The Problem of Taiwan’s Lost-Contact Migrant Workers’ ‘Illicit Enjoyment’

Written by Linh Le.

Image credit: Obstruction by Steve Leggat/Flickr, license CC BY-NC 2.0

Taiwan and its migrant workers are tangled in a bitter-sweet marriage: one needs another but cannot stand the flaws of the other. Like Director Tsai Tsung-lung’s attempt to show the human side of migrant workers through his latest documentary “Nine shots,” this article shares the same sentiment by highlighting these workers’ needs for leisure, enjoyment and entertainment like any other human being. However, these needs are rarely satisfied due to many unfortunate circumstances.

Contemporary Taiwan and the Necessity of Migrant Workers

The success of the Taiwanese family planning campaign in the 1960s has been widely celebrated, but it also brought the national fertility rate down to an unnatural level. Taiwan currently has one of the lowest birth rates in the world with about 1.2 births per woman, meaning that the society is ageing rapidly without having enough young workers to fill the retirees’ posts, let alone having a sufficient amount of caretakers for the elderly group.

The patriarchy embedded in Taiwanese society suggests daughters or female relatives in the family take on caretaking duties. Nevertheless, with the increased numbers of women having higher education and striving for a career outside of the domestic space, these duties are passed onto the migrant workers. Out of 700,000 migrant workers in Taiwan, more than 250,000 from South East Asia are employed to work in the caregiving sector in 2020.

With the rapid decline in the workforce population, Taiwan can no longer deny the pressing shortage of manpower to sustain its economy. Apart from the mentioned quarter of a million workers in domestic care, the other 450,000 migrants are working in the 3D jobs (dirty, dangerous and difficult) jobs. These are mostly manual and labour intensive such as manufacturing and construction. Jobs that Taiwanese no longer desire to do have been handed over to guest workers from Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines. Combining with other factors, Taiwan has become more dependent on this workforce over the years to grow many of its industries. This prosperity certainly does not go without cost, but at whose expense?

Migrant Workers’ Lives in Taiwan

Migrant workers might make more money than they do at their home countries doing the same manual works in Taiwan, but securing a job, even low-skilled, on the island does not come for free.

Many locals are not aware that these workers would have to pay a significant recruitment fee to the brokerage agencies prior to their departure. Furthermore, they can only afford this by borrowing money, sometimes from loan sharks back home. The workers then reimburse them from their monthly salary with a hefty added interest, which is expensive when paying over a long period.

Carrying this extreme financial pressure on their shoulders – as well as the hope of their families for frequent remittances – migrant workers opt for taking on extra shifts with long hours while economising in every possible way. This means residing in squalid living conditions and having no time nor budget for entertainment. This means that the deterioration of their mental and physical health becomes unavoidable.

Leisure is truly a luxury for this group of workers, even more so when they do not speak the language fluently enough to enjoy a movie nor have the money or time to afford such amusement. Being time and financially constrained, leisure options are clearly very limited for legal migrant workers.

Yi Lien (not her real name), a migrant worker who is a wife to a Taiwanese man and works at his family food shop in the suburb of Kaohsiung, shares her experience of entertainment during the biggest festival of the year:

“Lunar New Year brings me the most boredom, even after 20 years in Taiwan. The people who do not have much money, they play mah-jong all day and some other games that involved gambling. The rich people, they booked their holiday long in advance and go to America, Canada and so on for a relaxing time with their family. Me? I don’t know how to play mah-jong, I am not able to afford a trip abroad nor to Vietnam, the shop is closed; I just sleep and sleep and sleep. Nothing to do. Just boredom on top of boredom.”

If this is the case of someone who holds legal status, then just imagine the predicament for workers who run away from their boss due to maltreatment but remain working without papers in Taiwan.

Not much, if any.

Living in fear of persecution and deportation, they would rarely dare to venture to public places for the most basic necessities, let alone to entertain themselves. Taipei Main Station’s hall – a popular gathering point for migrant workers – as it is free and equipped with public toilets, is no longer a possibility, especially when these runaway workers are stationed in farms and factories far out in the countryside. The few options left are YouTube if they have a working sim card with internet and a smartphone, maybe some fishing or swimming if they are lucky to be close to a river, but not much else.

Nguyen Quoc Phi, a Vietnamese migrant worker whose death caused much debate in the media, was shot nine times by Hsinchu police after he supposedly went swimming in the nearby river. However, swimming was not the only entertaining activity Phi had at the point of his passing: class-A drug and alcohol were also reported to be involved.

Drug and Alcohol Use as a Possible Channel to Entertain

The event of Phi’s death, and how the police handled him, are the key themes of Director Tsai Tsung-lung’s latest documentary “Nine shots,” which was created to offer further insight into Phi’s life in Vietnam and Taiwan. Phi was a typical case of a runaway worker, who had initially entered Taiwan legally as a contracted construction labourer but then broke ties with his boss to work without a legal contract elsewhere.

The footage from the body cam of the police reveals a harrowing, bloody scene: in a mere 12 seconds, Phi received nine shots at close distance when he was naked and failed to seek shelter from the bullets underneath and inside a police car. Phi was seen stumbling: he seemed lost, confused and disoriented during the whole ordeal.

The autopsy confirms that he was under the influence of amphetamine and alcohol. It is easy to point fingers and say that Phi was in the wrong in this situation to cause disturbance under influences and resist the police’s orders. However, looking deeper into this case, a familiar pattern emerges.

Migrant workers in Taiwan do not have that many opportunities to entertain themselves after long hours of backbreaking work. They cannot afford such indulgences, and even if they can, the language barrier would prevent them from doing so. These entertainment options are much more restricted amongst the ‘lost contact’ workers—runaway workers whose contacts are no longer in the legal registry. Carrying much fear and stress within themselves, these workers look to drug and alcohol usage as their last resort to let off steam after a day of work.

Such workers might not be particularly interested in this kind of entertainment, but there is not much else to choose from the table when one has to try and find enjoyment in isolation and far from the public eyes. Furthermore, it does not have to be expensive: glue-sniffing costs pennies while ‘someone who knows someone’ can help sort out a cheaper dose of class-A substances.

With drug and alcohol increasingly become their only choice, this group of workers has come to accept it as their means to survive the dark and lonely time far away from home.

The Local Attitude toward Drugs, Migrant Workers and Migrant Workers Using Drugs

Contemporary Taiwan prides itself in its progressive values, yet when it comes to drugs, society still holds a very conservative attitude. Drug users are often portrayed as ‘heinous public enemies’ and ‘low-life vermin’ who should be locked away from society.

Taiwan continues to have a heavily punitive drug policy, even though many nations with a more relaxed approach to substance abuse have proved that incarceration is not the only way forward. The country strives to be as liberal as Europe in term of same-sex marriage and gender equality. However, it refuses to be as progressive as Portugal, Switzerland and the Netherlands about drug use.

This attitude of Taiwan about drugs, coupled with its highly divisive opinions about migrant workers, has created a miserable environment for lost-contact workers who resort to drug and alcohol for entertainment. In ‘Nine shots’, the family members of the police who shot Phi seem to argue that a drug user should be deservingly shot, as if being a drug addict is an adequate reason to strip a person of all his personhood and rights to dignified treatment.

When will Taiwan see the problem before it and admit that these lost-contact workers using drugs and alcohol during their free time is exactly the by-product of its flourishing economy in recent years?

There can never be a good excuse to substantiate drug abuse and extensive alcohol usage. Still, pushing these workers further away from society and treating them with little respect would only fan the fire, while the very root of the problem remains untouched: a structural fault of the recruitment of migrant labourers and their treatment at work. Moreover, these workers, who enter the game with a negative sum—of finance, language and social capital—suffer the most from exploitation and continue to do so without much possibility of breaking the cycle. 

Some Food for Thought

Taiwan is growing so fast economically and making its name on the world stage as an exceptionally progressive nation in terms of social values for the East Asia region. Yet, as uncomfortable as it is, Taiwan must also pay attention to their lost-contact migrant workers, who are building the country’s economy cheaply and silently. The country grows at these workers’ physical, emotional and psychological expenses, and their human rights are equal to any other global citizens. Treating them with respect would not only mend the broken relationship between this particular group and the rest of Taiwanese society but also give a better impression to the international community. Moreover, it will embolden proud Taiwanese values such as progression, kindness and compassion to its people, and migrant workers alike.

Linh Le is a PhD candidate at the Institute for Media Studies, KU Leuven University in Belgium. She studies the media representation of female migrants and its effects in society. Her regional focuses are Vietnam and East Asia. The views in this article are her own and do not reflect that of the institution.

One comment

  1. Let’s arrange the causal chain beginning with the root cause.

    First, the legal framework is the “structural fault [in] the recruitment of migrant labourers” that exposes them to exploitation by brokers and by employers.

    Second, exploited migrant workers are driven into illegality when they run away from their contract.

    Third, illegal migrants live in constant “fear of persecution and deportation, they would rarely dare to venture to public places for the most basic necessities, let alone to entertain themselves” and some are thus driven to “drug abuse and extensive alcohol usage”.

    Forth, Taiwan’s “heavily punitive drug policy” makes the life of drug users more miserable than it is anyway already.

    If we agree that addressing the root cause is the most effective approach to tackle a social issue then we rather should investigate the legal framework governing migration than lament “heavily punitive drug policy”, a forth level cause.

    We would ask: What gives brokers the power to charge outsized fees? Isn’t it the quota system that makes brokers the sloppily regulated arbitrators of who gets one of the scarce jobs? What is it that gives employers the power to exploit? Isn’t it the legal requirement that binds a migrant worker to the employer, thus depriving them of the right to seek work elsewhere? I am not sure. So lets research there.

    Migrant workers need “leisure, enjoyment and entertainment like any other human being”, no doubt. However, that “these needs are rarely satisfied due to many unfortunate circumstances” is a crass understatement. As indicated above, those circumstances are not some random misfortune but the direct consequence of legal restrictions on the rights of migrant workers.

    The assertion “that these lost-contact workers using drugs and alcohol during their free time is exactly the by-product of its flourishing economy in recent years” is evidently wrong. Taiwan’s economy would flourish no less if migrant workers were better protected from exploitation. Exploitation pushes workers into drug and alcohol abuse which is destructive for the involved individuals as well as for the whole society.

    “Treating [migrant workers] with respect …” is fine but what they need and deserve most are labour rights equal to those enjoyed by local workers. Only that could “mend the broken relationship between this particular group and the rest of Taiwanese society but also give a better impression to the international community.”

    Like

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