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FEATURE/Connecting with underground society: Author tells stories of migrant workers

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Indonesian workers clean up the area around the ASEAN Plaza building, which is formerly known as First Square in Taichung. File photo courtesy of a worker who identifies herself as "Pinky" April 12, 2018
A demonstrator holds a sign calling for the elimination of the broker system during a migrant worker's march in Taipei on Dec. 12, 2023. CNA photo
Labor Minister Hsu Ming-chun (center) attends a plaque unveiling ceremony for the Long-term Retention of Migrant Workers Service Center in Hsinchu County on Dec. 6, 2023. CNA photo

By Alison Hsiao, CNA staff reporter

Taiwan began to employ larger numbers of migrant workers as part of its labor force more than 30 years ago. Over the years, although these workers have become increasingly indispensable, the general public's understanding of the community remains limited.

The book, "Underground Lives -- Stories Untold for Migrant Workers in Taiwan" (移工築起的地下社會), is one of the latest efforts by a Taiwanese author to detail and flesh out the lives of these people who are almost invisible in Taiwanese society, especially given their increasing importance.

Authored by reporter-turned freelancer and researcher Chien Yung-ta (簡永達), the 535-page book is a mixture of front-line reportage and academic and policy research, providing an intriguing approach for readers who want to know more about migrant workers as people living next door rather than merely laborers from overseas.

It also asks questions about how Taiwan's policies concerning migrant workers have fared and how long they can continue without major amendments.


Underground lives

The direct translation of the Chinese title of the book is "the underground society erected by migrant workers," which is fitting given what the author depicts in the book.

In the month he lived in a rented room in the First Square building in Taichung -- a place now famous for migrant workers' gatherings and shops -- for his first migrant worker story in 2016, Chien said he was amazed by the vitality of those who in the eyes of many Taiwanese are laborers without the need for social bonds or desires.

"Here they have their own eateries, phone shops, bars with bands started by themselves, barbershops, and even their own gay bars," Chien observed, while hotel rooms for couples in the area and around train stations are always fully booked during weekends and holidays.

The First Square (第一廣場; diyi guangchang) -- also known as yiguang or simply referred to as "the square" within the migrant community -- was once a bustling commercial area in Taichung. A tragic fire in 1995 and the following urban planning left the district and the building empty.

Being abandoned by the Taiwanese people "however helped [the building] develop a sense of security for migrant workers," who more often than not meet much frustration and discrimination in Taiwan as ordinary consumers, according to the book.

The sense of vitality within the underground society of migrant workers, however, was later supplanted by Chien's close contacts with them and his learning about their vulnerabilities as he reported on their occupational injuries.

Every two hours a migrant worker in Taiwan suffers an occupational injury, and the chance such injuries will leave them disabled or dead is two or three times higher than that for Taiwanese workers, wrote Chien in the book, where he documented how Taiwan has become "a hazardous island" in the words of migrant workers.

"The longer I did those stories [about occupational injuries] the more depressed I got. I felt that I could easily see their fate, that they could be easily pulled into a downward spiral, unable to receive due compensations, or worse, being taken home in an urn," he said.

"They are so trapped in this structure; there was a sense of having no way out," Chien lamented.

Nevertheless, the energy at yiguang was no less true, he said.

In the author's eyes, these people who dared to travel overseas, envisioning a better future, are no different from those who crossed the Taiwan Strait from China hundreds of years ago to search for a better life and the chance to thrive.

The spark from the tension between these ambitious people with human agency and Taiwan's rigid laws and migrant worker regime prompted him to further write about their dreams and personal stories.

The part on occupational injuries in the book ends with the author starting new chapters devoted to how migrant workers in Taiwan take the initiative to improve their circumstances and protect themselves. They are shown participating in protests, organizing unions, starting their own businesses, or looking for quality time with friends by joining coastal cleanup groups and beauty pageants.

"A core question I wanted to answer through these stories was how these people form social ties and networks to support those in their own community," Chien said.

The mutual support is not only financial, like Vietnamese migrant workers' collective fund -- contributed into with part of their monthly wage -- that acts as insurance for anyone who might one day need the money to have postmortem ceremonial rituals performed in the worst case scenario, or the Indonesian migrant community making donations to take care of migrant workers' newborns -- who Chien calls "transparent babies" in his report about migrant worker pregnancies.

The support is also emotional. "A group of people invited me to a place they rent just to spend time together, to cook, and share meals. It is like they're trying to relive the ambiance of family life, which neither the employer's place nor the dormitory offers," Chien recounted.


Patchwork policy-making

Chien suggests that this underground society is built to counter or in response to the rigidity of legal and administrative institutions in Taiwan.

Taiwan's migrant worker policy regime "has maintained its labor-commodifying nature" decades after it was first introduced, recognizing migrant workers' "economic value" but restricting their "social rights," wrote Chien.

Those aspects that have changed did so for practical reasons, such as extending their legal stay or lowering the hurdles faced by employers when hiring overseas workers.

Viewed through a policy history lens, it would be somewhat easier to see why Taiwan has ended up at the current stage of having an "assembled car," a term Chien uses to describe the country's patchwork-style policy-making on the issue, or slapping new regulations on targeted groups -- which can be migrant workers, labor brokers and employers -- only when the occasion arises.

"When the Taiwanese government first brought migrant workers into the country, it had 'guest workers' or those who were destined to return home after a short stay in mind," said Chien.

The idea came from West Germany following World War II, when the country was short of manpower and had to bring in short-term foreign workers, Chien added.

However, the government failed to keep track of the development of Germany's main group of foreign workers -- Turkish workers, who are now integrated as the country's main minority community.

Or it did, but saw it only as an example of various social problems.

An official from the Council of Labor Affairs (now the Ministry of Labor) in an interview in 1992 cited Germany as an example where foreign workers were a source of social conflict as "foreign laborers without families around and living in a different cultural environment can easily turn to crime."

In 1992, Taiwan's government ultimately chose to follow Singapore's example in adopting a rotation system in which the number of migrant workers and their duration of stay were strictly monitored and controlled, according to the author.

"Since the beginning the government has 'prevented migrant workers from becoming immigrants' as their sole priority in policy thinking," Chien told CNA.

"This was accompanied with various measures to prevent them from entering into areas associated with the daily life of Taiwanese people, so their management has always been rigid and multifaceted to a fault."


An immigrant society?

However, the line separating "migrant workers" from "immigrants" will be increasingly blurred in the future, Chien said.

He warned that even if human rights is not really the government's top concern -- which would be noticeable as Taiwan always touts itself as a human-rights-based nation -- the situation is worrying enough if one looks at it from the perspectives of the economy and labor shortages.

"Which is why I was determined to include the international aspect in the book," he added.

The fourth part of the book is titled "human rights wave" and details how neighboring countries are competing to attract foreign workers with better terms as international clients demand "responsible business" practices or "corporate sustainability due diligence."

Chien said when he first talked about the migrant worker shortage in Taiwan around 2019 -- following trips to Vietnam to have a closer look at how the local labor brokerage was done -- "everyone from the government to scholars challenged me about the idea; they simply didn't think it was imminent."

In the interview with CNA, Chien said the pandemic breaking out in 2020 condensed the problem-realizing span, suddenly highlighting the shortage. In the book he wrote he was told by a broker that the market started to turn into a seller's one and no longer favored buyers as early as 2014.

Japan and South Korea offer better wages than Taiwan, and both are starting to relax their restrictions on foreign workers' permanent residency, with Japan also opening up for the resettlement of their families.

Thailand, from where Taiwan used to get a great number of construction workers, is developing fast with its own construction projects and job opportunities.

"It took Germany about 30 years to change its policy, turning Turkish guest workers into immigrants, and Taiwan has now also reached the 30-year inflection point," Chien said.

In 2022, Taiwan's government rolled out a program to retain "intermediate skilled migrant workers" who after meeting certain conditions will be able to apply for permanent residency. However, Chien said the regulations are still vague as to who can apply and how the conditions can be met, "as the government is still sitting on the fence waiting for public reaction."

"I think now is the time for the Taiwanese public to engage in a necessary discussion on the issue," he stressed. "If they inevitably are to be immigrants in this country, we need to engage in much learning and preparation."

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