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Invisible Population – Taiwan’s Undocumented Migrant Workers

Photo by Olimpia Kot-Giletycz

What is going on?

On January 26, 2024, the Control Yuan, Taiwan’s supervisory branch of government, released a report urging the Executive Yuan to confront the problem of human trafficking and illegal migrant workers. Consequently, it required the Ministry of Labor, the Coast Guard, and the Immigration Agency to cooperate on addressing the problem. In recent years, the agencies have failed to reach a consensus on reducing incentives for illegal immigration, which, the Control Yuan has argued, is a result of an unbalanced migrant workers policy.

 

What is the broader picture?

Since Taiwan opened its labor market in 1992, migrant workers, mainly from Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, and the Philippines, have played a crucial role in undertaking so-called 3D occupations (Dirty, Dangerous, and Demanding), mostly at construction sites, in agriculture, as caregivers, and as fishers. Of 745,000 migrant workers registered in 2023, roughly 84,000 were identified as unaccounted workers in data provided by Taiwan’s Ministry of Labor. Over the past five years, nearly 1128 undocumented workers have been arrested in Taiwan, many of whom were previously in legal employment. Last year also saw the deaths of 13 Vietnamese citizens who were thought to have been victims of human trafficking.

According to the Control Yuan report, a major reason for the growing number of undocumented migrant workers is an imbalance between Taiwan’s labor market and labor policies, which results in workers being burdened by brokerage fees and left prone to debt bondage in order to secure their jobs. This, in turn, drives them to seek higher wages, or else leaves them constrained by an inability to change workplace, as their status is tied to a single employer and, thus, open to exploitation. A recent raise in the national minimum wage in Taiwan, effective January 1, 2024, will benefit about 341,800 migrant workers, though caregivers and domestic helpers, whose minimum wage is not covered by Taiwan’s Labor Standards Act, will miss out. Their average income was around the NT$18 000 mark as of 2022. One of the most vulnerable groups of migrant workers is unaccounted mothers with children. These women often lose their jobs over pregnancy and see no alternative but to undertake illegal work. Their children become undocumented and stateless immigrants, unable to avail themselves of proper education or institutional state care.

Taiwan’s Ministry of the Interior has implemented measures to tackle the issue of foreign nationals illegally residing in the country, including the introduction of monetary rewards  to those who report such cases to the authorities. This has come on the back of media that depicts undocumented migrant workers as a threat to national and social security. In 2023, the National Immigration Agency announced a voluntary departure program with minimal penalties for those who have overstayed their visa. Meanwhile, the penalty for employers hiring illegal workers was increased. The European Economic and Trade Office, the Garden of Hope Foundation, the Anti-Human Trafficking Alliance Watch, and the European Values Center for Security Policy Taiwan Office invited three experts from EU countries to visit Taiwan from January 23-26, 2024, to engage in exchanges and discussions with Taiwanese scholars, experts, and officials on two key issues: domestic migrant workers and foreign fishing workers.

 

Why it matters?

Unaccounted migrant workers are a highly vulnerable population due to systemic weaknesses. Currently, Taiwan seems to lack a complete and effective intersectoral migrant worker policy. There are, however, several initiatives Taiwan might look to: the European Council and European Parliament Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence Directive focused on the protection of the environment and human rights in the European Union and globally, as well as an ongoing  Global Labor Strategy aimed at empowering marginalized workers, as well as those in informal and precarious employment marginalized. This could further bolster international exchanges on trends and practices in human rights protection.