The Ministry of Education (MOE) on Thursday said that it would investigate allegations by a teachers’ union that students from Eswatini, the nation’s only diplomatic ally in Africa, had been forced into exploitative “internships” after enrolling in a work-study program at Mingdao University in Changhua County.
The ministry said that in 2018, the university had recruited about 40 students for a four-year work-study scholarship program, promising them the opportunity to develop off-campus work skills and experience while completing a bachelor’s degree in business administration.
In a recruitment brochure, the university offered applicants a range of financial inducements, while touting the program as “ultra-affordable.”
In November 2018, Swazi media reported that the students were being forced to work 40 hours per week peeling chicken skins in a refrigerated factory in exchange for their lessons and accommodation.
Following the incident, the ministry ordered the university to cancel the students’ employment contracts and assist them in returning to a full class schedule.
It also reduced the university’s international student recruitment quota for the 2019-2020 academic year, the ministry said.
The students remained enrolled and were given tuition discounts, grants for living expenses and assistance in finding legitimate internship opportunities, it said.
However, earlier this year, the students reported that Mingdao University had reduced their financial benefits and imposed new minimum work requirements for their internships or other “service learning” activities, the ministry said.
University president Kuo Chu-hsun (郭秋勳) held a news conference on Thursday last week with five of the students, who said that the work conditions did not amount to labor abuse.
However, in a letter to the ministry on Tuesday, the Union of Private School Educators said that the university took the international students’ wages in the form of monthly “donations” from the factories where they worked, and used only a portion of that money to offset their tuition and expenses.
The union pointed to the school’s publicly available donation records from 2012 to 2018, which it urged the ministry to investigate.
Union president Yu Jung-hui (尤榮輝) said that the university had forced the students into “fake internships” without any form of oversight, and had damaged Taiwan’s reputation.
Rather than try to “cover up” the university’s behavior, the ministry should ban it from recruiting international students for the coming school year, Yu said.
University secretary-general and director of human resources Chan Kuo-hua (詹國華) on Wednesday said that there is no connection between international students’ tuition and corporate donations.
The discounts offered to the Swazi students — including semester tuition of NT$10,000, compared with the standard rate of about NT$50,000 — add up to far more than companies donate to the school, he said.
Regarding the labor abuse allegations, Chan said that under the original program, students studied three days on campus and worked three days at internships every week.
The university suspended that arrangement on orders from the ministry, he added.
As many international students still need employment to afford their expenses, the university allowed them to voluntarily choose internships from a screened list of employers, with a limit of 20 work hours per week, Chan said.
The internships are arranged between students and the employers, without involvement from the university or employment brokers, and are in compliance with Taiwanese labor law, he said.
The ministry said that it is illegal for universities to use brokers to recruit international students or arrange work for them.
Schools that breach the law would face severe penalties, it said.
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