Indonesian officials this week were once again pushing Taiwan to revise a 2011 agreement between the two countries, asking that salaries for the hundreds of thousands of Indonesian domestic caregivers and maids working in Taiwan be increased to at least the minimum wage and for working conditions to be improved for Indonesian fishermen, state-run CNA reports.

It is the latest effort in a long-running lobbying effort from Jakarta, and another, unneeded signal that migrant workers are second-class citizens in Taiwanese society. While it is good to see Indonesian officials fighting for the rights of their marginalized citizens – Vietnam’s representatives in Taipei are silent on such issues – any resulting improvements in pay or working conditions should extend to all other migrant workers in Taiwan.

At best, the issues faced by migrant workers are the culmination of decades of political and social neglect; at worst, the lack of protection for migrants reflects institutionalized discrimination.

The problems are too numerous to list in full. To name a few: domestic workers are not covered by the Labor Standards Act and subsequently can be paid below the minimum-wage; there is a lack of monitoring and enforcement over worker conditions, particularly in the piratical fishing industry; unfair immigration laws for migrants that marry Taiwanese; and an illegal, yet widespread, international broker system. Combined, these issues continue to ensure Taiwan plays an ongoing part in regional sex trafficking networks and international human-trafficking operations.

While most of these problems will take years to fix, some solutions proposed by frontline rights advocates are relatively simple. For instance, the creation of a direct government-to-government channel for processing migrant workers would go a long way to take brokers – who charge illegal fees and keep workers in debt for years – out of the picture. Similarly, allowing domestic workers coverage under the labor law – all other migrant workers are covered – would at least give them equal rights, not to mention, lift their minimum pay by 15 percent from NT$17,000 (US$535) a month to the national minimum wage of NT$20,008. In other cases, particularly the fishing industry, there are existing laws but monitoring of abuse and enforcement of law breaches need to be prioritized and probably better funded.

President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) in June acknowledged the problem.

“Some immigrant laborers in Taiwan still face big problems, such as excessive working hours or being forced to perform highly dangerous or unreasonably strenuous work,” she said.

“The government can safeguard the rightful interests of immigrant laborers by paying close attention to their working conditions and bringing the power of the state to bear on existing problems,” Tsai said.

While the president’s statement – made to a visiting U.S. anti-human trafficking official – was a step in the right direction, it fails to acknowledge the government’s hand in creating an environment where exploitation of foreign workers has become so widespread it is barely reported. Worryingly also, despite the obvious platform she did not point to any concrete initiatives already underway.

In terms of the domestic caregivers, the capacity of thousands of Taiwanese families to have inexpensive in-home help has likely afforded successive governments a buffer from committing cash to building a comprehensive aged-care system.

This situation is changing.

The "push" factors that have long seen Southeast Asian workers seek better financial opportunities offshore are diminishing as local economic conditions improve. This has already seen Indonesia and the Philippines move to curb the flow of their workers offshore. Moreover, Taiwan in trying to pivot its economy away from China and towards Southeast Asia will become increasingly exposed to the impact of public opinion in the region.

Also, foreign worker representation is slowly improving. Considering the success of labor groups in recent months, and the weight foreign workers could have if they act collectively, it is possible to foresee major strike action. It is worth considering what impact a labor shortage would mean for Taiwan’s economy.

Across Taiwan’s 23.5 million people, about 600,000 are migrant laborers from Southeast Asia – that is one for every 40 Taiwanese. More importantly, however, more than 200,000 out of about 2 million school children in Taiwan – or one in every 10 students – are the children of new immigrants. As this large number of young people start to hit the voting age in the coming years, politicians’ lack of action on migrant worker rights could start to be felt at the polls. How much longer can politicians afford to just pay lip-service to this issue?

As the European and U.S. experiences show, migrant issues are complex, sensitive and almost always politically difficult. A clear, ideally bi-partisan path forward is needed.

First Editor: Olivia Yang
Second Editor: J. Michael Cole