Group Aims to Help Foreign Laborers
One out of every 40 people in Taiwan today is a migrant laborer from Southeast Asia. Now a "migrant workers' business school” founded by Taiwanese youths aims to help them realize their dreams.
Group Aims to Help Foreign LaborersBy Kwangyin Liu
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 578 )
Well-dressed Indonesian residents of Taipei are seated on the floor in a variety of locations, from the 228 Peace Park to the grand concourse of Taipei Main Station, happily enjoying food and conversation together. The date is July 19, which this year is also known as Eid al-Fitr, the celebration that marks the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
Many of the women's headscarves and clothes are adorned with sequins as well as pearl-inlaid pendants, and they wear light makeup. It's no surprise that they have taken so much care; for many of them, today is their only day off all year.
Outside the Muslim prayer room in the underground mall below Taipei Main Station, a group of young Taiwanese listens intently as Yuuny, a 27-year-old Indonesian domestic helper, recites a prayer in Arabic.
A domestic helper in Taipei's Neihu District, Yuuny has lived in Taiwan for five years. "I'm delighted to celebrate Eid with these young people,” she says with a laugh and a smile.
The group of Taiwanese youths gathers here not for an event held by a government organization, but convened by 26-year-old Kevin Chen, founder of the Career for Change initiative. Half a year ago, he and his partners began setting up the "One-Forty” team. Since officially going online in early July, they were able to mobilize 20 people through Facebook to take part in an "Eid mini tour,” a visit through the Taipei Main Station environs and the nearby Indonesian commercial street accompanied by Indonesian migrant workers. The tour was initiated in hopes that Taiwanese can get to know these "familiar strangers” in their midst.
Why are they known as "One-Forty?” Chen explains that the number of migrant workers from Southeast Asia in Taiwan is now approaching 600,000, or one for every 40 Taiwanese people.
"We're not all that different,” Chen relates. "We all seek better lives. But as we're doing so from different places, we rarely make the effort to get to know one another.”
A series of coincidences unexpectedly led to him getting to know Taiwan's migrant workers.
After completing an undergraduate business degree at National Chengchi University, Chen decided to take three months off to travel. He went to the Philippines, where he took English lessons at a cram school owned by a Korean friend while immersing himself in local life, and making a lot of Pinoy friends.
Following his return to Taiwan, the younger sister of a friend considering looking for work in Taiwan asked Chen to help her gather information. Throwing himself into the task, he came up against a tangle of confusing legal regulations, prompting him to go to Taipei Main Station and churches to strike up conversations with people to try and learn about migrant workers' lives in Taiwan.
In doing this, he soon discovered how difficult it is for Taiwanese people to get inside migrant worker circles. Apart from language barriers, mental obstacles also got in the way, as they often took him for a scammer or sales person. This left him feeling defeated for a time.
Subsequently working at a consulting company while also teaching Chinese at the Taiwan International Workers Association (TIWA), Chen even began taking lessons in Bahasa Indonesia at his own expense. His dream is for more Taiwanese youths to get to know migrant workers and no longer be oblivious or blind to their existence.
"We don't want to preach to people, saying things like 'migrant workers aren't like that,' but rather create avenues for everyone interested in getting to know migrant workers,” he says.
Chen honed in on university students as his target audience. On the one hand, he knows how to communicate with young people. On the other, he knew that if he struck a chord with them and got them to join the migrant worker cultural movement, they could build participation and momentum over the Internet. The long-term goal is to let employers know what migrant workers need in order to ultimately forge a friendly working environment for them.
A Tour of Indonesia in Taipei
One-Forty's first event was to set up the Migrant Worker Business School. Noting that many migrant workers wish to open up small shops after returning to their home countries, he volunteered to contribute what he'd learned as a business student, teaching over 20 migrant workers such management topics as basic finance, operations, and marketing in eight classes held over a three-month period.
After word spread, many people wrote him, asking, "When can you put on an event for Taiwanese people to get to know migrant workers?” This gave him the idea to hold a mini tour of the Indonesian community at the end of Ramadan, though he had only a week to put it all together.
Since he was targeting youth, Chen adopted a lively visual design and relaxed tone for the community tour to help balance out the seriousness of migrant workers' issues and make it more inviting for young people to get to know migrant workers.
Lin Zi-yu, a twenty-something software company employee who participated in the Indonesian community tour, said, "Before I had only heard about events for migrant workers, but never anything like a mini tour for Taiwanese people.”
Once information about the event hit the Internet, Chen started receiving invitations from all sorts of groups to link up, including the Good Partner Workspace in Taichung, the Ilan Fisheries Association, and an independent bookstore in Kaohsiung's Yancheng District, each of which expressed interest in partnering with One-Forty to put on migrant worker tours.
In addition to cultural exchange, Chen also hopes to engender tangible improvements in migrant workers' lives.
"Does the design of existing Muslim prayer rooms really conform to users' needs?” Chen asked participants to consider regarding the Muslim prayer room established at the Taipei Main Station underground mall early this year.
Before engaging in prayer, Muslims wash their faces and feet in respect to Allah, but Chen observed that the nearest restroom from the prayer room is over 100 meters away.
He also noted that the information posted outside the prayer room was only written in Chinese and English, and the lack of signs in Bahasa Indonesian left out a sizable segment of users.
Along with staff member Sophia Wu, Chen will hold a social design workshop in late August, at which Indonesians and Taiwanese will get together to brainstorm about how the Muslim prayer room can be improved.
"Indonesians can be involved with the design of their environment and foster confidence, while Taiwanese can witness Indonesians' creativity,” Wu relates.
Building confidence is no easy task, however, and Wu notes that her Indonesian friends have confided in her that they often encounter negative attitudes among Taiwanese, acting as if they were employers themselves.
"I worked in the United States myself, which was essentially the same sort of foreign labor, but Americans never made me feel as though they were looking down on me,” she says, illustrating her view that Taiwanese attitudes toward migrant laborers could stand improvement.
New to Entrepreneurship
Both Chen and Wu admit that they are still feeling their way in their operational approach. In the initial period they will not charge fees from migrant workers, and plan to raise money via public fundraising in the future, accepting corporate donations, or acting as talent agencies or training platforms for Southeast Asians to generate income.
Though Chen is filled with passion, some people still wonder how he can help migrant workers start businesses if he has never had any entrepreneurial success himself.
"At least his starting point is well intentioned,” says Zhang Zheng, former editor-in-chief of the 4-Way Voice news publication and founder of the Southeast Asian-themed Good Times bookstore. Zhang sees Chen's endeavors in a positive light, and believes it will encourage young people to participate more in migrant worker issues.
In Zhang's mind, letting Taiwanese get to know Southeast Asia, or even visit the region, is a good thing.
"Even though Kevin Chen lacks entrepreneurial experience, he has poured more effort and interest into it than many entrepreneurs I have met,” relates Jauyi Wu, co-founder of the Career for Change initiative, adding that in nearly two years of actively studying migrant workers' issues, Chen has toured Hong Kong, Indonesia and the Philippines,meeting with advocacy groups like Oxfam ernational along the way.
"I think he's found a challenge the whole world is facing. If the issue is handled well, it can be applied beyond Taiwan in the future,” she says hopefully.
One of One-Forty's founding principles is "All Dreams Are Created Equal.” Chen's dream may be small, but he is keen to stride towards the future alongside migrant workers in pursuit of all of their dreams.
Translated from the Chinese by David Toman