COVID-19, Migrant Workers, and the Fight for Equality in Taiwan

COVID-19, Migrant Workers, and the Fight for Equality in Taiwan

COVID-19, Migrant Workers, and the Fight for Equality in Taiwan

During the COVID-19 pandemic, while Taiwanese citizens and foreigners have had the option of undergoing a mandatory 14-day quarantine in their residence or in a subsidized quarantine hotel, migrant workers who entered the country have had to quarantine at centralized quarantine stations and secure one of just 600 beds. This has led to a restriction in the number of foreign workers allowed to enter the borders. Migrant workers already in Taiwan, despite having access to National Health Insurance, face language, legal, and other obstacles to obtaining adequate health care, including needing employer approval for certain procedures. As a result of economic globalization, an aging population, and a shrinking domestic workforce, Taiwan’s economy depends upon migrant labor. Yet, the Taiwanese government has consistently neglected to protect the rights of migrant workers. Taipei must mitigate the exploitative effects of its current system—including the broker program—as well as expand the right of migrant workers to legal protections and access to societal programs.


Taiwan has often overlooked migrant workers in favor of “talented immigration” from Western countries or foreigners with specialized skills. In her 2020 inaugural address, President Tsai Ing-Wen (蔡英文) reaffirmed the Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP, 民進黨) commitment to improving economic globalization through increasing immigration, promising to focus on attracting international talent to “globalize Taiwan’s workforce.” In her speech, she made no mention of the 713,454 migrant workers currently in Taiwan or their struggle for equality.

In 2016, Taiwan adopted the New Southbound Policy (NSP, 新南向政策), an initiative aimed at strengthening Taiwan’s relationships with 18 countries in Southeast Asia and the Indo-Pacific. The NSP concept places particular focus on areas to include global exchange, economic relationships, NGO cooperation, city partnerships, and visas. Ninety percent of foreigners arriving in Taiwan are from these countries, as shown in the graph below; and roughly ninety percent of those are from Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam, with numbers increasing dramatically before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Immigration and Legal Policy

Historically, changes in immigration policy in Taiwan have emerged as responses to domestic issues such as labor shortages, an aging population needing domestic care, and lack of brides for Taiwanese men. Beginning in the 1960s, the Taiwanese government designed immigration policy with the “population quality” (人口素質) in mind, ensuring the maintenance of a “good quality” population that is “uncontaminated” by less-educated immigrants. [1] Article 46 of the Employment and Services Act (就業服務法) defines two types of foreign workers: the first category includes specialized workers—those with technical skills, such as businessmen, teachers, and artists—while the second includes fishermen, domestic care workers, nurses, and construction workers. Those in the first category enjoy full protections provided by the Immigration Act (入出國及移民法) and Labor Standards Act (勞動基準法), including permanent residency, access to the minimum wage, a 40-hour workweek with overtime pay, ability to reapply for visas, and other basic labor rights. Migrant workers may only receive these basic labor rights if their employers are in a business unit covered by the Labor Standards Act, such as those in agriculture, forestry, fishery, mining and quarrying, and construction. Key professions not covered by the act are domestic workers or caretakers, who comprise about 36 percent of all migrant workers in Taiwan.

However, due to the broker system used by employers to hire foreign labor, migrant workers often do not receive these basic labor rights. Migrant workers must find work through Taiwanese brokers, who handle all logistics and paperwork, albeit at a steep monthly price. Brokers often take a portion of workers’ wages, charge exorbitant fees, and maintain possession of their passports. Since many migrant workers are escaping poor economic situations in their home countries, this often requires taking out loans from the broker, creating what Joe Henley, journalist and author of the book Migrante, calls “a continuous cycle made to bleed the worker financially dry.” [2]


Upon arriving in Taiwan, migrant workers not only face long hours, language barriers, and harsh working conditions in certain industries, but are also subject to discriminatory attitudes from some segments of a largely homogeneous Taiwanese society. A 2019 survey conducted by Professor Timothy S. Rich of Western Kentucky University and National Chengchi University asked Taiwanese citizens to share their opinions on skilled versus unskilled immigrants from Southeast Asia. Results found that Taiwanese are in support of skilled labor immigration, but not of broader immigration from Southeast Asia: 76 percent of respondents agreed that Taiwan should encourage skilled immigration, but only 8.4 percent agreed on encouraging Southeast Asian immigration to Taiwan more generally.

Accusations of discrimination have emerged regarding the issue of banning public gatherings or even sitting in the main hall of Taipei Main Station, a common gathering space for migrant workers. Each year, many Indonesian migrant workers gather in the main hall of the station to celebrate the holidays of Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha—which in the past has prompted complaints from some commuters, and has long been a subject of public debate. In May of 2020, a week before the Eid al-Fitr holiday that marks the traditional end of Ramadan fasting, Taiwan Railways banned any sitting in the hall of the station, citing the COVID-19 pandemic. This led to an outcry from immigrants, especially after the company announced plans to extend this policy permanently.

However, these complaints are not reflective of the whole population and many Taiwanese consider the station to be a reflection of the island’s growing diversity. Accordingly, the policy resulted in protests and accusations of an unfair attack on migrant workers, and the ban was revoked. The issue was revived in May 2021, when an Eid al-Fitr celebration sponsored by the Global Workers’ Organization (臺灣外籍工作者發展協會,GWO) planned for the morning of May 13 was cancelled, with the organizers deciding to call off the event to due to continuing fears of COVID-19 transmission.

This type of discrimination has even come from some politicians in Taiwan. On March 7, 2019, while running for president, Kaohsiung Mayor Han Kuo-yu (韓國瑜) used a derogatory term for Filipina immigrants, asking rhetorically, “How did that Maria become a teacher?” Though he later tried to explain that it was a “metaphor,” he did not acknowledge the racist connotation of his statement. In another interview later that year, while discussing Taiwan’s brain drain, Han referred to migrant workers as “chickens,” saying that “phoenixes [fly] away and a bunch of chickens [are] flying in” (鳳凰都飛走了, 進來一大堆雞). A few days later, he apologized for his “example,” but again did not address the racist elements of his remarks.

Beyond social discrimination, migrant workers often face poor working conditions and exploitative programs. In October 2019, the Nanfang’ao Harbor bridge collapse killed six Filipino and one Indonesian fishermen, as well as injuring 12 more and making 19 homeless. Other migrants have fallen victim to dangerous work-study programs, such as Filipino students at the Yu Da University of Science and Technology (育達科技大學), who were forced to work in a tile factory when they were supposed to be earning a graduate degree. These programs, a new feature of the New Southbound Policy, allow employment agencies to place foreign students at universities in Taiwan under “internship programs,” but then make them work for tuition in factories or other forms of heavy labor. 

Earlier in the pandemic, a group of 140 fishermen were stranded off the Port of Kaoshiung (高雄港). Prevented from coming on shore due to COVID-19 restrictions, they were stranded for a month before eventually labeled illegal immigrants and deported. This spring, spikes in COVID-19 cases led the Taiwanese government to place a ban on the entry of all migrant workers starting May 19, leaving 5,000 Filipino migrant workers stranded, and remaining migrant workers already in Taiwan still struggling for adequate medical coverage. With high transmission rates in factories and manufacturing centers, Taoyuan mayor Cheng Wen-tsan (鄭文燦) announced a comprehensive plan consisting of rapid testing, sanitization, and reduced capacity procedures to manage the outbreak. The government is similarly conducting assessments of the conditions of roughly 1,200 companies that employ migrant workers, but activists are hoping for more long term reforms.

International Attention

Not only has Taiwan’s treatment of migrant workers been covered by international media, neighboring countries that send domestic workers to Taiwan have also called attention to these issues. Following Han Kuo-yu’s racist remarks, Angelito Banayo, representative of the Manila Economic and Cultural Office (MECO) of the Philippines, wrote an open letter to Han objecting to his remarks. In early November 2020, a letter from the Indonesian Economic and Trade Office stated that Taiwanese employers must cover the costs for logistics (plane tickets, visa fees, and broker payments) incurred by migrant workers. Minister of Labor Hsu Ming-Chun (許銘春) responded that Taiwan “cannot accept this,” and that Taiwan might look elsewhere for labor. In December 2020, Taiwan placed an indefinite entry ban on Indonesian migrant workers. Talks between the two countries are still ongoing but have the potential to sour relations if no agreement is reached.

The US Department of State has also cited violations of human rights in Taiwan for multiple years now. The 2019 report on human rights practices in Taiwan, issued in March, showed that though progress is being made—such as the establishment of a workers’ protection task force, foreign-worker hotlines, requirements to report mistreatment of foreign workers, and a new minimum wage of NTD 150 (USD $4.86) per hour—these measures are not enough. Fines placed on companies for repressing union activities are too low to deter future violations, making union movements or strikes a hopeless strategy. In 2018, six Taiwanese brokers were convicted of illegal activities, yet no legal stipulations prevented them from simply opening up another business. The report acknowledged that the law does not provide adequate inspections or deterrents for “labor law violations and unsafe working conditions.”  The 2021 annual religious freedom report raises concerns for domestic service workers and caretakers who are not protected under the Labor Standards Act, and are thus not guaranteed a weekly rest day and cannot attend religious services. Similarly, the US Department of Labor labeled fish caught by Taiwanese vessels products of forced labor, which Control Yuan member Wang Yu-ling (王幼玲) said the government has known about since 2019.


Recent progress toward rectifying these issues has been due to activism organized by local NGOs, including OneForty, the Awakening Foundation, the Migrant Forum in Asia, the Yilan Migrant Fishermen Union, and the Taiwan International Workers Association. These groups offer a variety of services, from organizing demonstrations and helping with casework to creating labor unions and offering language and culture classes. These organizations are instrumental in raising awareness, but are restricted by low levels of funding and support. The Taiwan International Workers Association has used recent high transmission rates at factories to get the government to conduct in depth assessments of working conditions and safety protections for migrant workers.

There are few legislators in Taiwan who are willing to speak up about migrant workers. One of the most prominent is Lin Li-Chan (林麗蟬), who, after emigrating from Cambodia to Taiwan, was the first immigrant elected to the Legislative Yuan in 2016. Lin addressed then-Kaohsiung Mayor Han Kuo-yu’s policy to create exclusive leisure areas for migrant workers in an interview panel, saying, “Taiwan’s familiarity and understanding of migrant workers is still insufficient, and there needs to be an improvement in friendliness towards them.” She called for a policy that would specifically protect migrant workers, citing their “great contributions to our society.”

The government needs to take several key actions to strengthen migrant workers’ rights in Taiwan. First, it should reform the Labor Standards Act to provide explicit protections for migrant workers equal to those of Taiwanese and other foreign workers. Second, Taipei should expand programs run by local NGOs that have a proven track record of providing direct assistance and tangible skills to workers. Third, the government should abolish the broker system and make the system of direct hire more accessible to Taiwanese employers. These changes will be necessary to ensure that all workers in Taiwan have full protections under the law, and politically uphold the DPP’s self-image as the protector of working people. If Taiwan wants to be considered a full democracy valuing human rights, and ensure the success of the NSP, it must address this serious issue.

The main point: The poor treatment of migrant workers in Taiwan is a severe, long-standing issue that must be addressed and speaks to broader issues of discrimination in Taiwanese society. These conditions and human rights violations have the potential to undermine the success of the New Southbound Policy and harm Taiwan’s international reputation.

[1] Hong-Zen Wang, “Immigration Trends and Policy Changes in Taiwan,” Asian and Pacific Migration Journal 20, no. 2 (2011): 169–94.

[2] Conversation with Joe Henley, November 2020.