When news broke in November last year that Sri Lankan students were sent to work illegally in slaughterhouses and factories, the Ministry of Education called it an “isolated case” and said that it would launch an investigation.
However, Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) Legislator Ko Chih-en (柯志恩) last week said that at least six universities have been collaborating with employment agencies to trick foreign students into providing cheap labor, with some working up to 10 hours per day and one group was assigned to shabby dormitories near their work.
This time, the ministry said that it had been aware of the problem since early last year. It is the ministry’s money — and ultimately taxpayers’ — that is being used to subsidize brokers’ fees for the universities.
Students being forced to work illegally in factories is not the only problem with recruiting foreign students under the New Southbound Policy. Two weeks ago, the Central News Agency reported that brokerage agencies had forced Cambodian students to sign a US$1,500 promissory note after they paid a broker’s fee of about US$1,000. Those students said that during a recruitment pitch they were told they had 20 subjects to choose from, but once in Taiwan they found that they were only eligible for the leisure and tourism program.
While the universities should not be let off the hook just by claiming innocence, it seems like the common problem in these cases is brokers, who already have a bad reputation for exploiting migrant workers in various ways, including, again, tricking them into doing work they did not sign up for. Now they are taking advantage of the government’s drive to recruit more Southeast Asian students, which harms the students and hinders the government’s efforts.
Countless universities are desperate for students due to the nation’s low birthrate and an excessive number of schools. On Friday last week, the ministry reported that enrollment at nine of the nation’s higher-education institutes was last year less than 60 percent of regular levels, which could force closures. If not closely regulated, they might turn a blind eye to transgressions just to survive.
As these policies are relatively new, universities that have little experience with foreign students might not even know what is illegal. For example, using employment agencies to find students is prohibited. One of the accused universities has denied going through an employment agency, saying that the students were just doing part-time work to pay for their expenses.
A thorough investigation is needed and swift action must be taken to prevent such situations.
Due to the nation’s political isolation, the New Southbound Policy is an important piece of the puzzle moving forward. However, it appears to be a double-edged sword — as evidenced by 148 Vietnamese tourists who made use of expedited visa applications absconding after arriving in the nation. Regardless of whether they came to work illegally themselves or were trafficked, such incidents only cause the already dissatisfied public to lose faith in the government’s policies and tarnish the nation’s reputation in countries targeted by the policy.
One of the Sri Lankan students told reporters that he would never trust Taiwanese again and would not recommend anyone to come to Taiwan. That is something the nation cannot afford right now.
The government should never look at such incidents as isolated cases — officials cannot be that naive. A close examination of the New Southbound Policy and the nation’s relations with the countries it is focused on is needed to see what can be done as a whole to stop the abuse of a well-intended system.
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