Taiwan's Youth Exodus
Why Taiwanese Are Willing to Be Foreign Workers
Why would young Taiwanese want to work in Singapore as low-skilled migrant workers? Why would they still want to go even if they are exploited and treated badly?
Why Taiwanese Are Willing to Be Foreign WorkersBy Rebecca Lin
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 541 )
It is January 5, a Sunday.
On page ten of the Lianhe Zaobao, Singapore's largest newspaper, a bold headline screams "Catching sight of fresh blood from Taiwan."
The subhead on the right reads: The economy in the doldrums, Taiwan's young people "leave the country."
With a few concise words the subheadline deftly describes the conundrum of Taiwan's Generation Y, those born from the early 1980s to the turn of the century.
Not long ago, The Straits Times, Singapore's main English daily, carried a similar news report.
Originally, Taiwan and Singapore were competing neck-and-neck among the "Four Little Dragons" of East Asia (a group of rapidly developing economies that also included Hong Kong and South Korea). Yet after 2003 Taiwan's economic growth rate began to lag far behind Singapore's. And as the average salary kept rising in Singapore, exceeding NT$90,000 in 2012, it did not even reach half that figure in Taiwan. (Table 1&2)
The huge salary gap has become the driving force behind the exodus of young people from Taiwan. They flock to Singapore because Chinese is one of the official languages spoken there, and they are even content with the lowest-level work permit.
"The educational level or skills of the young people remains unchanged, but they are considered less valuable, both in terms of their position within the company hierarchy and their salary. This is already happening," says Melody Lu, assistant professor at the Department of Sociology at the University of Macau.
Once Singaporean employers perceive Taiwanese nationals as cheap laborers and a relevant stereotype has implanted itself in people's minds, it will be hard to erase.
Problem No. 1: Supply and Demand out of Balance
Why has Taiwan fallen so low that it has gained the image of exporting "migrant laborers"? The main reason is that Taiwan is bringing up the rear among the Four Little Dragons in terms of its economic growth rate. The island has failed to upgrade its industry, while salaries and wages have hovered at the low end for a long time. As universities open their doors wide to attract more students, they produce more graduates than the labor market can absorb. As a result, young people leave for greener pastures outside of Taiwan.
The low-wage service industry is one of the most obvious "disaster zones." The two main areas of study from which Singapore snatches most Taiwanese talent – hospitality management and early childhood education – both count among the lowest-paying fields in Taiwan.
The average salary in the service industry rose from NT$37,000 per month in 1995 to NT$50,000 in the first half of 2012, a rise of 35 percent. But during the same period, the pay for unskilled workers in the hotel and restaurant industry increased only from NT$17,600 to NT$22,000, hardly enough to make a living. (Table 3)
Another reason why salaries fail to go up in certain sectors is that universities and colleges have launched a host of new departments in hot trend industries. A high number of new courses have been launched in currently highly popular culinary studies and baking as well as hotel management. The number of graduates leaving vocational colleges and universities every year has risen from 4,800 people in 2008 to 7,500 people in 2012, representing a 56 percent increase over five years.
Although the number of graduates in the hospitality industry has risen sharply, hotels and restaurants still complain they have trouble finding the right people. Hsin Ping-lung, associate professor at the Graduate Institute of National Development at National Taiwan University, observes that employers in the restaurant business are not willing to pay decent salaries. As a result, turnover is extremely high for basic staff. "Such people can be certain to find another solution or even go abroad to find work," notes Hsin.
University and college campuses have therefore become a major hunting ground for foreign employers in need of talent. In recent years, an increasing number of graduates from the highly regarded Kai Ping Culinary School in Taipei have been hired by recruiters from leading Singaporean and Chinese hotel and restaurant chains. "They're all searching for basic staff to fill entry-level positions," notes Howard Hsia, the school's vice principal and director of culinary arts. The school merely serves as a platform, but does not encourage recruitment drives at all, Hsia says.
There is a clear imbalance between industry needs and the kind of talent that schools churn out. Industry insiders often complain that they cannot use the talent that schools produce. "But when you ask them: 'What kind of people do you want?' 99 out of 100 people are not able to tell you," remarks San-quei Lin, director general of the Bureau of Employment and Vocational Training at the Council of Labor Affairs.
Problem No. 2: Gov't Has No Clue about Overseas Taiwanese Workers
The government faces this new phenomenon of manpower export with blissful ignorance. There are no figures available as to how many "Taiwanese workers" have gone abroad, let alone relevant response measures to stem the resulting brain drain.
Lan Ke-jeng, associate professor at the Department of Labor Relations of National Chung Cheng University, once tried to get information from various cabinet agencies for research on the overseas employment of young Taiwanese. "As soon as a topic concerns several cabinet agencies, things get extremely difficult," laments Lan, frustrated that he was not able to find significant data from anywhere in the government.
He cites as an example that overseas travel study programs fall under the responsibilities of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, whereas overseas internships are a Ministry of Education matter. Arrivals and departures are monitored by the National Immigration Agency under the Ministry of the Interior, but only the dates are registered, not the purpose of the trip abroad. The National Tax Administration, for its part, only checks on employees who are dispatched overseas by their companies. Even less information is available at the National Development Council, which is in charge of population policy.
Foreign employers from areas other than China who recruited workers in Taiwan through manpower agencies provided a total of 14,700 job opportunities in 2013, according to figures from the Bureau of Employment and Vocational Training. This compares to an average 31,600 Taiwanese who were looking for jobs overseas.
But there are no exact figures available as to how many actually landed a job abroad as desired. "We must frankly admit that Taiwan still does not have any precise figures on the number of people who have left to work overseas," the Bureau's San-quei Lin admits.
"Maybe no one dares to face the truth, but without the truth we can't put any policy into action," says one frustrated cabinet official.
It takes concrete figures before an inter-ministerial platform can be set up, or else the issue of "young Taiwanese working abroad" will become a no man's land for policymakers. But if everything is left to the forces of the free market, dubious manpower agencies will likely fill the void.
Taiwanese Workers, No Different from Slaves?
Even in Singapore, where everything is said to be done by the book, it happens that employers withhold foreign workers' passports, in a clear violation of the law.
Mr. S, a Taiwanese who came to Singapore for work, tells CommonWealth Magazine in private that his employer has confiscated the passports of all work permit holders. If a foreign employee wants to go on vacation outside Singapore or return to Taiwan, he or she is required to first find a guarantor.
"We're no different from slave workers," fumes Mr. S. He is well aware that his employer is violating the law, but because he wants to keep his job, he swallows the insult and does not protest.
Particularly now that Taiwan is in the process of signing free trade agreements with various countries, the government should include special provisions in such trade pacts or sign an extra labor protection agreement to protect the employment rights of Taiwanese citizens in other countries.
Last year, the number of tourists visiting Taiwan passed the 8 million mark for the first time, making it the world's tenth fastest growing tourism market. At the same time, Taiwan has seen an influx of new immigrants from China and Macao, since the island is widely recognized as the best place to live in the Greater China area.
Yet why has Taiwan's Generation Y turned into a lost generation? And why have some even come to feel that staying in Taiwan offers no hope at all, making them determined to leave, even if it means serving as migrant workers?
What kind of hope can Taiwan bring to this generation of young people?
Translated from the Chinese by Susanne Ganz