TAIPEI (Taiwan News) — The Taiwan Immigrant's Football League (TIFL) is an impressive organizational feat recently launched by the nation's blue-collar foreign workers, and it looks off to a promising start.
On a recent weekend, while much of the foreign population of Taipei remained under the covers, hundreds of worker-athletes made use of what for many would be the week's sole day off, holding five successive matches at the Jinhe Sports Park in Zhonghe.
Most of the elements of a classic Taipei setup were in place: the motorcycles chugging below the overpass, the terrace houses receding up the hill, and, of course, the gratuitous heat.
Taiwan's blue-collar foreign workers, who number over 700,000, generally come from Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, and the Philippines. Many perform their jobs under unenviable work conditions, typically as fishermen, factory hands, and domestic helpers.
It is not uncommon for domestic helpers to toil for many weeks without a single day of rest, as people who work inside homes are not protected by Taiwan's labor laws; to makes matters worse, home employers frequently seize passports. In the case of migrants engaged in the fishing and manufacturing industries, the rate of workplace injury and death is 2.6 times the national average.
Karen Hsu (徐瑞希), founder of the Global Worker's Organization (GWO), has lent her group's administrative prowess to the football league. When in 2015 she encountered a group of migrant workers passing out game flyers in front of Taipei Main Station, Hsu learned of the thriving football scene, and soon GWO began to assist.
One of Hsu's deputies, David Shih (施元文), is usually on hand to help coordinate logistics at the matches. He sat down beside the field in Zhonghe to explain the legwork that goes into making TIFL possible.
"Migrant workers in Taiwan are in a very serious situation," he said, "and they have little in the way of time or resources. We help them to schedule the fields, find the referees, and handle some communication issues between the different parties."
In the past, when migrants have held pick-up games in parks, schoolyards, and elsewhere, he said, they have not always been met with warm reception. GWO's ability to navigate the Chinese-language online registration system for the fields has proven to be crucial assistance.
The activist organization has helped with fundraising as well. The cost of renting a field is around NT$20,000 per day, and an adequate number of referees can cost nearly NT$10,000 — not to mention insurance, refreshments, and miscellaneous supplies.
Although the league receives significant donations from the migrant community, Shih emphasized that GWO has been able to assist in securing grants from local governments as well as sponsorships, such as from CPC, Taiwan's state-owned oil and gas company.
Some TIFL teams are composed of a single nationality while others are mixed. The majority of clubs are Southeast Asian, though there are also some from Gambia, Eswatini, and Japan.
Players from Taiwan, Europe, and the Americas tend to play for international teams.
The league is divided into three conferences: northern, central, and southern. Altogether there are 24 football clubs, and the top two in every conference face off every year in November for the Taiwan Cup.
Established in 2015 with help from GWO, the Taiwan Cup has been bringing together the formerly disorganized foreign teams for years. Now, with the new league functioning as the regular season, the Taiwan Cup has effectively become the playoffs.
Taiwan having this level of competition has also increased the appeal of the country to talented footballers from Southeast Asia and beyond. Some foreign workers are now reportedly choosing Taiwan over other destinations just for the football.
In a trend likely to accelerate, former members of the national teams of Vietnam, Indonesia, and Zambia can now be counted on the rosters of TIFL teams.
Recently, TIFL had one of its biggest breaks yet. On Aug. 31, at Taiwan's Ministry of Sports Education in Taipei, GWO held a press conference to announce that the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) — a division of FIFA — would begin to sponsor the league.
While TIFL will receive some funding from the AFC, an accredited referee training camp will likely be the biggest benefit. An indirect mark of legitimacy from FIFA itself is doubtless a blessing too.
Hsu summed up the significance: "The AFC's support encourages us to break the class division between blue- and white-collar workers and change the country's perspective on migrants. With undefeated passion, even on desolate ground, dreams will bloom."
Karen Hsu speaks to reporters about AFC endorsement. (Taiwan News, Tim Rinaldi photo)