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FEATURE/Migrant workers call for realistic eligibility rules in incentive program

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Labor Minister Hsu Ming-chun (second right) stands next to a board showing the number of skilled workers who obtained approval in the retention program in Hsinchu County on Dec. 6, 2023. CNA photo
Gensis Christian Companero works as assistant engineering and maintenance supervisor at food company I-Mei. Photo courtesy of Gensis Christian Companero
Daniel Nugroho works as an engineer in the automotive industry in Tainan. Photo courtesy of Daniel Nugroho.

By Sean Lin, CNA staff reporter

Taiwan launched an initiative in 2022 to encourage migrant workers to stay longer in the country in response to a growing labor shortage. As of 2024, around 20,000 have been certified as "intermediate skilled migrant workers," granting them unlimited length of stay in Taiwan, yet many complain about the elusiveness of some of the touted perks under the program.

Faced with a shortage of about 130,000 workers and a high percentage of migrant workers leaving Taiwan well before reaching the cumulative 12-year limit (14 years for caregivers), the Cabinet rolled out the Long-Term Retention of Skilled Foreign Workers Program on April 30, 2022.

This waived the restriction on how long migrant workers are allowed to work in Taiwan and set out preferential minimum monthly wages for intermediate skilled migrant workers in targeted sectors.

For example, the minimum monthly wage for intermediate skilled migrant workers engaged in construction, manufacturing, deep sea fisheries, farming, and slaughterhouse work, with at least six years of work experience is NT$33,000 (US$1,058), while the minimum monthly pay for intermediate skilled migrant workers who have limited work experience in those sectors but have earned an associate degree in Taiwan is NT$30,000.

That is higher than the minimum monthly wage for the workers in general, currently NT$27,470.

However, apart from higher pay and waiving limits on the length of stay in Taiwan, other incentives such as permanent residency and pensions remain unattainable for many.


Career opportunities

Gensis Christian Companero, who works as an assistant supervisor of maintenance and engineering at food giant I-Mei Foods Co., said he qualified as an intermediate skilled migrant worker last year.

His employer recommended him to the Workforce Development Agency (WDA) as a candidate for the status, but he had to finish 80 hours of pre-recorded video lessons on know-how for the job, attend 64 hours of Mandarin classes, and pass a Mandarin test given by I-Mei in order to qualify.

I-Mei Human Resources Manager Sophia Wu (吳雪枝) said that as Companero was approaching the 12-year limit on his stay in Taiwan, he had to get intermediate skilled migrant worker status quickly, or he would have had to leave Taiwan for good.

Companero said it was very demanding working to be re-classified as an intermediate skilled migrant worker, as he often had to make "sacrifices" juggling work and studying.

Nevertheless, the hard work was well worth it, Companero said, adding that thanks to his new status, he was promoted to his current position and received a salary raise.

Gaining the status also opened up "more possibilities" for his career, Companero said.


Pension or mobility?

Asked if he would like to retire in Taiwan and is confident he will stay with I-Mei long enough to receive a pension, Companero -- who had nothing but glowing praise for I-Mei and even named his daughter after the company -- replied: "Of course."

The company, with more than 400 Filipino employees, is a proven role model in terms of its care for migrant workers, having won praise from both the Taiwanese and Philippine governments.

I-Mei was the first Taiwanese company to strike a deal with Manila and the southern city of Davao to create a government-to-government direct hiring program in 2017, which spares migrant workers from having to pay exorbitant recruitment fees and a subsequent monthly service fee to brokerage firms.

Currently, certified migrant workers with intermediate skills are enrolled in the old pension system which enables them to retire and claim their pension in a lump sum when they turn 55 and have worked for 15 years, when they turn 60 and have worked for 10 years, or when they have continued working for 25 years.

However, workers are required to fulfill one requirement under the pension system to be eligible to claim a pension: They must not have switched employers during the prescribed periods.

Daniel Nugroho, an Indonesian working as an engineer in the automotive industry in Tainan, is less optimistic when it comes to staying in his job over the long haul.

Nugroho had a different experience when his company helped him apply for his intermediate skilled worker status. Because he held a master's degree from National Yunlin University of Science & Technology, he was eligible for the status under the criteria stipulated in the Employment Service Act upon graduation, without having to receive any prior training.

While he would love to retire in Taiwan and claim a pension, which would be "very helpful," Nugroho said he does not see himself working for the same employer for 20-plus years.

"I would prefer to just jump around and find my best career out there," he said, adding that he hopes Taiwan's government will ease the rule on migrant worker pension eligibility.


Uncertain future

When asked whether legal revisions could be introduced to allow intermediate skilled migrant workers to be transferred to the new pension system governed by the Labor Pension Act, or the older system be amended so they do not have to stay with the same company for up to 25 years to claim a pension, officials with the Ministry of Labor told CNA that such changes depend on whether any of the new batch of lawmakers sworn in on Feb. 1 or the administration of President-elect Lai Ching-te (賴清德) sponsors a bill to revise the existing rules.

Similarly, Nurgroho said that as an intermediate skilled migrant worker, he will be eligible to apply for permanent residency in Taiwan if he works for another five years after obtaining the status, on condition that he earns at least double the minimum wage, which is extremely difficult for migrant workers to attain.

Nurgroho said that since he works at a small company, his monthly salary has little chance of ever reaching that level, and that is likely to keep him from applying for permanent residency, even though he would love to do so.

The requirement becomes even more stringent if one takes into account the fact that the minimum wage has increased every year for the past eight years.

"Maybe for someone working in Hsinchu or Taipei it's easy for them to get to that level, but for us working in the south, it's kind of difficult," Nurgroho said.

Expressing a similar sentiment, Companero said that even with his promotion and raise, his monthly salary is still much lower than double the minimum wage. While he would like to obtain permanent residency in Taiwan, he considers it a long shot and something only possible when he approaches retirement, he said.

Asked whether the threshold for intermediate skilled migrant workers wanting to gain permanent residency could be lowered, the Immigration Agency said in a written response to CNA that those requirements have their legal basis in the Immigration Act.

As the program is still relatively new, the agency under the Ministry of Labor and the National Development Council will hold joint periodic reviews to assess whether the requirement should be adjusted, it said.

Meanwhile, the agency asks that intermediate skilled migrant workers wait until their monthly wage reaches double the minimum wage to apply for permanent residency, it said.


Lost in translation

The Immigration Agency pointed to one alternative stipulated in the Immigration Act, which allows intermediate skilled migrant workers to apply for permanent residency after they pass a certification examination conducted by the government and become a certified "Class B Technician."

However, according to I-Mei's Wu, that route is just as problematic, as even though past exams were translated into English for foreign test-takers, they are not posted on the WDA's website.

As a result, all the past exams on the website are in Chinese, making it almost impossible for migrant workers to read, Wu said.

When asked to comment on these grievances, Chuang Kuo-liang (莊國良), deputy head at the WDA's Cross-Border Workforce Affairs Center, said that he would relay concerns about the quality of test question translations and the absence of an English version of past exams on the WDA website to the agency's examiners and ask them to make any necessary improvements.

Although the number of migrant workers gaining intermediate skilled worker status in Taiwan soared from 805 in December 2022 to 19,191 in just one year, according to the labor ministry's latest statistics, the obstacles they have to surmount in order to enjoy the perks designed to "incentivize" them to stay in Taiwan leave many despondent about building a future in the country.

At present, the only realistic benefit for most seeking to take advantage of the incentivization program is the higher minimum wage.

With the program not yet two years old, it is perhaps premature to draw any conclusions about its efficacy. Nonetheless, one thing is certain, the benefits that come with intermediate skilled worker status need to be made more attainable if the program is to realize its full potential.

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