Of the many foreigners living in Taiwan, a tourism billboard in Taipei Main Station singles out four nationalities as “migrants”. These countries are all located in Southeast Asia – Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam – where Taiwan sources the technicians for its factories or the caregivers for its aging population, among other blue collar jobs. The intention to showcase the popular landmarks, shopping centers, and leisure activities accessible by train rides is commendable. But at the same time, it also marginalizes the citizens of these four countries in Taiwan society. It assumes a lower status for them as compared to other foreign groups also employed in the island, such as Americans or Japanese who are instead “expatriates”.
Notice too that the migrants represented in the map are all female. It further points to the increasingly feminized face of labor migration. The social cost for this phenomenon is immeasurable as back home these women are mothers, daughters, and community leaders who needed to separate from their loved ones (barring family emigration) for the promise of higher incomes abroad. While generations of children grow up without mothers, these women devotedly take care of other people’s kids. The other tragedy, as the ILO also noted, is that the work context for these women make them vulnerable to abuse, violence, and exploitation. All smiling and donning traditional costumes from their home countries, the cartoon images in the billboard are a far cry from the exhaustion and desperation that many of these women struggle with.
My stake is that I too am part of the foreign workforce in Taiwan (and my wife is too). I’m Filipino, but since I’m in a professional job, I don’t have a contract that “expires” as in the case of other “migrants”. I should be happy with that, but I couldn’t be for majority of my compatriots’ work contracts are only good for three years, thrice renewable. It’s as good as labeling them temporary or contingent help, until they’re used up enough to be let go. Migrant workers are unable to apply for permanent residency, so come time that they’re enforced to leave Taiwan after a maximum of 12 years stay, they’re also much older to compete for other jobs in their home countries or elsewhere.
Arguably, from personal experience and anecdotes I’ve heard, Taiwan’s working condition for foreigners is far better than in many labor-receiving Asian countries. But as long as it discriminates and demarcates the line between “migrants” and “expats” in policies and cultural representations, it can’t be considered a truly equitable society for foreigners. Even if it cares enough to point to where the best that Taiwan offers could be enjoyed by all.