Indonesia demands halt to program hit by forced labor accusations

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(By Central News Agency)

TAIPEI (CNA) — Indonesia on Friday demanded that Taiwan temporarily suspend an industry-academia collaboration program following allegations that it has been abused by treating Indonesian university students as cheap labor.

Fajar Nuradi, an official with Indonesia's representative office in Taipei in charge of the protection of Indonesian citizens abroad, told CNA that its government has asked Taiwan's government to suspend the program until the situation at hand becomes clearer.

Fajar said he will meet with several Indonesian students in Taiwan next week to learn more about their internship situation, and talk with their respective schools to see if there is a need for improvement.

He was responding to reports alleging that hundreds of Indonesian students recruited by brokers to Taiwan through Taiwan's New Southbound Policy (NSP) industry-academia collaboration program were made to work in factories several days a week during their time in the country.

Initiated by President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) in 2016, the NSP aims to enhance cooperation and exchanges with 10 member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, along with Australia, New Zealand and India.

According to a Jakarta Post report on Thursday, at least six universities in Taiwan were found to have recruited students through brokers through the NSP program and assigned them to manual labor positions in local factories.

A Jakarta Globe report said Indonesia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs has issued a statement seeking an explanation from the Taiwanese authorities and calling for a full investigation.

Speaking at a legislative session on Dec. 27, Kuomintang Legislator Ko Chih-en (柯志恩) said some 200 Indonesian students who were enrolled at Hsing Wu University in New Taipei were forced to work more than 40 hours a week at a local factory, where they packaged 30,000 contact lenses a day in 10-hour shifts.

Many students filed complaints with the school but the school simply advised them to "put up with it," Ko said.

She said there were rumors schools receive NT$1,000 per day per student paid by the factories where they work, meaning NT$200,000 for the 200 students.

It's exploitation at its finest, Ko said, adding that many students returned to their dorms crying but were terrified to spill the beans because of threats from the brokers who helped bring them to Taiwan.

Acting Education Minister Yao Leeh-ter (姚立德) acknowledged last week that the ministry has been aware of the student-broker issue.

The Ministry of Education (MOE) has issued explicit warnings to schools that Taiwan universities are not allowed to recruit overseas students through brokers, Yao said.

He said violators would face disciplinary action from the ministry, including the suspension of its right to recruit foreign students, a reduction of its student enrollment quota, and a cut in government subsidies for the next school year.

Responding to Ko's allegations, Hsing Wu University told the local media that the Indonesian students are working part-time legally.

Because some students need to earn their own living expenses, the school has arranged to get work visas so that they will not fall prey to illegal work outside of school, it said.

An-Min Kuo (國安民), dean of the university's international affairs department, said some of the media failed to confirm the facts and made glaring mistakes in their reports.

For example, the students did not package 30,000 contact lenses a day, but 3,000, he said, adding that his university has hired a lawyer to file a lawsuit over the allegations on Friday.

Yang Yu-hui (楊玉惠), director of the MOE's Technological and Vocational Education Department, said last week that under the industry-academia program, international students are forbidden to take on internships in the first year, but can work 20 hours per week.

"Overtime constitutes exploitation," Yang said, stressing that the ministry will try to get to the bottom of the situation.

On Friday, Yang said her ministry has sent officials to Hsing Wu University to investigate any wrongdoing and speak to the students enrolled in the program.

The Indonesian students said what the media reported was not true and they were angry about the news because it worries their parents, Yang said.