The much lauded New Southbound Policy’s (NSP) major departure from the previous “Go South” policy is the emphasis on people-to-people exchange. Yet for many long-term advocates of overseas laborers in Taiwan, the majority of whom are from Southeast Asia, it seems hypocritical that the languages and cultures of Southeast Asia are now celebrated when they were denigrated only a few years ago.
Cultural sensitivity has not been Taiwan’s strong suit. National debates over the island’s multi-culturalism have focused on what is Taiwanese versus Chinese and overlooked other ethnic minorities, in addition to the historical suppression of aborigines. Given that domestic cultural politics are still fraught, sensitivity towards immigrant cultures has also been lacking.
A decade ago, immigrants or visitors to Taiwan from predominantly Muslim countries had trouble finding food without pork, or that was halal. Now, the DPP government has unveiled a whole host of policies to make Muslims feel welcome in Taiwan called, “Bridges to the Muslim World” and other immigration reform efforts. At an Eid al-Fitr celebration marking the end of Ramadan, the Mayor of Taipei, Ko Wen-je (柯文哲), declared he wants to make Taiwan “Muslim friendly.” The Political Deputy Minister of Education, Dr. Tsai Ching-Hwa (蔡清華), recently stated that academic institutions will accommodate non-Chinese exchange students, particularly Muslim students from Malaysia, providing prayer rooms, halal food, counselling services, and increased scholarships. National Taiwan University recently signed a memorandum of understanding with Vietnam National University. Indeed, boosting educational ties are part of the NSP’s “talent exchange” policy. But if Taiwan is to truly be friends with its neighbors from Southeast Asia, it will need to address long-standing issues concerning human rights to the people Taiwan’s economy depends on the most—overseas foreign laborers.
There are about 651,100 “New Residents” (新住民) or “Foreign Residents” (外僑居留) in Taiwan from Southeast Asian countries out of nearly 700,000 total: 232,685 from Indonesia, 186,145 from Vietnam, and 142,482 from the Philippines. In addition, there are 654,000 foreign laborers (外籍勞工), dividing into two categories, “productive industries” such as manufacturing (410,000) and “social welfare” (244,000), which is essentially caretaking and nursing. Oversea Foreign Laborers generally come from Indonesia (252,997), Philippines (144,439), Vietnam (195,698), and Thailand (60,669). The number of overseas workers has doubled since 2002 when there were about 300,000 in Taiwan.
However, as reliance on foreign labor continues to grow in Taiwan, protections for migrant workers have not kept pace. The systemic lack of protection has led to exploitation by employers, in the form of physical abuse, sexual harassment , poor working conditions, and even death for overseas foreign laborers. The section of the 2016 US Department of State’s Human Rights Report focused on Taiwan mentioned that some of the top human rights violations include “exploitation of foreign workers, including foreign crewmembers on long-haul fishing vessels and household caregivers.” In response to the report, Taiwan’s Presidential Office released a statement affirming Taiwan’s commitment to improving migrant laborers’ conditions.
People from Southeast Asia in Taiwan face discrimination for their lack of Mandarin language skills, lower economic status, and skin color. Becoming a naturalized citizen of Taiwan is difficult; requiring applicants to forego their original citizenship before beginning the process, with unclear criteria such as “decency.” Foreign spouses whose marriages end within five years may lose their citizenship, effectively leaving them stateless. If the foreign spouse cannot retain their citizenship and loses custody of their children after divorce, they have to leave Taiwan. Alternatively, if they lose citizenship but have custody, once their children reach the age of 20, they have to return to their home country. Policies such as these prevent immigrant women from seeking help in situations of domestic violence, which makes foreign women particularly vulnerable members of Taiwan’s society. If the children of Southeast Asian immigrants in Taiwan are indeed “the future” as President Tsai called them, then surely their parents’ wellbeing is part of that future.
There are several NGOs that have long worked on rights for immigrants from Southeast Asia, such as Taoyuan County Serve the People Association (桃園縣群眾服務協會), Taiwan International Workers Association (TIWA), Alliance for Human Rights Legislation for Immigrants and Migrants (AHRLIM), and TransAsia Sisters Association, Taiwan (TASAT). TASAT focuses on helping women adjust to Taiwanese society, empowering them through education and training. The rights of immigrants reveal the limits of Taiwan’s democracy and the labor rights of the broader population who, until 2016, did not have guaranteed weekends off work.
In the push to embrace and improve the quality of life for immigrants in Taiwan, policy makers will also need to consider the effect it will have on the majority population of Taiwan, and how other minorities who have been historically oppressed will react to seeing recent immigrants receiving treatment that may seem preferential. Anti-immigrant backlash has always been a facet of economies that rely on foreign labor, and in recent years there has been a surge in populist movements around the world that were in part propelled by “cultural backlash” against globalism, multiculturalism, and other values that have manifested in policies such as Brexit and increased deportations under President Trump. A top-down approach to a “people-centered agenda” fundamentally misses the point—that the broader Taiwanese society, with its heterogeneous population, will need to accept the immigrant community in order for true progress to be made.
In the context of the New Southbound Policy, migrant worker rights gain urgency for the legitimacy of the Tsai’s administration claims of a “people-centered agenda.” The NSP’s success will hinge on Taiwan’s ability to differentiate itself from the People’s Republic of China’s investment and trade in Southeast Asia, which is highly extractive and transactional. Values-based implementation is how Taiwan will compete with the PRC’s massive economy and political clout. It also means Taiwan will need to do better to realize those values at home, where more than half-a-million migrant workers live and work.
The main point: If the New Southbound Policy is to truly succeed with its “people-centered agenda” the Tsai administration needs to make the rights of Southeast Asian immigrants in Taiwan a priority and work with the broader Taiwanese society to change perceptions and treatment of migrant workers.