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Taiwan's Youth Exodus

The New Migrant Workers


The New Migrant Workers


Taiwan's youth are leaving in droves to serve as low-wage workers in Singapore. Could Taiwan become the next major Asian source of migrants after the Philippines and Indonesia?



The New Migrant Workers

By Rebecca Lin, Teng Kai-yuan
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 541 )

The bright beam of the projector shines on the blackboard, projecting three big Chinese characters reading "Singapore" against the background of a towering forest of skyscrapers.

Wearing a black suit that accentuates his purple shirt, Frank Lin surveys the packed classroom of nearly 60 university students.

"Have you thought about what you will do after you graduate?" he asks the juniors and seniors studying in WuFeng University's Department of Early Childhood Educare.

The blank stares he gets in return are answer enough.

These students, born in the early 1990s, seem at a loss over their futures.

On the bulletin board outside the classroom, a two-page "XX Group Singapore Pre-school Teacher Recruitment Plan" flutters in the wind. What catches the eye are conditions of employment – "Same Work Hours, Higher Pay," and "S$2,000 a month" (equal to about NT$46,000).

Lin, whose name card identifies him as part of the group's headhunting division, obtained contact information from roughly 15 people after the presentation, meaning that one out of every four Taiwanese attendees showed interest in the Singapore opportunity.

Manpower brokers such as Lin have been flocking to college and university campuses around Taiwan since the second half of last year.

"In just two months, I've heard from at least five manpower brokers who want to give presentations," says Wang Li-hui, the head of the Early Childhood Educare Department, holding a thick stack of single-page flyers from manpower agencies.

Until now, Taiwanese manpower brokers have primarily focused on importing foreign workers for the domestic construction and manufacturing sectors and to serve as caregivers, but they have now discovered a new opportunity: helping young Taiwanese find work abroad, sending them primarily to Singapore. The vast majority will serve as low-wage workers at the lowest rungs of the companies that employ them.

"Actually, I fully realize that this involves sending students to be Taiwanese migrant workers," says Wang, her eyes betraying the inner conflict she feels. Wang has misgivings about the flood of manpower agency recruiters visiting the school but feels an obligation to help department graduates with their professional futures, considering that they face starting salaries averaging only NT$20,000 a month in jobs in central and southern Taiwan.

The search for pre-school teachers is only the latest trend in Singapore's grab for Taiwanese talent. Previous recruitment drives have targeted people for other relatively low-wage jobs such as hotel, restaurant and airport ground staff, and as salespeople in duty-free and luxury good shops.

So, has Taiwan now become another Philippines or Indonesia, exporting low-level labor to other countries?

Local media has focused the spotlight on glamorous Singaporean hotels, restaurant and ground service operators descending on Taiwan to lure new recruits, but CommonWealth Magazine recently headed to Singapore to get a firsthand look at the realities faced by this new class of Taiwanese workers and how they are coping. What it found was a number of cautionary tales.

Tale No. 1:

No Changing Jobs, No Getting Pregnant

No sooner had CommonWealth reporters arrived at Changi Airport, gotten off the plane and made their way through the jetway than they saw 34-year-old Chen Chi-jun holding a placard reading "CommonWealth Magazine."

As with many like him, Chen wanted to go to Singapore because of Taiwan's relatively low salaries, hoping to achieve something for himself, and took the plunge in May 2013.

"I wanted to come out and give it a try rather than confining myself to Taiwan," he says, explaining that he was hoping to take the service attitudes and concepts he learned in Taiwan and hone them further on a new battlefield.

Chen works as a sales clerk in one of Changi Airport's souvenir shops. As he walks past a dazzling array of duty-free shops, he points to the telltale signs of Taiwanese staff at the many electronics, liquor and cosmetics stores – store clerks speaking Taiwan-accented Mandarin or texting on their mobile phones with Taiwan's zhuyin phonetic system.

In Taiwan, Chen earned NT$35,000 a month. In Singapore he makes roughly NT$48,000 in salary and commission, but only after arriving in the city-state did he realize how many restrictions there were.

"As soon as we arrived, the company sternly warned us that we could not get married and settle down here," Chen says with a wry smile. If a woman gets pregnant, she must get an abortion to hide it from her employer or be deported, he adds.

Such conditions, which are similar to those imposed on migrant workers employed in Taiwan, apply to nearly 80 percent of the Taiwanese who have flocked to Singapore looking for better wages. They generally receive a "Work Permit," issued to foreign unskilled workers making less than S$2,200 (NT$52,000) per month.

Higher-paid workers can receive an "S Pass," for mid-level skilled foreigners making at least S$2,200 a month, or an "Employment Pass," given to foreign professionals earning at least S$3,300 per month. The basic work permit given to unskilled workers doing menial jobs is valid for two years, during which time permit holders must get a physical every six months and are not allowed to change jobs without authorization, get married, or get pregnant. Women with basic work permits who do get pregnant are sent home.

There are currently just over 60,000 Taiwanese in Singapore, according to estimates by the city-state's Ministry of Manpower. Once dominated by investment and professional immigrants, the composition of that group has come to be dominated in just the past 10 years by poorly paid migrant workers.

The recent wave of people seeking work in Singapore has grown from 300-400 people in 2011, to over 1,000 in 2012 to more than 4,000 in 2013, growing ten-fold in just three years, Taiwanese and Singaporean manpower agencies estimate.

"And that's a quite conservative estimate," stresses Chou Hai-cheng, the director of Taichung-based Shixin International Human Resources Ltd.

Tale No. 2

Four Rooms, One Living Room for 20 People

Aside from the ambition to forge their careers, many young Taiwanese head to Singapore because of uncertainty over their futures in Taiwan. One of them, Sung Wei-yi, a young 20-something who graduated from Chinese Culture University in Taipei last year with a degree in Chinese literature, agreed to meet CommonWealth reporters at a huge mall.

In densely populated Singapore, shopping malls are the only recreational space the vast majority of the city's residents have.

"I don't have any professional skills and still owe more than NT$200,000 in student loans. I really don't know what I can do in the future," says the 1.65-meter tall, slightly pudgy Sung. She is representative of most college graduates in Taiwan, who seem completely befuddled by what the future holds.

Sung believed that she could gain valuable experience by working in Singapore, and with the possibility of earning a salary equal to more than NT$30,000 a month, making the move seemed like a good option.

She found a job through a manpower broker working at a bookstore at Changi Airport, and set off to Singapore on her own with a suitcase stuffed with a quilt, a pillow, and big bottles of shampoo and body wash, looking forward to the opportunity.

But on her first day there, Sung immediately regretted her decision.

Her broker arranged for her to live in a four-bedroom, one living-room apartment packed with more than 20 people. Three bunk beds are squeezed into each room, and there are no desks on which to put a computer.

"If you even twitch at night, the entire bed makes a creaking sound," she says of her accommodation, for which she pays the equivalent of NT$6,000 a month.

Even worse, her S$1,400 (NT$33,000) salary is not even half the going rate for Singaporean university graduates. To save money, Sung spends no more than S$10 (NT$240) combined on food per day, while her colleagues think nothing of spending that much on a single meal.

Faced with such difficult living conditions, many might consider quitting and returning home to Taiwan. But Sung says that's not an option. "I don't want to lose. If I returned, this is all there would be my entire life," she explains. Sung's persistence earned her the company's award for best new employee just before the Lunar New Year, helping her stand out among nearly 100 colleagues.

"Here, I'm a Taiwanese migrant worker. I know that," Sung says, spitting out each word, each syllable shouldering the blood, sweat and tears of the previous six months. But if she went home to Taiwan and could not find a job paying at least NT$35,000 a month, "I think I would still return to Singapore to work and make money," she says.

Tale No. 3

Replicating the Migrant Worker Model

For Taiwanese born in the 1980s and 1990s, the migrant labor phenomenon symbolizes the low-wage curse suffocating an entire generation. The massive propulsion generated by the prospects of low pay is driving these young adults away from their homeland.

To Taiwan, which boasts of being one of the "Four Little Dragons" of East Asia (along with South Korea, Hong Kong and Singapore), the outflow of talent and its transformation into a labor-exporting country represent a warning that is nothing less than shocking.

The massive wage gap between Singapore and Taiwan has been behind the recent "Taiwan migrant worker" phenomenon. Most of the Taiwanese who move abroad for work are graduates from second- and third-tier universities who face limited prospects for a decent-paying job at home.

"I came to Taiwan previously in 1997. At the time, university graduates were making over NT$30,000, about the same as in Singapore," says a Singaporean manpower broker who was only willing to be identified as Mr. H.

When he returned in 2011, he saw on the news that local students were earning NT$22,000 a month, or about S$900, not even a third of the S$3,000 paid to university graduates in Singapore.

"Why are wages in Taiwan so low? I don't understand it either," he says.

In opening its service sector to foreign workers, Singapore's government required that such workers come from only Malaysia, Hong Kong, Macau, South Korea or Taiwan. In the past, service businesses there almost exclusively recruited Chinese Malaysians. But with Malaysia's economy growing rapidly in recent years, Macau's population so small that it also relies on imported labor, and the lack of Chinese-language skills in South Korea, Taiwanese became the top choice to fill the gap in Malaysian workers.

"This is truly sad for Taiwan," says Wang Ching-cheng, who has worked in the manpower sector for more than 20 years. He went to Singapore in January to get a feel for the environment there, only to discover that the model being used to export Taiwanese workers to the city-state is little different from how foreign workers have been imported into Taiwan – both rely on taking advantage of wage gaps in two countries and making a profit on the difference through manpower brokerage services. The thought leaves Wang despondent at how far Taiwan has fallen.

Wang's company has a comprehensive set of services encompassing both exporting migrant workers from their branch offices in Indonesia and the Philippines, and importing them into Taiwan.

Wang Ching-cheng says that the governments of the Philippines, Indonesia and other labor-exporting countries have searched for ways in recent years to keep their people at home. "It is now Taiwan that has descended into sending people abroad, and sending them to another of the Four Little Dragons at that," Wang says, shaking his head in disbelief.

So what is it that is forcing young Taiwanese out of the country? Could it be the pervasive lack of hope in the country's economic environment?

Melody Chia-wen Lu, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Macau who has studied migrant workers, explains that many people leave their homes because the environments in which they live offer them no hope and no prospects for the future.

But if those going abroad do so without a clear objective, they usually suffer from unrealistic dreams or unscrupulous manpower brokers, she says.

"In Singapore, when it comes to workers with basic work permits, there is no way businesses will train them well or try to cultivate their abilities," she says, noting that the Singaporean government's policy does not allow low-level foreign workers any type of upward mobility.

Even so, some people who head there still harbor illusions of working their way up.

"To be perfectly honest, it is still too early to say whether this group of young people will be successful," says one Singapore-based reporter who has closely followed the human resources beat. Any hope for personal career growth is especially difficult for those with basic work permits, and the possibility of planting roots in the city-state faces even longer odds, the reporter says.

As CommonWealth Magazine reporters were returning to Taiwan, they ran into Ho Chia-hsin, a sales clerk at a Changi Airport chocolate shop whom they met earlier in the trip.

"I'm thinking that maybe I'll go back home to Taiwan after completing a year here," says Ho, who borrowed NT$150,000 from a bank and was full of hope about her prospects in Singapore. "There's still a gap between the dream and reality," she acknowledges in little more than a whisper.

Back in Taiwan, Kuo Chuan-wen, who worked at a hotel in Singapore for two and a half years, has trouble explaining what she gained from her time there.

"You're asking me what I learned?" says Kuo after a long pause. "I was afraid you would ask me that question, because I can't answer it."

After returning to Taiwan, Kuo started again at the bottom rung of the ladder, working the front desk at a hotel in southern Taiwan. "Maybe it's being able to adjust to different cultures," she finally answered vaguely.

The "Singapore experience" evidently adds little to the competitiveness of young workers when they return to Taiwan's labor market. The trend of overseas migrant labor may be dealing a serious blow to the country. But it also raises another more fundamental question. In this confounding era of low wages and high uncertainty, what can young adults do? Is creating a class of "Taiwanese migrant workers" an alternative that Taiwanese society is willing to accept?

Translated from the Chinese by Luke Sabatier