The Interaction between Taiwan’s Indigenous and Migrant Workers: Lessons from Construction Industry

Written by Hsuan Lo. Translated by Yi-Yu Lai.

Image credit: 漢口街工地工人 by Ray Yu/Flickr, License: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

In Taiwan, a narrative concerning the opposition of migrant and Indigenous workers appears to be a continuing source of contention. In 1997, director Ming-hui Yang released a documentary, “Please Give Us a Job.” One of the film’s impressive scenes depicts an off-duty Indigenous worker sobbing uncontrollably in front of the camera while lamenting the employment difficulties caused by the introduction of migrant workers. In 2016, Chen Ying, a DPP legislator from the Puyuma Indigenous community, brought this issue back into the public eye by highlighting the impact of “illegal migrant workers” on the employment of Indigenous workers. Unfortunately, the notion that “migrant workers take jobs from Indigenous workers” has become deeply ingrained.

There is a reason for this impression. According to the 2018 statistics, 15.38% of the Indigenous workers were employed in the construction industry, making it the industry with the second-highest proportion of Indigenous workers after manufacturing. In Taiwan, migrant workers are often recruited for large-scale construction projects. Therefore, it indicates that both have a significant presence in the construction industry. However, since migrant workers have longer working hours and lower wages, this perception strengthens the claim that Indigenous workers and migrant workers are mutually exclusive.

Indigenous and Migrant Worker Representations

What does the narrative of the conflict between Indigenous and migrant workers include? This article examines the media reports and interpellation from Indigenous legislators that both Indigenous and migrant workers are mentioned. Numerous conflicting terms such as “stealing,” “affecting,” and “taking over” are used in the media and interpellation to describe the normal employment process of migrant workers, which is believed to be the cause of the employment problem of Indigenous workers. These representations often incorporate stereotypical depictions of migrant workers, such as stating that migrant workers may cause social issues without providing proof. On the other hand, some argue that employers prefer migrant workers because their wages are low, and they are “easy to use.” 

Indigenous workers are simultaneously portrayed as tragic victims. These descriptions indicate that migrant workers negatively affect the working conditions of Indigenous workers. When many unemployed Indigenous workers are forced to return to their hometowns, there is a concern that their idleness or alcoholism may cause serious social problems. However, another perspective asserts that Indigenous peoples are too carefree and have a poor attitude towards employment, so migrant workers easily replace them. 

Such narratives often depict Indigenous peoples and migrant workers as essential and homogeneous groups. Moreover, stereotypes have been persistently imposed upon the two groups. These viewpoints disregard the impact of the social structure on the lower-class workers and do not examine the actual oppression system. Job stealing has become an issue for the lower-class workers of the two nation-states. Although it is still inconclusive whether the introduction of migrant workers is a substitute for or a supplement to the Indigenous workers, the issue is directly framed as an antagonistic nation-to-nation conflict, simplifying numerous contextual structural factors. 

Understanding the Common Plight of Indigenous and Migrant Workers

Excluding migrant workers should not be the solution to Indigenous peoples’ employment issues. 

Indigenous and migrant workers are often exposed to the same risks. The construction industry is characterised by crash duration, cost-cutting, and an outsourcing system that aims to pass risks. Why should they be depicted as opposites if they face fairly similar obstacles?

Enda Bonacich and Lucie Cheng have highlighted the illusion of antagonism between underclass workers of different nationalities. They contend that national differentiation is frequently employed to avoid labour unification. Even though workers may unite with fellow workers from the same country, such a union may overlook the diversity of relations within the working class and the oppression of the capitalist class. In fact, the working class’s internal relationships are affected by various factors, and they may not be purely antagonistic. We should revisit the labour scene and reevaluate the interaction of workers.

What are the interaction conditions between Indigenous and migrant workers in their workplaces? Is there a distinction between what media and legislative interpellation construct? In response to the pervasive narrative, I interviewed several Indigenous construction workers working alongside migrant workers to understand their perceptions and interactions with migrant workers. 

The interviewees noted that although they have heard stories of job-stealing in the past when working with migrant workers, some developed deep friendships while working together and even remained in contact after their colleague relationship ended. Meanwhile, some Indigenous workers do not interact in-depth with migrant workers due to language barriers, differences in living habits, and the company’s restrictions on residence and off-duty time for migrant workers. 

Some Indigenous workers stated that the situation of migrant workers is comparable to that of Indigenous workers. From their viewpoint, they can comprehend the dilemma that migrant workers face to some extent, and they recognise how hard the migrant workers work in this industry. However, regarding the job-stealing issue, some Indigenous workers have argued that it is unfair to exaggerate such a narrative because Indigenous and migrant workers are not the only individuals employed in the construction industry. In this regard, Indigenous workers may not be as powerless as described by outsiders. Nonetheless, since the majority of interviewees for this study are still employed in the industry, we must also consider the issue of survivorship bias. 

By revisiting the conversations and related controversies on this issue, this article hopes that people can reconsider the view of “migrant workers stealing jobs” that has often been taken for granted in the past. The job-stealing narrative ignores the structural oppression that both Indigenous and migrant workers face and implies a racial essentialisation perspective. 

Although many arguments against the introduction of migrant workers in the past seem to be fighting for the rights of local workers––particularly Indigenous workers––it is evident that these arguments have shifted the focus of the problem to migrant workers and instead obscured the real issue behind the scenes. If this tendency remains unchallenged, Taiwanese society may continue to produce other groups that are ignored, marginalised, and even more exploited in the future. 

Hsuan Lo graduated from the Graduate Institute for Social Transformation Studies, Shih Hsin University, Taiwan. Half of her blood is from Puyuma Indigenous group in Taiwan. She hopes to continue her research on Indigenous peoples in the future.

This article was published as part of a special issue on “Invisible Discrimination in Taiwan.”

One comment

  1. It seems that this topic needs an initial documentation fo the labour market[s] concerned. Are the two groups in seperate labour markets in terms of acceptance of different work conditions, wages, and actual specified jobs? Or not? If this can be identified, are the two markets actually constructs purely of employersand how they perceive and treat the two groups\? If so, then this looks like a case for proper government regulation for job definition etc should not depend on race or ethnicity or whether people are migarnts in or not. If they are doing the same job not discrimination should arise.
    But secondly, the indigenous peple of Taiwan have been the backbone og a great amount of change and dvelopment in all Taiwan, not just its eastern reaches. If for that reason they were to be given some form of favour, then this should be transparent and regulated.
    Ian Inkster


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