FEATURE: Working holidays: exploitation or experience?

PROS, CONS::The popularity of working holidays amid claims of exploitation in menial jobs has alarmed some who say it shows that young Taiwanese see no future at home

By Shelley Shan  /  Staff reporter

Sun, Feb 09, 2014 - Page 3

The wide availability of jobs and the opportunity to live in a foreign country are prompting many Taiwanese to seek employment in Canada via working holiday programs.

One such Taiwanese is Judy Wang, who went to Banff in Canada’s Alberta Province to look for temporary work.

According to Wang, the strong demand for service workers during the high season at the popular Canadian travel destination is now primarily met by holiday workers from around the world.

Prior to arriving in Canada, Wang studied hotel management in Switzerland and worked at a five-star hotel in Taipei. She left her job in the Taiwanese capital in 2005 and went to Australia as a part-time holiday worker.

“Being a holiday worker is not a waste of time,” Wang said. “You take whatever job is available. I once worked late-night shifts at a hotel and the experience taught me how to make managerial decisions. The value of gaining this type of on-the-job experience cannot be measured by the money you make.”

Despite the loneliness and cultural shock holiday workers may suffer while living abroad, as well as the sometimes frustrating search for work, Wang said the experience made her realize the importance of having strong language skills.

She also said it gave her the impression that young Taiwanese are less competitive than their peers in Japan, South Korea and China.

“They [young Japanese, South Koreans and Chinese] are much more willing to travel to other countries and experience different cultures, even if their English is poor,” she said. “It would be good if more young Taiwanese did the same, and the earlier the better. If they stay in Taiwan and don’t experience life elsewhere, there is no way they can compete with their counterparts from other countries.”

However, not all holiday workers see the value of the program.

Like Wang, Evelyn Chuang (莊凱涵), who works as assistant brand manager at a food company in Taipei, went to Australia under the working holiday program. Chuang made the trip in 2009, after graduating with a bachelor’s degree in management science from Chiao Tung University.

“I had planned to study overseas while I was in school. However, that plan was put on hold after I got a job at a foreign company upon graduating,” she said.

“After working there for two years, I started to research MBA programs in the US and found that I could not afford to go to any of the top 30 schools because the tuition fees are too expensive. Given this, a working holiday seemed like a cost-effective way to live abroad. I chose Australia because it was the only country at the time allowing non-students to apply for working holiday visas,” Chuang said.

Yet Chuang said she regretted going to Australia, as “it was frustrating at the beginning when I spent little more than one month sending out resumes and did not hear back from anybody except Chinese restaurants.”

“I realized that having a college degree from a Taiwanese university is useless when you go to apply for jobs in Australia,” Chuang added. “If you are of Chinese descent and do not have professional skills, you have to settle for menial work.”

Although Chuang said her work experience in Australia did not make much of a difference to her career, she said it did help make her more able to endure hardships and willing to take on challenging tasks.

She added that holiday workers are more likely to get what they want out of the experience if they have a specific goal in mind.

“I knew friends whose sole motivate for going to Australia was to make money and they did manage to make their first pot of gold within two years,” Chuang said.

Another holiday worker, Eric Liang (梁幼銘), 27, chose to go to Germany in May last year because he did not want to work in a English-speaking country.

“I studied materials science and engineering in college, and Germany is known for its research in this field, plus I wanted to become proficient in German,” he said.

Before landing his current job in a cafe in Berlin, Liang traveled to the German cities of Hamburg, Dusseldorf, Aachen and Heidelberg.

“I worked on a horse farm in Dusseldorf, as well as another farm in Aachen,” he said. “None of those jobs was easy, but the experience I gained working on the horse farm was the most valuable because since I could only speak German there, I got a lot of practice.”

Ministry of Foreign Affairs data show that the number of Taiwanese holiday workers has increased from 12,000 between 2004 and 2007 to 65,000 between 2008 and 2012.

There are nine countries that accept holiday workers from Taiwan: Australia, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, Canada, the UK, Ireland, Germany and Belgium, with the first three as the top destinations among Taiwanese.

Premier Jiang Yi-huah (江宜樺) said in a statement last year that the programs “help broaden our young people’s horizons” and “give them the chance to experience different cultures.”

However, critics say there is a dark side to the schemes, as seen in a story carried by Chinese-language weekly Business Today last year.

The article was about a National Tsing Hua University graduate who went on a working holiday in Australia and whose experience there critics said indicates that Taiwan can now list “cheap youth labor” as one of its prime exports.

In the story, the graduate gave a graphic description of working at a slaughterhouse in Australia and recounted how he realized after arriving there that he could only make money by taking the jobs that “Australians don’t want.”

He also told the weekly of the working conditions at a farm he was employed at, saying: “We got up at 5am every morning and gathered at the taskmaster’s house to receive our assignments for the day. Then, about a dozen backpackers crammed into a van that dropped them off at different farms. The image reminded me of World War II movies I saw in which confused, panicked Jews were sent to concentration camps. This might seem like a gross exaggeration, but that is exactly how I felt at the time.”

Yet what some found most disturbing about the story was when the student listed the reasons why he would rather work in a slaughterhouse in Australia than take a nine-to-five office job in Taiwan.

“I knew from day one that I came here for a practical, but shallow, reason: to make money. It’s not about having a life experience or making new friends. I worked as a financial consultant at a Taiwanese bank for two years, yet I could barely save any money after paying for living expenses, while repaying student loans and my parents,” he said.

Youth Development Administration director-general Lo Ching-shui (羅清水) said that young people who want to join such programs need to have a clear idea of why they want to do it and whether the experience can fulfill that purpose.

Lo did not comment on some students seeing working holidays as a fast track to prosperity, nor did he mention Taiwan’s low wages as one of the reasons college graduates seek better-paid work overseas, even if that means doing a menial job in a poor working environment.

He said that his agency’s position is to encourage people to try jobs at home and overseas.

“Working holidays give young people the chance to experience different cultures and learn to adapt to unfamiliar circumstances,” Lo said.