Photographer/ Kenny, Mori
Taiwan’s migrant worker population is nearly 680,000 strong, meaning that nowadays, just about one out of every 33 people in Taiwan is a Southeast Asian migrant worker.
This might come as a surprise. Interactions between migrant workers and Taiwanese can be limited; they seem too many to be invisible, an unknown group of strangers. However, they also call this country home, spending years, if not decades, here. Many migrant workers learn at least basic Mandarin or Taiwanese. They have weathered just as many typhoons and earthquakes as you have.
Searching for information on migrant workers in Taiwan can quickly lead you into a maze of confusing laws, stories of mistreatment, and sensationalized headlines, so here is a concise and reliable guide to what you really need to know.
Who are these migrant workers?
The term yí gōng (移工, migrant workers) was not always used. They were formerly called wàijí láogōng (外籍勞工, foreign workers), but the term was changed to emphasize that these laborers have had to migrate from their own homes to seek employment. However, the terms are usually used to describe the community of foreign laborers who work for relatively low pay, and nowadays the terms yí gōng and wàijí láogōng are often used interchangeably.
Because migrant workers have different professional skills, it also means they are granted different labor rights and receive different wages. Workers are divided into white-collar (báilǐng, 白領) and blue-collar (lánlǐng, 藍領) workers, the same as most citizens; in this case, white-collar workers include corporate professionals and foreign language tutors, rather than physical laborers. (In order to make it easier to focus on our topic, this article uses migrant worker to refer to blue-collar migrant workers.)
Why are migrant workers coming to Taiwan?
This is best answered by going back to when Taiwan first welcomed migrant workers. In the 1980s, as Taiwan’s national income started to increase, quality of life improved in turn. However, the labor-intensive industries that supported the Taiwanese economic boom needed a large influx of low-paid labor. This was noticed by groups of Southeast Asian tourists, who saw a way to increase their income, and the length of their stay in Taiwan, by filling the void in the labor force.
At the same time, other Taiwanese industries saw how cheap these laborers were to hire. Many wealthier families began to hire domestic helpers, and hospitals began to take on low paid care workers.
In 1987, Taiwanese manufacturers were saying that worker shortages had increased by 40 percent in just five years. Hundreds of manufacturers began to pressure the government to formalize migrant worker laws to counter the trend of offshoring. Migrant workers were first allowed to legally seek employment in Taiwan in 1990, and the government eventually passed the Employment Services Act (ESA), which stipulated which industries could hire migrant workers and the conditions for employment. The act has since been amended many times and is a common subject of raucous debate.
Migrant workers have become indispensable in Taiwan – but where do they all come from, how many are there, and what jobs do they do?
At present, Taiwan welcomes migrant workers from five Southeast Asian countries – Indonesia, Vietnam, the Philippines, Thailand, and Malaysia – along with Mongolia. At present, there are nearly 680,000 migrant workers in Taiwan, almost all of whom are from Southeast Asian countries. That means about one in 33 people in Taiwan is a migrant worker.
According to Article 46, Sections 7 to 11 of the ESA, unskilled migrant workers may work as a crew member of a merchant vessel, a fisherman, a household assistant, or on work “designated by the Central Competent Authority in response to national major construction project(s) or economic/social development needs.”
In practice, this means migrant workers are divided into two main categories: social welfare work and industrial work.
Social welfare work
Social welfare migrant workers are divided among domestic helpers and caregivers.
Caregivers are further divided according to their employers: domestic patient care, where employers are families, and institutional care, where employers are nursing homes, long-term care centers, medical institutions, etc.
Only institutional care is protected by the Labor Standards Act (LSA), which sets a national minimum wage of NT$22,000 (US$716), set to rise in 2019 to NT$23,100 (US$750). Domestic help and domestic patient care, on the other hand, fall under the jurisdiction of the ESA, which does not specify a fixed minimum wage – the average salary of the current market is around NT$17,000 (US$554).
While these three jobs have similar titles, there are distinct differences in the responsibilities they involve. Domestic helpers are mainly responsible for household chores such as laundry, cooking, cleaning, and caring for children. Domestic patient care and institutional care both entail caring for patients with major disabilities.
There is also a large group of industrial migrant workers, who sweat day and night doing strenuous work in Taiwan’s factories and construction sites. You may see them less often, but there are about 420,000 industrial migrant workers in Taiwan – about 1.7 times the amount of social welfare migrant workers.
The types of work available to industrial workers far outnumber those in the social welfare sector – workers can apply to work in a factory, assemble parts on a production line, operate heavy machinery, build the MRT, or sail out to sea aboard a fishing vessel. These jobs fall under manufacturing, construction, and fishing; the three sectors combined are referred to as 3D industries.
3D industries may suggest dirty, difficult, and dangerous working conditions, and due to their high occupational risks, these are indeed jobs that most Taiwanese are unwilling to do. However, the construction and manufacturing industries are governed by the LSA, so laws regarding overtime pay and holidays also apply, making jobs in these sectors attractive for migrant workers with families to support.
Migrant fishermen fit into two categories. Domestic fishermen, also called offshore fishermen, board fishing vessels in Taiwan and enjoy the protections of the LSA.
Distant water fishermen, however, board fishing vessels outside of Taiwan and often never set foot in the country. Their rights are covered not under the LSA, but under the ESA, meaning they have no set minimum wage. Officials are often unable to track and regulate their salaries and treatment, and their monthly salaries range between only NT$3,000 and NT$9,000. Many incidents of contractual violations, along with cases of abuse and death at sea, are reported in Taiwan’s distant water fleet.
If that information was overwhelming, here is a quick summary:
- Migrant workers started coming to Taiwan in the 1990s, due to a labor shortage.
- Taiwan’s migrant workforce is nearly 680,000 strong. Most of them come from Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam.
- Their work in Taiwan is divided into two categories: social welfare and industrial work.
- Their main legal protection comes from the Employment Services Act (ESA) and, in some but not all cases, the Labor Standards Act (LSA).
These issues are just the tip of the iceberg…
Migrant workers, of course, must overcome several issues to work in Taiwan. The issues are not only related to their legal protection, but also to the many psychological barriers they face at work, along with repatriation difficulties after returning home.
(This article was written in Chinese by One-Forty and translated by TheNewsLens INTL.)