For those wanting to travel on a limited budget, there are many working holiday options available. However, one case of a Taiwanese person working abroad has caused quite an upset in Taiwan. The story concerns a university graduate who hurried off to take part in Australia’s working holiday program before he reached the program’s upper age limit of 30. Once there, he did unskilled jobs, with the aim of earning several times the salary he could make in Taiwan. As he says himself, he is basically a Taiwanese migrant worker.
According to a report about him in Business Today, the man stated plainly that he did not travel abroad to gain life experience or to broaden his outlook, but simply to make money.
The most interesting thing about this is that it shows that some people are now identifying themselves as Taiwanese migrant workers. As the graduate says, there were about 600 people working in the same factory, including about 150 from Taiwan.
“Actually, we are Taiwanese laborers,” he says.
His use of the word “we” is no accident. What it shows is that — from the point of view of those working together day in, day out — I see you covered in blood (the factory being a slaughterhouse) and you notice how awkward I feel. As time goes by, the workers share their unspoken predicament and form a kind of class consciousness. What they feel is that “We are Taiwanese workers, we empathize, we share and we encourage one another.”
If Taiwan’s economy goes on as it is, without improving, the emergence of this Taiwanese laborer consciousness and identity will spur a similar awareness among Taiwanese youth who feel that they have no future. As an Indonesian migrant worker — who is qualified to be a teacher — once said to me, the biggest psychological obstacle she faces is how to make herself accept that she is a laborer.
In fact, the phrase “Taiwanese laborer” was heard back when Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) was president. The opposition accused Chen of ruining the economy and said that Taiwanese would soon have to become migrant workers. In fact, however, the phenomenon of “Taiwanese laborers” did not come to pass when Chen was in office.
Times have changed. According to figures made available by the Australian representative office in Taipei, the number of temporary work permits issued to Taiwanese increased from 9,000 for the whole of 2008 to more than 10,000 for the first half of last year — probably the fastest increase for any country in the world.
Although the number of Taiwanese migrant workers is growing quickly, that does not mean that there are very many of them yet. However, the dismal state of the economy under President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) is all too obvious. Salaries have shrunk to the same level they were 14 years ago and Taiwan’s economic growth rate is one of the lowest in Asia. Taiwan has the highest unemployment rate of the four “Asian Tiger” economies and a “blue light” indicator — signaling economic contraction — has been flashing for nine months in a row. Notably, Taiwan ranks second from bottom in the world for attracting foreign direct investment and since the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) returned to government in 2008, the outflow of listed investment capital to China has sped up — an accumulated outflow of NT$600 billion (US$20.44 billion) so far.
As capital gushes from Taiwan to China, Taiwan straggles behind in attracting overseas investment. Without investment, there can be no job opportunities, so young Taiwanese will unavoidably be forced to see themselves as “Taiwanese laborers.” Ma has already set his legacy — he will long be remembered as the father of Taiwanese migrant workers.
Christian Fan Jiang is deputy secretary-general of the Northern Taiwan Society.
Translated by Julian Clegg