchanges, has increasingly been spotlighted as a prime engine of exploitation. New avenues have been opened which have allowed bad actors to recruit international students to problematic work-study programs and potentially abuse group tourist visa schemes for human trafficking purposes. It raises the question: Is this a bug or a feature? A January Taipei Times editorial called on Taiwan to “stop the abuse of a well-intended system.” But the prevalence of this abuse, and the governmental disinterest in reforming the systems which have long enabled it, raise questions of how well-intended this system truly is for migrant workers and international students.

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Credit: Taiwan Presidential Office
Tsai Ing-wen touts the New Southbound Policy at the Yushan Forum in October 2018.

The policy has gained plaudits from observers in Taiwan and internationally as a means of reorienting Taiwan’s economy towards the region’s emerging markets and away from reliance on China. These emerging markets have long supplied Taiwan with migrant workers. The overwhelming majority of these workers come to Taiwan via third-party brokerage agencies, operating in Taiwan and in their home countries, which are continually cited for charging high and arbitrary fees that the U.S. Department of State’s latest Human Rights Report for Taiwan, released in April 2018, said leave workers “vulnerable to debt bondage.”

Third-party operators have recently been pinpointed as intermediaries between universities and factories which hire international students under arrangements legislators from both major political parties have said are exploitative. On Monday, three Filipino graduate students at Yu Da University of Science and Technology (YDU) said they were forced to work at a tile factory for up to 40 hours a week under coercive contracts. (The organizer has claimed innocence and the school has apologized.) It’s the third such case since November, when over 40 Sri Lankan students at the University of Kang Ning were allegedly forced to work in slaughterhouses. In December, a legislator accused six universities of tricking Indonesian international students into low-paying jobs. And on Wednesday, an ad from Tungnan University circulated online which bragged to companies of the “perks” of hiring foreign students from South and Southeast Asia: They “like working overtime” and can do “taxing, filthy and dangerous shift work” as they are “highly cooperative,” the ad reads.

Disturbingly, the cases have followed similar patterns. In the cases involving Filipino and Indonesian workers, program organizers arranged for other students in the program to speak on their behalf and deny the allegations made by their classmates. Taiwan’s Ministry of Education vowed to investigate the accused schools and urged other students with complaints to call a hotline.

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Credit: CNA
Filipino students accused their broker and school of an employment scam on Monday, Mar. 4.

This pattern is all too familiar to migrant worker advocates, who have long called for an overhaul of Taiwan’s third-party brokerage system. Countries such as South Korea have banned third-party agencies due to similar abuses in favor of a centrally managed direct hiring system, under which workers do not have to take out loans for recruitment fees and are not charged arbitrary sums for things such as electricity, food and transportation to the hospital. Some Taiwanese companies directly hire workers from the Philippines, but they constitute the overwhelming minority of foreign workers in Taiwan.

Groups such as the Taiwan International Workers Association (TIWA) have argued against the brokerage system for decades. Last Sunday, Taipei NGO house held a forum titled “To Abolish or Not to Abolish the Private Broker System?” Attendees heard testimony from migrant workers, academics and brokers themselves. The Ministry of Labor (MOL), which regulates the brokerage system, was invited to send a representative. It declined the offer.

In 2017, Rosemary Chen wrote in The News Lens that the New Southbound Policy, for its much-celebrated talk of engagement with South and Southeast Asia, showed “Taiwan’s failure to address problems of migrant workers on its own shores.” (It also fails to address problems off its own shores: Taiwan’s massive high seas fishing industry, which employs as many as 140,000 Southeast Asian fishermen, has long been a hotbed of physical abuse, human trafficking and financial exploitation.)

The policy has also been criticized for failing to include human rights elements in its engagement with states, such as the Philippines and Myanmar, where rights are not sufficiently protected. Taiwan was criticized by rights groups for deporting a Filipino drug suspect to his home country in July. The United States has refused to deport Filipinos with drug convictions to the country out of fear they could face torture or extrajudicial murder under the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte.

The New Southbound Policy’s absence of stated concerns for the rights of South and Southeast Asians in Taiwan calls into question whether Taiwan’s efforts to brand itself as welcome to citizens from New Southbound countries are truly geniune. It also raises concerns that the policy may be an engine for further work arrangements which enable the exploitation of a growing migrant workforce in Taiwan.

In April 2018, Taiwan officially became an aged society, meaning over 14 percent of the population is older than 65. By 2026, Taiwan will become a hyper-aged society, with over 21 percent of the population consisting of senior citizens. Taiwan also has one of the world’s lowest birthrates – as of October, its birthrate of 1.13 percent was the third-lowest in the world.

Taiwan thus needs two things: More caregivers, and more workers for labor-intensive environments such as factories, construction and agriculture.

The New Southbound Policy has coupled with existing schemes to bring workers and students to Taiwan and attempted to increase Taiwan’s visibility in South and Southeast Asian nations. It also aims to foster closer relations with governments of these states, many of whom facilitate the mass export of labor to countries around the world. (For instance, about 2.3 million Filipinos work abroad. Their remittances have always been critical to the country’s economy.)

Ideally, Taiwan would work to sign memorandums of understanding (MOUs) with these states to facilitate direct hiring schemes and ensure that migrant workers are not charged arbitrary and unfair fees, are guaranteed safe working conditions and fair working hours, and are granted access to resources, governmental and otherwise, that handle complaints of work abuse, sexual harassment and financial exploitation. This would ensure that Taiwan can fulfill the gaping holes in its labor force with a population of fairly treated foreign workers.

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Credit: Lordcolus @ Flickr CC BY 2.0
Taiwan's New Southbound Policy fails to protect South and Southeast Asian migrant workers and students.

At present, Taiwan is far from this scenario. Migrant workers at Sunday’s forum said that, when they speak with brokers about terms of employment and payment, they are made to switch off their phones so there can be no record of their conversation. Workers allege that brokers take away the pamphlets they receive upon arrival at the airport, which contain important information such as phone numbers for labor hotlines. They repeated long-standing allegations that brokerage firms are not seriously evaluated by the Ministry of Labor, which the Control Yuan criticized in December for being understaffed.

The government is now rolling out a plan which would allow workers in the agriculture and heavy industry sectors to be contracted to an intermediary and “dispatched” to multiple workplaces. Labor groups have argued this arrangement increases the risk of injury and further promulgates a culture of treating migrant workers as commodities, a common criticism of Taiwan’s culture of hiring from South and Southeast Asia.

The above only pertains to migrant workers in Taiwan and covered by the Labor Standards Act (LSA). Life for migrant fishermen uncovered by the act, or for illegal foreign workers in Taiwan (many victims of human trafficking, many “runaway” workers who leave their jobs due to high debt to brokers or allegations of abuse), can be even worse.

Taiwan’s New Southbound Policy has never put forth a clear, sound intention to protect the rights of the country’s migrant workers. South and Southeast Asians in Taiwan often live on the periphery of society, working long hours and not commonly mingling with Taiwanese even though they often learn Mandarin or Taiwanese. If Taiwan wants to show the world it is a friendly and accommodating society for the people – not just the economies – of New Southbound countries, it must bring migrant workers off the periphery of Tsai Ing-wen’s signature policy.

Read Next: In Taiwan, Southeast Asian Migrant Detainees Must Pay for Their Own Food

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