The Ministry of Labor on Feb. 17 announced a new path to permanent residency for migrant workers and foreign students who earn degrees in Taiwan. Workforce Development Agency Director-General Tsai Meng-liang (蔡孟良) said that the program, which is to take effect next month, is aimed at relieving Taiwan’s shortage of “intermediate skilled workers,” which was as high as 131,000 last year, the Central News Agency reported on the day of the announcement. It might also have helped eliminate one of the most egregious injustices faced by migrant workers in Taiwan: a requirement to leave after 12 years of working here.
The scheme is unlikely to achieve either of the goals. To be eligible, graduates must earn NT$50,500 per month within five years of finding employment — higher than the nation’s average regular monthly salary of NT$42,498 as reported by the Directorate-General of Budget, Accounting and Statistics last year. Under the program, live-in caregivers must earn a minimum of NT$24,000 per month, and migrant workers in the production, construction, agriculture and fisheries industries must earn NT$33,000 per month.
A Taiwan News report published on Jan. 26 last year cited a ministry survey as showing that the average monthly salary of a caregiver was NT$19,918, and NT$28,583 for a migrant worker. It also cited caregivers as reporting an average of 10.5 work hours per day.
The conditions of the new residency scheme are simply unreachable for the majority of those it is aimed at helping. Is the ministry taking the issue seriously? It should be, given that — as Tsai said during the program’s announcement — Japan and Singapore are vying with Taiwan for foreign workers, and those countries offer more competitive salaries.
Anyone who works in Taiwan for 12 years should be allowed to stay regardless of their salary. Canada — which is also struggling with a declining birthrate and aging population — last year announced plans to grant permanent residency to 401,000 immigrants. Toward that end, it granted residency to 30,000 temporary foreign workers in essential occupations, including caregivers, who were eligible if they had “one year of full-time work experience, or the equivalent part-time experience (1,560 hours) in Canada ... in the three years preceding the application date,” regardless of salary.
Salary requirements might ensure that applicants can support themselves and not become a burden on social assistance programs, but 12 years of living and working in Taiwan should be sufficient to demonstrate an applicant’s ability to do so.
If a caregiver fails to earn at least NT$24,000 per month, or a migrant worker NT$33,000, the blame might well be partly on the state because it has failed to protect their labor rights.
A US Department of State report last year said that migrant workers in Taiwan are generally exploited, and foreign fishers working for Taiwanese employers are commonly subjected to poor working conditions.
The ministry should focus on ameliorating conditions for migrant workers, which should include raising their wages, ensuring they have sufficient time for rest and giving them attainable paths to permanent residency. Taiwan needs foreign workers more than those workers need Taiwan, so it is in the nation’s best interests to be an attractive immigration destination. Canada and other nations learned this a long time ago.
Taiwan has been called a “beacon of democracy” in East Asia, so it seems inappropriate for it to be associated with harsh conditions for migrant workers. Japan has long been resistant to embracing migrant workers as a solution to its birthrate and population woes, so Taiwan has an opportunity to be an example for Japan on these issues — just as it has been with marriage equality.
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