Taiwan’s ghastly treatment of South and Southeast Asian migrant workers and students has spent time in the news this week. Amid stories of alleged work scams targeting Filipino graduate students, a policy stating that migrant detainees must pay for their own food, and more horror stories from Taiwan’s deep sea fishing industry, one item has raised the most eyebrows: Kaohsiung Mayor Han Kuo-yu (韓國瑜) has come under fire for using a racist term to refer to Filipinos, apparently questioning whether society will accept “Marias” becoming teachers.

The term “Maria” has been used in Taiwan as a derogatory term referring to those with darker skin, usually foreign workers who are part of Taiwan’s 700,000-strong migrant workforce. Han’s comments rightly drew a vicious backlash from social media users and prominent Taiwanese personalities.

“If ‘Maria’ refers to those who work hard to earn money, raise families and pursue their dreams, then I am a ‘Maria,’ you are a ‘Maria,’ hundreds of thousands of ‘Marias’ are working to prop up Taiwan and many other countries around the world,” wrote David Liu, a writer from Kaohsiung who now lives in Sweden.


Credit: Screenshot

An ad from Tungnan University describing the 'perks' employers can enjoy by hiring foreign students.

On Wednesday, an advertisement from Tungnan University circulated online in which the school advertised its South and Southeast Asian students to employers as “highly cooperative” and willing to do “taxing, filthy and dangerous shift work.” The eight-page ad bragged that its students were cheaper than migrant workers, allowing companies to save at least NT$3,628 (US$117) per month by not paying fees for health and labor insurance.

The advertisement said students would work 20 hours a week in their first year and 40 hours a week in their second. This is illegal: International students can work no more than 20 hours a week under Taiwanese law. (The school, which said in the ad that foreign students “like working overtime,” has apologized and said all its programs are carried out in line with Taiwan’s Labor Standards Act.)

The incident follows three cases in which students from Sri Lanka, Indonesia and the Philippines – all target countries of Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) signature New Southbound Policy – accused their schools of collaborating with third-party brokerage firms to hire them out to factories and slaughterhouses, illegally withheld salary, threatened financial penalties and withdrawals of their scholarships, and subjected them to verbal and physical abuse. In one case, agencies allegedly bragged that students are more “useful” than migrant workers as they are not protected by labor laws.

If you are outraged by Han Kuo-yu’s comments, these incidents – and the longstanding plight of migrant workers in Taiwan – all deserve your attention. After all, the culture of discrimination against South and Southeast Asians in Taiwan goes far beyond Han Kuo-yu and far beyond party politics.

In January, Timothy S. Rich, an associate professor of political science at Western Kentucky University, published a survey in The Diplomat on how Taiwanese view immigration from around the world, including Southeast Asia. His survey found the following:

  • 29.8 percent of Taiwanese agree that Taiwan should encourage immigration.
  • 76 percent of Taiwanese agree that Taiwan should encourage skilled immigration.
  • 8.4 percent of Taiwanese agree that Taiwan should encourage Southeast Asian immigration.
  • 44.6 percent of Taiwanese agree that Taiwan should encourage skilled Southeast Asian immigration.

The survey also found that support for immigration decreased by 26.6 percent when the focus was on Southeast Asian immigration rather than immigration overall.

Han has attempted to explain his comments by saying, essentially, that he was speaking to the 55.4 percent of Taiwanese who do not support encouraging skilled Southeast Asian immigration and the 91.6 percent of Taiwanese who do not support encouraging Southeast Asian immigration.


Credit: Reuters / TPG

This is not just a Han Kuo-yu problem.

Where does this stem from? Of more than 770,000 foreign residents in Taiwan, over 90 percent are from Southeast Asia, according to Taiwan’s National Immigration Agency. This number is set to grow as Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) signature New Southbound Policy encourages more immigration from South and Southeast Asia to counter the loss of young Taiwanese to other countries, the country’s aging population, and Taiwan’s low birthrate.

It is critical for Taiwanese citizens, employers and lawmakers, along with governments of South and Southeast Asian countries and observers who care about the democratic perseverance of Taiwan, to ensure that Taiwan’s large South and Southeast Asian population is treated with fairness and dignity.

This has not always happened thus far. In November, one Sri Lanka student said he was sent to work at a slaughterhouse and was cheated out of part of his salary, which was withheld for “tuition fees” that the school never received. The student told United Daily News he would never trust another Taiwanese person and would not recommend Taiwan to other Sri Lankans.

In December, Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs published a video on Facebook titled “Taiwan is the Friendliest Country.” The comment section was quickly flooded with people, mostly from Southeast Asia, who said that Taiwan was, in their experience, far from “friendly.”

Taiwan’s Chinese-language and English-language media has given attention to cases of discrimination, labor violations and sexual abuse directed towards Taiwan’s South and Southeast Asian residents. However, they are commonly treated as individual cases and all too quickly forgotten. We should remember that, like similar cultures of exploitation of marginalized populations around the world, these shocking individual headlines share a common bond.

The condemnation of Han’s comments is a positive step. Let’s now make sure this is not treated as simply a Han Kuo-yu problem.

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

Editor: Nick Aspinwall (@Nick1Aspinwall)

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