Meet the Foreign Workers Stepping in to Care for Taiwan's Aging Population

Meet the Foreign Workers Stepping in to Care for Taiwan's Aging Population
Siti Djunaidah. | Credit: J. Zach Hollo
Why you need to know

Care for Taiwan’s elderly used to be a family responsibility, but demographic upheavals and urbanization have ushered in an era of domestic caregivers from Southeast Asia. A look into that industry offers a snapshot of isolation, economic desperation, and mutual culture shock.

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After two years working as a domestic caregiver, Siti Djunaidah knows she’s not allowed to be angry. She lives with a lone 94-year-old Taiwanese woman she refers to as Ama, which means grandma in Taiwanese. Djunaidah, 46, speaks Mandarin but knows very little Taiwanese, Ama’s only language. When communication errors occur, Ama lashes out. But for Djunaidah, it’s just part of the job.

“One day she’ll be yelling at me, the next day she’ll have forgotten all about it,” Djunaidah said. “It’s okay. Old people are like this.”

Djunaidah and Ama inhabit the family’s ancestral home, a humble one-story house in a bucolic village near the city of Nantou in western Taiwan. Djunaidah’s job is all-consuming. She must do all the household chores as well as cook Ama’s meals and help her bathe once every three days. Djunaidah must watch Ama virtually all the time to be ready to respond if an injury occurs. They even sleep in the same bed, so Ama won’t roll off.

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Credit: J. Zach Hollo
Siti Djunaidah, right, gives Ama medicine.

Djunaidah makes US$560 (NT$17,300) per month, well above Indonesia’s average income of less than US$300. She sends about half her earnings to family and saves the rest. Her husband and three daughters live in Indonesia's Central Java province. When Djunaidah first left for Taiwan about eight years ago, her daughters were eight, 10 and 12 years old, and the family was in dire need of money. “In Indonesia, I didn’t have enough money to provide for my children,” said Djunaidah. “In Taiwan I made enough money for them to have food, go to school, and buy things.”

Djunaidah is one of more than 256,000 domestic workers employed in Taiwan, over 75 percent of whom come from Indonesia, according to Taiwan’s Ministry of Labor. Their influx is brought about by poverty and insufficient job opportunities in their home countries, as well as a rapidly aging population and shifting family dynamics in Taiwan.

Since 1950, Taiwan’s total fertility rate has fallen from seven children per woman down to a replacement rate of 2.1 in 1984, and eventually settled at one, according to Taiwan’s Department of Household Registration Affairs. Taiwan now has one of the lowest fertility rates in the world, according to the World Development Council, which places the rate at 1.218. Taiwan’s National Development Council estimates that by 2026, more than 20 percent of Taiwan’s population will be 65 or older. In addition, Taiwan’s economic growth and urbanization have made families busier with work and educational obligations, thereby less able to personally care for their elders.

Djunaidah must watch Ama virtually all the time to be ready to respond if an injury occurs. They even sleep in the same bed, so Ama won’t roll off.

Upon arrival in Taiwan, women like Djunaidah usually find themselves in a world where nobody is prepared. Many Indonesian maids complete a three-month training program in Indonesia that teaches them the basics of Mandarin and elderly care. However, “they are not taught Taiwanese. So when the elderly start speaking to them in Taiwanese, gone, they have no idea what they’re saying,” said Michelle Phillips, a sociology Ph.D. candidate at the University of California at Berkeley whose research focuses on transnational domestic workers in Taiwan and Hong Kong.

According to Chuang Kuo-liang (莊國良), a senior executive officer at the Ministry of Labor, Taiwan’s linguistic diversity makes it difficult for the government to find a feasible solution to this communication problem. “Taiwan’s official language is Mandarin, but in more remote places Taiwanese is used more often, and if you are in north-central Taiwan they will speak Hakka, and in mountainous areas they speak aboriginal languages,” he said. “We recommend that when workers have a communication problem they call the 1955 hotline,” he said, adding that the hotline is not only for emergencies, but also provides simple translation services when needed.

Phillips, though, said communication is just part of the problem There’s also a huge disconnect concerning cultural expectations of criticism: In Indonesian culture, direct criticism and blaming is rare, whereas in Taiwan, people don’t shy away from rebuking others. “That is something that the Indonesians do not do,” she said. “It is something that is very inappropriate and highly offensive in their culture. And that can be very scary for them, when they first encounter that. And the only way they know how to deal with it honestly is to stay silent.”

On the other end of the transaction, “the employers have a maid plopped on them and they have no idea what to do with her. They have no preparation in her culture. They have no preparation in her language. And honestly, they’re not prepared just to be managers,” Phillips said.

All these difficulties come before instances of actual mistreatment, which, while not the norm, are also not uncommon. Wu Jing-ru (吳靜如), a researcher at Taiwan International Workers’ Association (TIWA), an NGO that advocates for migrant workers’ rights in Taiwan, said they encounter more than 10 cases of mistreatment per week. According to Wu, most of these cases involve unpaid salaries, physical abuse, and being overcharged when transferring jobs.

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Credit: Nick Aspinwall / File
Wu Jing-ru of Taiwan International Workers Association.

Women like Djunaidah who have traveled to Taiwan to care for the elderly often leave their own kids behind. According to Yuherina Gusman, an Indonesian Ph.D. student at National Chengchi University in Taipei who is writing her thesis on children left behind in Indonesia by parents who work abroad, these “left behind children” often experience poor early childhood development, underperform at school, and feel an increased sense of loneliness and distress. This eventually leads to a greater risk of drug addiction and sexual violence.

The system of migrant labor has upended Indonesia’s traditional patriarchy, with women becoming the absent breadwinners and men left behind to care for the children. According to Gusman, Indonesian fathers often underperform as primary caregivers. In other cases, both parents go abroad for work, leaving children to live with extended family or at boarding schools.

More than nine million Indonesians work abroad, according to the World Bank. “There is no exact number of how many children, but it’s predicted about 11 million Indonesian children [are now] left behind,” Gusman said. “These children in the future will be the hopes of our country. If they have these kinds of problems, it’s also a big question for us. What will the future of our country be?”

Indonesia’s ‘left behind children’ often experience poor early childhood development, underperform at school, and feel an increased sense of loneliness and distress.

The reason so many Indonesian women, and migrant workers generally, make such sacrifices to go abroad is simple: “It’s the easiest way to find a large sum of money,” said Gusman. She said Indonesian women who come to Taiwan to work as domestic caregivers make about five times more than they would for similar work in Indonesia.

Some Indonesian caregivers, though, said they did not come to Taiwan simply to escape poverty. Surati – who has no surname, as is common in rural Indonesia – is 49 years old and left her husband and adult son back in a village in East Java. She said she came to Taiwan in 2017 not because she urgently needed money, but because she wanted to travel the world and get outside the house. “My husband and son wanted me to stay home,” she said. “But leaving the village made me feel empowered. I wanted to be productive.”

Surati also said she feels fortunate to work for a family that treats her well. She hasn’t faced any mistreatment, and in her interactions, she said she feels like she has been welcomed as an additional member of the family, like a niece to the grandmother she cares for and an aunt to the family’s young-adult daughter. “My own mother died when I was three months old,” Surati said. “And taking care of this grandma is like having the chance to care for my mom.”

Read Next: Southeast Asian Workers Rally to Protest Sexual Abuse, Poor Labor Standards

Editor: Nick Aspinwall (@TheNewsLens)

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