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Walls Around the City upon a Hill? Taiwan-India MOU on Labor Cooperation

What is going on?

Taiwan and India, one of the 18 target countries of the New Southbound Policy, President Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) flagship foreign policy instrument, recently signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) on labor cooperation, creating a channel for Indian migrant workers to explore job opportunities in Taiwan. The bilateral employment mobility deal has been a source of controversy in Taiwan ever since the negotiations accelerated in late 2023. Most recently, Taiwan’s labor minister Hsu Ming-chun (許銘春), has been criticized for her discriminatory remarks stating the administration’s preference for “light-skinned, Christian migrant workers from the Indian Northeast with similar dietary habits.” The debate surrounding the opening of the Taiwanese labor market to migrants from India exposes the larger problems of the abysmal treatment of migrant workers and racial discrimination in Taiwan.


What is the broader picture?

In light of the complementarity between Taipei’s and New Delhi’s key foreign policy tools, the New Southbound Policy and the Act East policy, respectively, cooperation between Taiwan and India has been expanding, despite the absence of formal diplomatic ties. Employment mobility has emerged as a new area for cooperation between Taiwan and India.

The prospect of Indian migrant workers arriving in labor-strained Taiwan has become a subject of a heated debate in the island country. Discriminatory remarks and harmful stereotypes have abounded. Some netizens expressed their concern about the effect of migration from India on women’s safety, referring to the proliferation of sexual assault cases in India. It also became politicized in the electoral campaign, with the Kuomintang (KMT) presidential nominee Hou Yu-ih (侯友宜) falsely claiming the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) had signed an opaque deal to bring as many as 100 thousand Indian migrants to Taiwan.

On February 16, both sides signed the labor deal, while implementation details will still need to be worked out, starting with a “small-scale trial.” During a press conference on February 29, DPP’s Hsu Ming-chun said, “Taiwan will recruit small batches of Indian migrant workers from Christian areas of northeastern India where skin color and dietary habits are similar to those in Taiwan.” These racist remarks sparked outcry even within her own party. DPP legislator Kuan-Ting Chen (陳冠廷) expressed his “strong condemnation” for Hsu and asserted that race or skin color cannot be a factor in the recruitment of foreign workers, as equality is “one of the basic foundations of [Taiwan].”

Hsu’s overt prejudice begs further questions about the situation of migrant workers in Taiwan. In 2023, there were 745,000 migrant workers registered, most of whom hail from four Southeast Asian nations: Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Thailand. Often undertaking undesirable “3D” (dirty, dangerous, and difficult) jobs, migrant workers fill in gaps in labor supply in critical industries, from construction and manufacturing to domestic and institutional eldercare. Yet, they regularly face discriminatory treatment, which intensified during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Republic of China ratified the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination in 1966, prior to its expulsion from the United Nations, and Taipei issued its first national report on the implementation of the Convention in December 2022. At the same time, Taiwanese authorities seek to sweep Taiwan’s racism problem under the rug. Notably, in 2020, foreign ministry spokesperson Joanne Ou (歐江安) asserted, “the problem of racism doesn’t actually exist in Taiwan” in response to discriminatory remarks aimed at World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.


Why does it matter?

Taiwan has sought to expand its international space through normative appeals, and particularly, its strong human rights record. Asia’s aspiring “city upon a hill,” Taiwan strengthens its international reputation by emphasizing its commitment to human rights, liberty, and the rule of law, which are essential values for democratic countries around the world. This also allows Taipei to distinguish itself from the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The PRC, which has one of the most abysmal human rights records globally, claims Taiwan as an “inseparable part” of its territory despite never having controlled it.  

At the same time, there are still outstanding issues of concern when it comes to human rights and diversity, equity, and inclusion policies. The treatment of migrant workers in Taiwan is a concerned voiced explicitly by the European Union, and advocating for better legal protection for offshore migrant fishers and migrant domestic workers is one of the key priorities for the EU’s human rights action in Taiwan. The controversy surrounding the new employment mobility agreement between Taiwan and India illustrates that migrant workers are still victims of discriminatory treatment, which requires an inter-sectoral, multi-stakeholder response.


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