Mandala came to Taiwan in 2015 from Indonesia without the ability to speak Chinese. His parents had recently passed away, leaving him in serious financial debt. He had no choice but to leave home to find work.

He was shy, quiet and often found himself overlooked by Taiwanese people. With his limited Chinese speaking ability, Mandala was restricted in expressing himself in the work environment, which frustrated his employer.

Mandala wanted to feel confident in not only speaking Chinese, but also understanding the local culture. He then walked through the doors of the One-Forty Foundation, a non-profit dedicated to Southeast Asian migrant worker issues. Starting from late July 2015, he spent over three "semesters" learning Chinese. These "semesters," also called One-Forty School, are seminars designed to teach Southeast Asian migrant workers basic information about Taiwan, the culture and help enhance their communication skills.

Mandala felt encouraged as the course progressed, and he felt his voice mattered. There was no sense of shame; the foundation remained patient and helped him grow his linguistic abilities and cultural knowledge.

The One-Forty Foundation encourages students to embrace failure. Because of this, Mandala and others in the course challenged themselves not only in the classroom but also when practicing their skills in public.

Taiwan’s population stands at roughly 24 million people, and one in every 40 people is a migrant worker like Mandala. Most are from Southeast Asia and the largest proportion of migrant workers, 240,000, are Indonesian.

Two of the main issues faced by migrant workers are the language and cultural barriers – notwithstanding that some workers have been overworked, abused and mistreated and are the victims of human trafficking. The foundation also says the absence of social integration, isolation, financial imbalances and limited interchangeable work skills contribute to the rift between workers and their employers.

Elisa Chang (張正儀), a representative from the One-Forty Foundation responsible for social media and donor relations, spoke with The News Lens International.

“Some Taiwanese and media have stereotypes and inaccurate images about [wokers],” she says. “We would like to give an opportunity for Taiwanese to get to know migrant workers.”

Chang says the poor financial status of migrant workers, rather than simply race, is a key reason why employers look down on them. Through promotional exhibitions, cultural exchange activities and articles on the foundation's website, Chang feels both sides can better understand each other.

Reaching out to migrant workers isn’t easy, she says, mostly because they appear afraid to interact. Since last year, the One-Forty Foundation has relied on ‘word of mouth’ from other migrant workers.

Once a worker has joined the foundation, he or she is taken through a series of four steps: adapt, explore, act and inspire.

“Once they ‘adapt,’ [meaning they are familiar with speaking Chinese and Taiwanese culture] the following steps will become much easier. In ‘explore’ we want to get them thinking about their future and what they can do to help their life in Taiwan be better. Basically, it’s about exploring themselves and Taiwanese society. Once they know themselves, they can ‘act,’ or put their goals into actions. Many of the migrant workers have blogs in their own language to help others like them. The final stage is ‘inspire,’ which is about letting others know about their story,” Chang says.

"Inspire" is the most crucial step, Chang believes, as each person that has gone through the earlier steps becomes an example to others.

The foundation sees helping new migrant workers as a short-term goal. In the long-term it wants to influence the older generation in Taiwan, to help breakdown negative stereotypes about Southeast Asians.

Asked what makes the One-Forty Foundation unique, Chang referred to how it, “educates not only migrant workers to learn about themselves and their goals, but also educate Taiwanese on getting a more liberal perspective on Southeast Asian migrant workers.”

Younger people in Taiwan, in Chang’s view, are already more open-minded and aware of cross-cultural interaction.

“All the people who come to our events are part of the younger generation. Now, we try to reach the older generation because they’re the decision-makers, they’re the ones who have much of the influence,” Chang says.

Thanks to the NGO’s efforts, Mandala now has a skill base to take to his workplace. He is more confident; he plays guitar in public and shares his story at One-Forty Foundation gatherings.

For Chang, and many others who assisted during his journey, Mandala’s performance serves as a model for the foundation. She feels he is finally independent. The organization’s program gave Mandala the tools to effectively express himself with employers and anyone else he meets.

“[Mandala’s success] is why we believe in ourselves, that we are doing something meaningful and influential,” Chang says.

First Editor: Edward White
Second Editor: J. Michael Cole