Saving an Ageing Industry by Employing Migrant Workers: The Legalisation of Agricultural Migrant Workers in Taiwan

Written by Isabelle Cheng

Image credit: Mark 高維隆 CC0 1.0 Universal (CC0 1.0)

Although 2022 may be seen as the continuation of the Covid-19 pandemic worldwide, it has also marked the third year after Taiwan opened its agricultural labour market to Southeast Asian workers. It is widely known in Taiwan that small tenant farmers in the vegetable, fruit, and tea sectors and livestock farmers have been challenged by chronic shortages of seasonal labour. Their recruitment of undocumented migrant workers is an open secret known in their locality. However, it took six years for Taiwan to open its agricultural labour market to Southeast Asian workers, a process underlined by the Council of Agriculture (CoA) lobbying at the Meeting of the Transnational Labour Policy Coordination and Consultation Group (CCG). Convened by the Ministry of Labour (MoL), this is a quarterly meeting open to participation from industry representatives (Most of the meeting minutes are available at the website of the Workforce Development Agency of the Ministry of Labour).

Saving an ageing industry

In late 2014, as the initial step of its lobbying, the CoA conducted a survey within the tea, fruit, mushroom, orchard, livestock, and butchery sectors and arranged for CCG members to visit these farmers. The survey findings were presented at the 21st Meeting in March 2015. As shown at this meeting and others held afterwards, some critical issues shaped the policy towards migrant worker recruitment. These included the shortage of seasonal labour, the farms’ small-scale production and the resultant small number of workers (between 3 and 5) required for daily labour. Moreover, it included farmers’ lack of legal and financial capacity to establish firms that could provide labour insurance or National Health Insurance cover to their hourly-paid workers. The report noted that farmworkers worked during anti-social hours, over-represented female labour, and female migrant spouses were part of the labour supply. The report particularly noted that livestock and butchering were widely seen as dirty, dangerous, and difficult with a low level of automation. In addition, the report noted a trend whereby more young urban dwellers ‘returned’ from cities to rural areas, albeit preferring managerial work to manual work. Although the CoA had promoted schemes to encourage student interns or ‘working holidaymakers’ to do farm work, their number was insufficient to meet the shortage.

Putting these findings on the table, the CoA lobbied for a legal framework for recruiting Southeast Asian workers to these sectors. The MoL rejected the suggestion, affirming that the recruitment of migrant workers was a ‘temporary’ solution to labour shortages. Believing that low wages caused the labour shortage, the MoL recommended automation as a solution, in addition to raising workers’ wages and including them in labour insurance and health insurance protection. Observing that the labour shortage was also a result of unattractive working conditions, the MoL charged the CoA with improving the personal safety and transportation of workers hired by tea and fruit plantations in the mountainous areas. The MoL also encouraged the CoA to explore other sources of labour, such as ‘weekend farmers,’ indigenous communities, inmates released from open prisons, as well as village women and female migrant spouses, as if the latter two groups had not been already a major part of the farming workforce.

This rejection notwithstanding, the MoL also tried to prepare the CoA for the legal complexity of recruiting foreign workers. Firstly, the MoL required the CoA to evaluate the degree of difficulty, danger, and dirtiness of farm work since these were the same criteria used for justifying the recruitment of migrant workers in the manufacturing, construction, fishing, and care industries. The MoL also demanded that the CoA clarify whether it was for the Farmers’ Association, the Agricultural Cooperative, or individual farmers to be the employer since small farmers have limited legal capacity to register as companies.

At the 22nd Meeting, held in June 2015, the CoA proposed the legalisation of recruitment of migrant workers for the sectors of butchering, livestock, mushroom, orchard, tea and fruit again. In the end, only the butchering sector received the green light, partly because Taiwanese workers had long shunned the difficulty, danger and dirtiness of this sector. Turning its attention to animal husbandry, at the 28th Meeting held in January 2019, the CoA reported a dim prospect of recruiting Taiwanese workers to this sector. Between August 2017 and July 2018, the CoA helped 34 farmers reach their target recruitment of 54 workers, who would be paid at NT 36,800 dollars, more than 1.5 times higher than the minimum wage as of 2019 who would be covered by labour insurance. These vacancies attracted 76 applicants. Thirty-eight workers were appointed, but only 22 remained in their job. The MoL finally agreed and permitted the livestock sector to recruit 400 foreign workers per annum at a fixed salary of NT 28,000 dollars, 24 per cent lower than the salary mentioned above for Taiwanese workers.

To advance its campaign, the CoA conducted another survey in 2017. Reporting the survey results in 2019, the CoA found that out of 27,600 agricultural households, 75 per cent reported shortages. This included 15,000 permanent workers and 201,000 seasonal workers; the shortage of the latter was more severe than the former, particularly for fruit, vegetable, coffee, and tea growers. While advocating agriculture’s positive spill-over effects supporting the tourism, materials, machinery, packaging, food processing, and transportation sectors, the CoA also aligned labour shortage with food security. It cautioned that labour shortages lead to decreased production, loss of skills, market shrinkage, import reliance, and eventually a threat to food security. Finally, the MoL accepted the CoA’s proposal that the Farmers’ Association, Agricultural Cooperatives, and non-profit organisations, but not recruitment agencies, could be employers. At the 30th Meeting, held in February 2020, the MoL permitted an increase of 1,600 workers for orchards, mushroom, and vegetable growers, as well as cow, pig, goat, poultry, and aquaculture farmers.

Migrant workers: cheaper and a ‘threat’

As mentioned above, the MoL constantly reminded the CoA that farmers are legally responsible for their foreign employees’ welfare. Moreover, to protect migrant workers, the MoL categorically rejected recruitment agencies – notorious for exploiting migrant workers by, amongst other things, salary deductions – as employers.

However, a close look at the minutes would suggest significant disparities between the regulations announced by the MoL and the impression given by the MoL and CoA. First of all, migrant workers are to be made a ‘cheaper’ workforce. That is, although the MoL suggested a host of solutions to raise wages and improve working conditions to incentivise Taiwanese workers when it came to migrant workers, these recommendations seemed to recede into the background. Instead, the MoL’s understanding, shown in the meetings in 2015, was that migrant workers were to be recruited precisely to do repetitive, laborious, and low-skilled work during anti-social hours in dirty, difficult, and dangerous working conditions. And, as confirmed at a 2016 meeting, migrant workers were to be paid the minimum wage, or a fixed wage, which was 20 per cent lower than the statutory minimum wage if they worked in the livestock sector.

On the CoA’s part, migrant workers’ physical mobility was perceived as a security issue. Unlike factory construction and care workers, whose physical mobility is constrained by their working conditions and lodging regulations, agricultural workers have a higher level of mobility due to the nature and seasonality of their work. Addressing their seasonal employment, the CoA proposed to organise them into groups and dispatch them to different farms to maximise their labour output. Nevertheless, their free time during off-seasons or break times between shifts sounded the alarm, as did their potential physical mobility, since their worksites are open and sometimes remote, such as fruit and tea plantation and dairy farms. Moreover, how to monitor their movement was seen as a problem. At the 23rd Meeting, held in October 2015, the CoA cautioned that ‘since livestock farmers live close to their farm, it is necessary to protect the personal safety of farmers and their local employees. […] Farmers in the adjacent area can form a neighbourhood watch, and, if necessary, they can be connected to the police in the local reporting system.’ Seeing migrant workers as a security threat is in strong contrast to what the CoA stressed at the previous meeting. At this meeting, the farmers were said to be ‘committed to treating their local and foreign workers, who work together every day and work close to farmers’ homes, as family members and with care.’ An example given by the CoA was that farmers would provide food and lodging, but this accommodation would be separate from farmers’ homes. The CoA seemed to suggest that the closeness of workers ‘as families’ can only be had at a distance.

As summarised above, the meetings between 2015 and 2020 offer an official record of the legalisation of recruitment. The policymaking process was influenced not only by existing legislation and the empirical results of CoA surveys but also by the perceptions of the two ministries. Whether the limited amount of permitted recruitment will meet the needs of small farmers remains to be seen, particularly as, in the wake of the pandemic, the actual number of workers recruited has been very small. What is clear is that these meetings constituted a critical ‘assemblage of knowledge’ about agriculture as an industry under threat as well as migrant workers as the exploitable and dangerous other.

Isabelle Cheng is Senior Lecturer in East Asian and International Development Studies. Her research focuses on marriage and labour migration in East Asia and the use of women’s voices for psychological warfare during the Cold War. She is currently the Secretary-General of the European Association of Taiwan Studies.

This article was published as part of a special issue titled ‘Taiwan 2022: Reflections, Predictions and Trends.’

One comment

  1. Is it really accurate to call agricultural sectors that offer little potential for productivity increases an ageing industry? I think the problem is not the age but the decreasing competitiveness of those sectors that prevents employers from paying competitive wages, thus creating a recruitment problem.

    Seeing the situation this way, there are three options for addressing insufficient competitiveness. First, switch the use of the affected land to higher value products. Second, create a pool of disadvantaged workers who will work for lower wages at lower work protection safeguards. Third, cease to work the affected land.

    Focusing on the second option, a ready pool of disadvantaged workers has existed for many years. It consists of undocumented migrant workers who are on the run from the police by virtue of their undocumented status and who, consequently, live in hiding, more or less segregated, as outcasts.

    So, why open agriculture to a contingent of documented migrant workers? Is the existing pool of undocumented migrant workers too small? Or is it rather that the wage level is still too high because the wages and the work mobility of the undocumented workers cannot be controlled by virtue of their living ‘underground’? But the undocumented workers remain even when documented workers enter the job market.

    Whatever the official justification for opening agriculture to documented migrant workers is, one effect is assured. The availability of documented migrant workers whose wages and rights are strictly controlled puts pressure on the undocumented migrant workers. They will have even less negotiating power over their wages and their work conditions than they had before.

    People tend to be wary of outcasts. People feel threatened by them. How could they by trusted, living segregated in forest camps and having to hide from the police? Farming communities have experience with outcast migrant workers only. So, it’s not surprising that they are fearful of all migrant workers.


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