Taiwan Must Work with Indonesia to Combat Risks of Human Trafficking for Migrant Workers

Written by Bonny Ling.

Image taken by Bonny Ling on 11 October 2019 at Taoyuan International Airport in Taiwan. For many migrant workers landing in Taiwan, this service counter would be their first point of contact with local authorities.

A unique opportunity exists now for Taiwan to achieve for migrant workers what it did for same-sex marriage in the Asia Pacific. Taiwan can and should raise the bar for the recruitment of foreign labourers that is so crucial for developed economies across the region.

Since late-July 2020, a diplomatic row has embroiled the governments of Indonesia and Taiwan over who in principle should pay the cost of recruitment for low-skilled workers seeking jobs abroad.

To date, the industry norm is that low-skilled migrant workers pay these fees of recruitment or placement to labour brokers in their home country, months before they begin their work and see their first pay. In order to secure a job abroad, many borrow heavily to pay for these recruitment costs upfront.

Once they begin working in Taiwan or other destinations, migrant workers then pay back the debt from their monthly wage. For this reason, most do not begin to remit funds that would significantly improve the lives of their families back home until a year or two after they have started working.

According to findings by the international labour civil society organisation Verité, these fees can range between USD 1,500 to 6,000 per worker, depending on their country of origin and their particular sector of employment in Taiwan.

Indonesia has begun to push back against these excessive fees, citing the reason that these fees impede the potential of migrant remittances to improve lives for individual families. In September 2020,the Head of the Indonesian Migrant Workers Protection Agency, Benny Rhamdani, rightfully points out that recruitment fees are often equal to about the first ten months of salary for the Indonesian migrant workers. Suppose their employment contracts are only three to four years. In that case, Rhamdani notes, it is then challenging for them to save enough for other goals, like entrepreneurship, to significantly improve their livelihoods once they return home.

Underpinning Rhamdani’s observation is the simple dichotomy that the current system of labour migration is disjointed and broken. There are two sets of rules for migrant labour recruitment; rules not based on the logic of domestic economic needs but based on the perceived social status of the workers hired.

The most favourable tier is for skilled workers. For them, it is no question that employers cover fees associated with their recruitment as part of the company’s standard business costs.

A wholly different set of rules, however, exists for the recruitment of other foreign workers. These are low-skilled workers who are already those least able to bear the cost of advanced fees, yet whose placements fill a crucial domestic labour void, especially in sectors that are unattractive to the local labour force. For instance, the most recent data released by the Ministry of Labour at the end of October 2020 show that Indonesians make up more than 75 per cent of foreign workers employed in the social welfare sector in Taiwan.

Indonesia’s new policy is a load-sharing proposal to split the recruitment fees between the government of Indonesia and overseas employers. The change would better ensure that Indonesia’s migrant workers would not become heavily indebted just for securing a job abroad and having these coercive dynamics of debt lead to a situation of bondage and human trafficking. This would be a win for Indonesia and a win for Taiwan. Since 2010, Taiwan has held a coveted Tier 1 status on the annual global ranking by the US Department of State’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons. Tier 1 means that Taiwan fully meets the minimum standards for the elimination of human trafficking. Working with Indonesia to eliminate the risks of trafficking for migrant workers would be a continuation of the government’s longstanding commitment to tackling human trafficking.

Indonesia’s new policy, to be implemented from 1 January 2021, is a first step in the right direction for responsible recruitment. It covers Indonesian nationals working abroad in specific categories, such as domestic workers, caregivers and fishermen, but not yet those in manufacturing. Nevertheless, this Indonesian policy has been met with open disapproval by both Taiwanese employers and authorities and resulted in diplomatic volleys being traded between Taiwan and Indonesia.

The Ministry of Labour argues that this was a unilateral decision, made without any consultation with Taiwan. On 2 November, the Minister of Labour Hsu Ming-chun (許銘春) curtly stated that asking Taiwanese employers to bear more of the recruitment fees for their Indonesian workers is “a position that Taiwan cannot accept.” However, it is unclear why the government believes that this Indonesian regulation to protect its nationals from excessive debt and risks of human trafficking in labour migration is a diplomatic misstep.

Under international law, Indonesia has an obligation to enact laws and policies that protect the fundamental human rights of its citizens. In 2012, Indonesia ratified the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families. This is one of the nine core international human rights treaties. Also, as a member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Indonesia should “take necessary actions to prohibit overcharging of placement or recruitment fees by any parties chargeable to migrant workers in the Sending State” (article 23(b)) under the 2017 ASEAN Consensus on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers.

Instead of meaningfully exploring ways to offset increased costs for Taiwanese employers, the solution put forward by the Taiwan government is for the Ministry for Foreign Affairs to develop new labour migration channels with other countries. This is in addition to the existing four main source countries of foreigner labourers to Taiwan: Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam.

For these new labour migration corridors, the expectation is to find more sources of workers to put them through the same cycle of debt for their employment in Taiwan. Unfortunately, what this solution conveys is not a universal vision of Taiwan’s human rights diplomacy.

The lens for this proposed solution sends the wrong message to Taiwan’s international partners, especially in light of President Tsai’s pledge at her inauguration in May 2020 to place human rights at the centre of Taiwan’s national ethos.

Numerous international bodies and groups have established a clear framework for migrant recruitment systems to move toward the standard of employers paying for the full costs of recruitment. These include UN agencies, like the International Labour Organization and the International Organization for Migration, as well as industry advocacy groups such as the Leadership Group for Responsible Recruitment. This is because high recruitment costs can lead to a situation of debt bondage for migrant workers, and debt bondage comes under the international prohibition against slavery. These calls from the UN system, international civil society, as well as other governments and businesses, mean that Taiwan is at a crucial point in its human rights journey.

At this crossroads, Taiwan should work with Indonesia to combat the risks of human trafficking for migrant workers. The government can recognise that Indonesia’s regulation to come into effect on 1 January 2021 provides an urgent call for action to put efforts towards building an economic system that reduces the risks of human trafficking.

Taiwan can meaningfully explore ways in which it can be a leading light in the Asia Pacific region to change the current migrant recruitment industry, just as it has achieved for same-sex marriage when the rest of the region has lagged behind. In doing so, Taiwan can play a crucial role in bringing about the global vision of a more equitable society. 

Dr Bonny Ling is an independent expert on international human rights, development and migration and Senior Research Fellow and Associate Lecturer at the Cambridge Centre for Applied Research in Human Trafficking in the UK. She was formerly Program Director of the International Summer School on Business and Human Rights and associated lecturer of law at the University of Zurich, Switzerland. She also has worked in the UN system and international civil society. She writes on human rights, migrants, business responsibilities and international law. Please write to her at bonny.i.ling@gmail.com to join the movement for responsible recruitment of migrant workers to Taiwan.

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