Taipei exemplifies the many ways in which migration has fostered a multicultural turn of the Taiwanese urban landscape. Public spaces like parks, churches, train stations and rallies such as the May Day Rally provide migrant domestic workers an opportunity to gather, catch up with one and other, meet new people, and exchange information. Whether it is at the hospital, near an elementary school or at the nearest public park, one thing is commonly observable: a migrant domestic worker or live-in caregiver accompanying an older adult, or picking up the kids after school. These daily occurrences speak to the crucial roles performed on a daily basis throughout the past several decades by these migrant women. In addition, they shed light on the new lives and principles they voluntarily accept, all in an attempt to contribute to the welfare of their families in their country of origin.
Yet, despite the physically strenuous and emotional labour they perform, they continue to face many employment restrictions and unreasonable working conditions. They are injected in the labour force with predetermined entry and exit terms. Most workers are indebted to their broker agency, carrying significant loans that they will spend the next few years paying back. Also, their living and working arrangements vary greatly as they must reside with their employer and are bound by contract to them. Domestic workers are an exploited labour, often underpaid and overworked. The nature of home-based care means workers face inherent vulnerabilities created by the household as a work environment in the private sphere which can increase the likeliness of abuse.
In addition, the categorization in itself of “productive industries” and “social welfare” by the Ministry of Labour refers to a larger and widespread perception tied with gender and cultural norms. The legal exclusion and the categorization of “social welfare” means that care and domestic work are still not recognized as “real” work or deemed of equal importance as “productive” labour industries deserving of equal protection and benefits. This fundamental misconception ignores that, in essence, productive and reproductive labour are not in fact different from one another. It is reproductive labour that makes the other possible, and vice versa.
As we have seen in great numbers and from many regions of Taiwan during the Labour Day weekend, migrants’ fight for equal rights and better employment conditions is not one without support. Civil society actors and advocacy groups go to great lengths to raise awareness, provide workshops and educational resources to not only further domestic workers’ rights but help shed lights on public biases, misconceptions and ignorance involving Southeast asian countries, cultures and people. With very little resources, these groups are able to stage effective protests in front of key institutions, provide policy recommendations and launch campaigns to educate migrant workers on their rights and help them directly if need be.
Nonetheless, despite a few changes, so far these efforts have yielded few significant results in overhauling guest worker policies and the systemic issues, as well as the practices that complaisance by institutional actors reifies. The practices rendered permissible within Taiwan’s guest worker, labour and immigration policies continue to reinforce migrant workers’ exclusion. The treatment of migrant workers in Taiwan remains a decisive test for civic nationalism and its civic aspiration in Taiwan.
Although the new government has shown a greater degree of recognition on the contribution of migrant workers in promoting policy reforms, Taiwan’s increased reliance on migrant labour for reproductive labour as a nation-state and a society facing acute demographic challenges is not a viable long-term solution. The acuteness of these changes will only continue to increase in the years and decade to come, much like in the case of its East Asian neighbours and most advanced economies. The assumption of the traditional reliance on the family for welfare is less and less possible, given changing family patterns in our post-industrial era.
The Tsai government intends to reset its relationship with its Southeast Asian neighbours in an effort to decrease Taiwan’s dependence on the Chinese market. In August of 2016, the Indonesian government delayed its prohibition on domestic helpers working abroad starting from 2017 to 2019. DPP lawmakers were given assurances after a meeting in Indonesia that the targeted countries were in the Middle East and :”would not affect Taiwan.” Notably, President Tsai’s “New Southbound Policy” was also discussed in the hope that Taiwanese businesses would expand their investments in Indonesia.
What is certain is that the treatment and labour conditions of migrant workers in Taiwan must go hand in hand with its efforts in revamping its business, trade and bilateral relations with its Southeast Asian neighbours. Only then can there be a solid foundation for a prosperous Southeast Asia policy. To face this, there must be changes to the outsourcing of care work as a guiding policy response, which has now been in place for over three decades as Taiwan approaches the one million migrant workers mark.
This means addressing the historical lack of investment in welfare programs, elder care and the productivist legacy of these policies. The treatment and impact of its guest worker policies and migration regime continue to remain one of the main limitations of the civic nationalism that Taiwan now prides itself on internationally. As a consolidated liberal democracy, another solution can be to open a debate about the public anxieties regarding the question of immigration.
Ultimately, Taiwan could entirely overhaul the current restrictions. Until then, this civic aspiration rests mainly with Taiwan’s civil society and its youth, visible in great numbers on the May Day Rally. There should exist a set of solutions for Taiwan to promote mutually beneficial economic development in the region that focuses on the people its society tends to forget, working in its shadows, caring for its households, people and economy.
(Feature photo of May Day Rally in 2017, by Yannis-Adam Allouache)