Taiwan has a decent reputation for civil rights and other liberties but not everyone enjoys them. The island employs over 700,000 foreign workers from Southeast Asia. In addition to domestic care, they work in old people’s homes, factories and the fishing industry. But these migrant workers are often treated poorly, as two recent developments show.
Taiwan is currently engaged in a dispute with Indonesia over broker fees. When Indonesian labourers want to come to the island, brokers act as middlemen by paying for health screening, airfare and pre-job training and testing. In return, the labourers must repay the brokers, who often charge interest – often taking years to do this and using up most of their earnings. It should be pointed out that workers from other countries are also exploited by brokers in the same manner.
In October, Indonesia announced that from 2021 the fees must be paid by Taiwanese employers and not the brokers. Taiwan’s Minister of Labour, backed by local groups representing employers, hit back at Indonesia for making what it claimed was a one-sided demand.
The labour ministry then said that Taiwan could consider replacing Indonesians with workers from other countries, something commentators have also suggested. However, this might be difficult as Indonesians make up the largest foreign worker contingent with over 265,000. Taiwan will either have to ramp up recruiting from places that already provide labourers such as Thailand and the Philippines, or find other countries in the region.
The issue of high broker fees is not a recent problem and Indonesia was criticising them back in 2015. The same measure applies to Hong Kong, where local employer associations have also criticised it. It is understandable that some employers find it difficult to pay fees which can amount to a few thousand US dollars, but it is even more unfair for the labourers – via the brokers – to have to foot the bill.
Taiwan officials have said they are seeking further talks with Indonesian counterparts but their initial dismissal of Indonesia’s decision appears unreasonable.
In essence, this is a case of Taiwan actually fighting to uphold exploitation, in contrast to its human rights reputation.
Also, it would be wise for Taiwan to strengthen relationships with Southeast Asian nations such as Indonesia given the island’s New Southbound Policy, an overarching strategy begun in 2016 to reduce dependence on China and improve ties with Southeast and South Asian nations.
Foreign labourers are not treated as full members of Taiwan society as they work under certain restrictions, something which is also true in Hong Kong. These include limits on how many years they can work and the inability to apply for residency status (the government is considering making allowances for mid-level technicians) unlike, say, foreign professionals, who are university-educated and often hail from Western countries.
Another explicit example of how badly these workers are treated emerged at the end of September when the US for the first time included fish caught by Taiwanese boats on a list of products made by forced labour. This means that US companies buying such catches can face extra scrutiny from US Customs.
While Taiwan’s authorities protested the move, it came as no surprise. Taiwan’s fishing fleet, the world’s second-largest behind China’s, is notorious for terrible abuse of foreign workers, the vast majority of them from Southeast Asian countries like the Philippines and Indonesia.
Workers often endure poor conditions, are beaten or verbally abused and have even died at sea. They have also had their wages withheld and are exploited by labour brokers. Fishing crew are among the employees, including caregivers and domestic workers, which Indonesia’s government says should have their broker fees covered by employers.
The abuse is made easier by human trafficking and forced labour. Often, these foreign crew members are unregistered and lack proper documentation, making them vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. The Taiwanese figure for foreign fishing crew on Taiwanese boats is 26,000, but the US figure is about 160,000, with the huge discrepancy believed to indicate the severity of trafficking.
This is not a recent problem. NGOs, international media and US government reports have been highlighting the abuses in Taiwan’s fishing fleet for years.
Taiwan’s response to its inclusion on the US forced labour goods list was somewhat disappointing. A Council of Agriculture deputy minister pointed out a trial project to install wireless internet on fishing boats to help workers keep in contact with their families, while the Fisheries Agency’s director-general mentioned the setting up of rest facilities for workers at several fishing ports. It will take a lot more than on-board internet to address the severe problems workers face.
These foreign workers are vital to Taiwan, doing jobs that are strenuous, risky and unglamorous and which many Taiwanese shun. While their salaries are higher than in their home countries, they are still much less than regular Taiwanese salaries, something which is also true for Hong Kong’s foreign labourers.
In addition to the two issues featured in this article, migrant workers can also face unfair dismissal for falling sick, having their passports confiscated, being made to work without any days off, or being pressured into terminating pregnancies.
Taiwan authorities really need to focus on improving their lot rather than picking fights with their home countries or issuing blatant denials of abuse.
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