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Southeast Asian Migrant Workers in Taiwan: Human Rights and Soft Power

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Southeast Asian Migrant Workers in Taiwan: Human Rights and Soft Power

Given its thorny geopolitical status, the way Taiwan treats its large population of migrant workers has far-reaching ramifications.

Southeast Asian Migrant Workers in Taiwan: Human Rights and Soft Power

A dancer performs at the Indonesian Art and Cultural Festival in Taipei, Taiwan, September 13, 2020.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons/彭泰宏(Peng tai hong)

Taiwan’s population is expected to rapidly age over the next five years. Currently, more than 20 percent of the population is over the age of 65. By 2060, the elderly will encompass more than 41.4 percent of the population. This demographic shift poses a major question: how will Taiwan manage its impending labor shortage? To meet the challenge, it will need to enhance worker protections for the army of elder-care workers and other migrant laborers – including those from Southeast Asia – who are filling vacant roles in other industries. Moreover, policymakers should take into account the impact that increased protections would have on perceptions of Taiwan’s soft power and adherence to human rights.

There are currently around 700,000 migrant laborers in Taiwan, making up about 80 percent of the 960,000 foreign residents in Taiwan. Most of these laborers are from four Southeast Asian nations: Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Thailand. Approximately a quarter million are in domestic care roles, taking care of both children and elders. The remainder fill roles in industries such as agriculture, fishing, and even semiconductor factories.

Since 1992, Taiwan has heavily relied on overseas workers specifically in the long-term elderly care industry, in part due to the cheaper cost. While long-term care policies in Taiwan have evolved over time, Southeast Asian workers have been an indispensable part of the system for three decades. If anything, demand for such workers will increase as the population ages even further.

While many workers migrate due to the promise of higher wages, there are significant financial and personal costs that come along with the decision to migrate. Brokerage fees – including the costs paid to agencies by potential employees to be placed into a job – can be prohibitively high, placing many of these workers in debt. Once they arrive in Taiwan, workers might find that their work is vastly different from what they were originally told, and that they lack the freedom to switch jobs. Domestic workers, who are almost always women, are particularly vulnerable to physical and sexual abuse, with several cases documented by the media. A particularly egregious case occurred in 2019 when a migrant worker from Vietnam was shot to death by the police.

These human rights violations have not gone unnoticed by the United States. In 2020, Taiwan-caught fish was placed on a list of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor by the United States Department of Labor. In the domestic care setting, live-in workers (numbering close to 220,000) are not protected by the Labor Standards Act – meaning that they are not entitled to the minimum monthly wage or time off cited in the law. Additionally, time off is hard to come by, with a third of live-in workers reporting not having any time off work in the years before the pandemic, despite contracts stipulating that workers are entitled to at least one day off every seven days.

These sorts of workers’ rights violations disincentivize workers from coming to Taiwan even as the government attempts to recruit more overseas workers to make up for a declining domestic population. The perception that Taiwan provides inadequate worker protections could become costly in the long run, as workers critical to relevant industries may be less willing to risk leaving their home countries. Taiwan has set a goal to bring in 400,000 workers by 2030 – but has only outlined and relaxed residency requirements for white-collar workers, overlooking the needs of those in other industries.

Discussions of overseas workers are also linked to cross-Strait tensions. Following the announcement of new Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement sites in the Philippines, the Chinese ambassador to the Philippines made controversial remarks referencing the challenges that overseas Filipino workers might face should the Philippines align itself too closely with the United States. In August, the Philippines also published its National Security Policy document, in which officials expressed concern about the safety of overseas Filipinos who reside in Taiwan in the event of a cross-Strait crisis, suggesting that future bilateral discussions on overseas workers may not only cover pay and treatment, but take into consideration the status of tensions on the horizon as well.

From a soft power perspective, human rights violations damage Taiwan’s image as a bastion of democratic values. In an era where the U.S.-China rivalry dominates the foreign policy sphere, and by proxy, support for Taiwan has increased, Taiwan must continue to be perceived by those in other countries as a place with strong democratic institutions that uphold human rights, especially in those South and Southeast Asian states targeted by Taipei’s New Southbound Policy.

Discrimination against vulnerable and minority populations is an issue not unique to Taiwan. Many liberal-democratic and high-income countries the world over grapple with this issue. However, international perception matters a great deal more to Taiwan than it does for other places with similar problems. Taiwan, especially in the Western world, is often viewed as a foil to China – it is a primarily Mandarin-speaking society that transformed from a military dictatorship to arguably the strongest democracy in Asia in a very short time. But because of Taiwan’s fragile status on the international stage, it faces a great deal more scrutiny on the issue.

Abuse within overseas worker communities is also politically important to Southeast Asian countries: one only needs to look at the countless stories to see that high-profile abuse cases spark large-scale protests, and can even lead to strained diplomatic relationships with host nations. With those in mind, there is even less room for error when it comes to ensuring the protection of migrant workers in Taiwan.

From the United States perspective, it is also important that Taiwan maintains cordial, if not positive relationships with those nations as well. The United States has been Taiwan’s staunchest supporter, and this support could prove to be a sore point in Washington’s approach to regional capitals if relations deteriorate between Taiwan and Southeast Asian nations over human rights violations.

Permanent settlement is another dimension of the issue. There is substantial difficulty obtaining the right to residency and citizenship, and there is significant bias against Southeast Asians, despite almost 10 percent of school-age children in Taiwan now having a foreign parent.

In June of this year, the Taiwanese foreign minister Joseph Wu stated that discussions are taking place regarding Filipino workers potentially being allowed to stay longer and apply for permanent residency, which could be an indication of further change.

Providing stronger worker protections to migrants from Southeast Asia, as well as potential paths to permanent settlement, would not only help abate the myriad of issues that come with an older population – it would also protect Taiwan’s image abroad and, perhaps more importantly, protect the workers that make Taiwan run.

As a key partner of Taiwan, the United States should continue to monitor the human rights situation in Taiwan, especially regarding migrant workers, and support policies and civil society groups pushing for better working conditions. It is not just Taiwan that would benefit from these policy reforms—it is also possible that other East and Southeast Asian countries may look to Taiwan’s example and model new policies from there, which could allow for further soft power influence in the region.

This article was originally published in New Perspectives on Asia by the Center for Strategic and International Studies and is reprinted with permission.