What you need to know
Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen has made attracting skilled workers a major goal. Legal consultant Michael Fahey gives an overview of Taiwan’s immigration policy and the remaining gaps.
In her 2020 inaugural address, President Tsai Ing-wen unexpectedly raised the issue of immigration by acknowledging Taiwan’s need for diverse talent and promising to “bring in the world's top technical, R&D, and management talents to help globalize Taiwan's workforce.” Last week, President Tsai reaffirmed this commitment in remarks at the release of the Talent Circulation Alliance’s on attracting international talent and transforming Taiwan’s workforce. Her new attention to immigration is best understood in the context of Taiwan’s existing immigration policy.
Despite a long history of immigration, Taiwan’s first modern immigration policy was not announced until the end of 2014. This policy has two main objectives: selective immigration and protection of the rights and interests of immigrants.
Selective immigration means that Taiwan intends to choose immigrants based on skills that fit the needs of the Taiwanese economy. Protection of the rights and interests of immigrants has thus far meant including some immigrants in social security programs from which they were previously excluded.
Categories of immigrants
Currently, immigrants include three major categories: marriage migrants, migrant workers, and foreign professionals. Marriage migrants, who are overwhelmingly women, mostly come from Southeast Asian countries and China. Taiwan’s nearly 800,000 migrant workers meet labor shortages in manufacturing, care-giving, and, most recently, agriculture.
Foreign professionals are further divided into three sub-categories: foreign professionals, foreign special professionals, and foreign senior professionals. Foreign professionals are entry level workers with a Taiwanese college degree or near-entry level workers such as English teachers, technical writers, and editors.
Foreign special professionals are typically mid-career white collar workers with several years of experience. Foreign senior professionals are academics or professionals with long, distinguished careers that usually include senior management roles and strong connections to Taiwan.
The Tsai administration is now proposing to add two more categories of immigrants: mid-level technicians and overseas compatriots. Mid-level technicians are skilled blue collar workers while overseas compatriots are nationals of the Republic of China who have passports but lack the right to reside and work in Taiwan without special permission. Investors from Hong Kong and Macau are another small but growing category of immigrants. They won’t be discussed here because Taiwan has special rules for them, informed more by Taiwan’s policies toward China than by immigration policy.
Taiwan’s demographic crisis
The background of Taiwan’s immigration policies is its demographic crisis.
In 2018, the National Development Council (NDC) released a comprehensive report on Taiwan’s projected population from 2018 to 2065. In this report, the NDC projected that if Taiwan’s population began to decline in 2020, it would fall to just over 16 million by 2065. While a smaller population might ease the considerable stress on Taiwan’s environment, the number of working age people (15-64) is projected to decline from 72.5 percent of Taiwan’s population in 2018 to about 48 percent of the population by 2065 if current trends continue.
At the same time, Taiwan’s population will continue to age. Simply put, there will not be enough young people working and paying taxes to support a large population of retired people. This reduced tax base will make it difficult for Taiwan to continue to invest in education, health, and national security and to meet its citizens’ expectations that living standards will continue to rise.
Although Taiwan’s population increased to 23.6 million in January 2020, it declined steadily over the next four months by an average of about 4,360 people each month. In short, Taiwan’s population decline has begun and will not be reversed unless Taiwan can raise its birth rate and attract new immigrants.
Two decades of efforts to encourage people to have more children have had little effect. Taiwan’s failure to increase birth rates makes immigration an increasingly important component of Taiwan’s response to its demographic crisis.
Since 2014, both the Ma and Tsai administrations have sought to implement Taiwan’s immigration policy goals. For example, the Ma administration created a flexible points system that made it much easier for international graduates of Taiwanese universities to live and work in Taiwan after graduation.
Two important examples from the Tsai administration are the 2017 Act for the Recruitment and Employment of Foreign Professionals (“Foreign Professional Act”) and the New Economic Immigration Act (the “Economic Immigration Act”) now pending before Taiwan’s Legislature.
The 2017 Foreign Professional Act
The Act for the Recruitment and Employment of Foreign Professionals advanced the policy objective of recruiting foreign professionals by creating a new class of foreign special professionals. Foreign special professionals are eligible to apply for . The card gives considerable freedom to live and work in Taiwan for up to three years. Employers can also apply for work permits with a five year duration to employ foreign special professionals. This program has been a real but modest success.
As of this writing, 781 Employment Gold Cards . In addition, employers have obtained 817 five year work permits to employ foreign special professionals. One criticism of the program is its obvious gender imbalance. Of the 817 five year work permits, only 12 percent have been issued to women. On the positive side, the diverse talents of this small new class of foreign professionals have undeniably helped Taiwan in its goal of developing a highly skilled workforce.
The Foreign Professional Act also included permanent resident foreign professionals in the Labor Pension Act’s retirement pension system. Under this system, employers must pay 6 percent of the employee’s salary into a portable personal retirement account. The Act also permitted qualified foreign teachers in public schools to receive monthly pensions. In the past, these teachers were, unlike their Taiwanese colleagues, forced to accept a lump sum payment at retirement.
Perhaps most importantly, the Act also gave foreign spouses and minor children of permanent resident foreign professionals an easier path to their own permanent residence that allows foreign families to settle in Taiwan permanently.
The Foreign Professional Act made Taiwan a much more friendly place for its growing community of nearly 19,000 permanent foreign residents and their families.
The proposed Economic Immigration Act
The Economic Immigration Act bill now before the Legislature for a second time defines overseas nationals as persons with a Republic of China (Taiwan) passport but no household registration in Taiwan. Overseas nationals include not only citizens of the United States, Japan, and Australia with Taiwanese heritage, but also many ethnic Chinese holding ROC passports in Southeast Asia who in some cases are not citizens in their countries of birth.
Overseas nationals cannot work in Taiwan legally like Taiwanese citizens unless they obtain a work permit. The proposed Economic Immigration Act would make it significantly easier for overseas nationals and their families to enter Taiwan, work in Taiwan, and become full citizens with household registration and ID cards. If enacted, it will encourage overseas nationals to immigrate or return to Taiwan.
The most significant and likely most controversial provisions of the Economic Immigration Act would create a yet another class of foreign nationals: foreign mid-level technicians. At least at first, foreign mid-level technicians would be migrant workers (including domestic workers and caregivers) already in Taiwan who currently have no feasible path to permanent residence or citizenship.
Migrant workers would become eligible for employment as mid-level technicians after residing in Taiwan for six years if (i) the migrant worker has a license or certificate issued or recognized by the Taiwanese government for technical skills and (ii) earns a minimum salary that substantially exceeds the median salary that their Taiwanese peers earn. The minimum salary will vary, but based on 2017 figures the minimum salary for a foreign mid-level technician in a factory would be around NT$41,000, while caregivers would need to make NT$32,000.
After an additional five consecutive years of residence (with an average of at least 184 days each year in Taiwan), a foreign mid-level technician could become a permanent resident. While nearly 800,000 migrant workers now live in Taiwan, the licensing/certification, salary, and residence requirements for mid-level technicians ensure that at least at first the number of migrant workers who will be able to stay in Taiwan will probably be very small.
Advocates for migrant workers will justifiably object that the long waits for permanent residence and family reunion are unfair and harsh. But even this timid move to allow a small number of migrant workers to stay in Taiwan is likely to meet fierce resistance in Taiwan’s legislature from both parties. Objections will probably focus on the adverse impact of migrant workers on Taiwanese wages.
Despite advances, longstanding grievances are left unaddressed
The Act includes a new flexible points system for ordinary foreign professionals. In short, if the foreign professional receives enough points for having certain skills, languages, and educational credentials, she qualifies for a work permit.
The points system would make it easier for recent graduates of foreign universities to obtain work permits in Taiwan for jobs other than English teaching. It will however probably be more rigorous than the current points system for graduates of Taiwanese universities.
The Economic Immigration Act would also shorten the time to permanent residence for foreign special professionals from five years to just three consecutive years of residence (with an average of at least 184 days in Taiwan each year). Notably, the Economic Immigration Act would make many employed permanent residents eligible for unemployment benefits for the first time. It would also empower the government to include permanent resident foreign professionals, mid-level technicians, and investment immigrants in social welfare programs such as childcare subsidies and .
These provisions would further the policy objective of creating a welcoming environment in Taiwan for immigrants. But they do not address long-standing complaints about credit discrimination against foreign residents, nor do they require the government to include foreign nationals in Taiwanese social welfare programs.
They also fail to enshrine national treatment for foreign residents into law. As a result, the Taiwanese government will be able to continue discriminatory practices such as denying elderly foreign residents preferential fares on public transportation or excluding unmarried permanent residents from the Triple Stimulus Voucher program. These practices are inconsistent with the stated policy of creating a more welcoming environment and impair Taiwan’s ability to retain the talent that programs such as the Employment Gold Card bring to Taiwan.
President Tsai’s apparent willingness to expend political capital on immigration issues suggests that Taiwan is on the cusp of fully implementing its immigration policy as announced in 2014. The next step would be to address important issues that current immigration policy is silent on, including the expansion of eligibility for dual nationality, family reunification, and refugee settlement.
TNL Editor: Nicholas Haggerty, Daphne K. Lee (@thenewslensintl)
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