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Exclusive: Philippine students at Taiwan university working grueling, full-time factory 'internships'

Legislator and rights organizations call for fix to 'black hole in human rights' of nation's higher education

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Kaoyuan University in Kaohsiung's Luzhu District.

Kaoyuan University in Kaohsiung's Luzhu District. (Wikimedia Commons photo)

TAIPEI (Taiwan News) — Filipino students at Kaohsiung's Kao Yuan University allege the school misled them about an internship program during recruitment and say they and their classmates have been forced by circumstance to work difficult, illegally long factory shifts unrelated to their studies.

Internships

Two Kao Yuan University seniors who were recruited fresh out of Philippine Christian University in 2018 described their experiences at KYU to Taiwan News last month on condition of anonymity.

Both said they have worked at six factories in northern Kaohsiung and Tainan since arriving in Taiwan. Their duties spanned packaging, grinding, and cleaning as well as welding — despite lacking prior experience — and they and other Southeast Asian workers were required to clean the factories' restrooms at the end of their shifts.

One of the students, nicknamed Lily, said that while employed at a factory owned by fastener manufacturer NES, she was the only female machine operator in the production department. "Every day I needed to bend and press the metals," she said.

She said she was only provided one pair of gloves every two weeks. However, these would be in tatters after two days and she would tape up her hands in an effort to protect them.

It was dirty work, and the factory was stifling, she said. When she brought an electric fan to work, it was taken away; only the Taiwanese employees were allowed fans.

The environment was also hazardous. Lily recalled that one of her coworkers lost a finger at her work station. Compounding the risk was the 2,000 pieces-per-hour quota. Lily said from day one, she was expected to meet 60% of this quota, which meant staying until around midnight as she was not accustomed to the pace; she said she was not paid overtime.

In her haste, she said she damaged two machines by inserting the metal incorrectly, and the factory deducted the cost for repairs from her salary.

When she lost her job during Taiwan's first major outbreak of COVID-19 last summer, her advisor gave her a failing grade for her internship, though she had no alternative employment options at the time.

The other Filipino student said the metal dust at a previous factory where he worked as a welder gave him eczema. Yet he continued to weld so he could make tuition payments. "We came here to study and have a degree; it seems like we’re cows milked by them. They just care about our money," he lamented.

These and other students from the Philippines and Indonesia have told Taiwan News they have been working 40 hours per week, often more, starting in their second year, and are still expected to attend classes at 8 a.m. the next day.

According to Taiwan's Employment Service Act, foreign students are only allowed to work a maximum of 20 hours of work per week.

The school labels 20 of students' 40 hours their "internship," though their work does not change over the course of an eight-hour shift. Taiwan News has obtained audio of a Taiwanese man students claim is a school official instructing students to explain this 20-20 division if they are ever contacted by government officials.

A female Indonesian student provided Taiwan News with both her "real" payment receipt from a factory and a "fake" one school officials had given her. A Filipina student has shown this agency images of two separate debit cards allegedly given her by the school: one for her official work and one for the internship, which the factories grade per an arrangement with the school.

"It's like a facade, like a cover-up," one male student from the Philippines said.

The Philippine students at Kao Yuan are recruited by JS Contractor Inc., a human resources company operating out of Manila and Cebu. Students said they were drawn to the program due to the dorm scholarship, the prospect of paying their way through school, and the experience of living abroad.

Exclusive: Philippine students at Taiwan university working grueling, full-time factory 'internships'
Nov. 12, 2018 Philippine Star article on KYU and Kun Shan University scholarships. (Taiwan News screenshot)

Lily and the male student were among the first batch of students from Philippine Christian University accepted into the program in the summer of 2018.

They had to pay a NT$63,000 program fee in increments of NT$3,530 per month via Family Financial Management Consultant LTD., based in Taipei's Zhongshan District.

Dropouts

Taiwan News also spoke to a former student from Indonesia who was forced to drop out of school this year during her senior year when the payments became too much for her.

She said she learned of the option to earn money while studying in Taiwan from the local employment service bureau in her home province of Central Java, and she arrived in Kaohsiung along with 90 others in 2018.

When classes ended at noon each day, everyone in her class would go directly to the factories, she recalled. However, studying proved increasingly difficult, as the students were sapped of energy by their physically demanding, eight-hour shifts and had little time to study.

In addition, some classes were taught in Mandarin, which few of the students were proficient in, and "they prioritized working over studying." Due to issues at work and the struggle to pay fees on time, many ended up dropping out and working illegally after only a couple months, she said.

The former IT major said she worked at chicken, electronics, and steel factories from 2019-2020. She then spent nearly a year at a plant producing grinding mills before landing a job at a welding factory. Yet like many of her peers, she struggled to make payments on time and was unable to enroll this spring semester.

Like the Filipinos, she also said she worked double the legally allotted hours. "But the school and agency threatened us to keep quiet and not tell anyone about it; they even created fake payslips."

An opportunity

However, some students view their experience as worth the effort. A Philippine senior majoring in IT at another university in southern Taiwan said that while the factory work is difficult, it is a chance she would not have had back home, and she plans to stay to pursue her master's.

After hearing about Taiwan News' investigation, President Jaw Bih-shiaw (趙必孝) wrote this agency a letter questioning the legitimacy of any information provided by the students. He added, "When our companies learned of (students') statements, they utterly denied the accusations."

Jaw claimed "biased reports" could deprive Filipino students of a "once-in-a-lifetime" opportunity to improve their prospects.

Attached to the letter were statements from several students praising the apprenticeship program, with some stressing their eight-hour shifts comprise a legal four-hour job plus a four-hour internship. Students in at least one class were asked by staff to write statements, according to Taiwan News sources at KYU.

"Black hole in human rights"

Friday morning (May 6), Legislative Yuan member Fan Yun (范雲), Taiwan Association of Human Rights Secretary General Shi I-hsiang (施逸翔), and Taiwan Labor Front Association Secretary General Sun Yu-lien (孫友聯) held a press conference on the situation at KYU after a student reached out to them.

They played video statements from two Filipinos who described their time at KYU as "misery." Sun, Fan, and Shi also blasted the alleged illegal hours, questioned the quality of education given KYU's high student-teacher ratio, and said the university's international advertising has been misleading.

"Ministries and associations should work together to do a good job checking and stop allowing Taiwan's higher education policy to become a black hole in human rights," the trio said in a joint press statement Friday.

The controversy around Kao Yuan echoes that of Chung Chou University, which was barred from enrolling new students last year for forcing Ugandan students to work in factories as "interns." Similar incidents in recent years involved Eswatini students from MingDao University in 2020 and Sri Lankan students at the University of Kang Ning in 2018.

A growing number of Taiwanese universities are facing enrollment shortfalls as the country's birth rate continues to plummet. Recruiting foreign students, particularly those from New Southbound countries, is a way schools can try to shore up student numbers.

Exclusive: Philippine students at Taiwan university working grueling, full-time factory 'internships'
TAHR head Shi I-hsian, Legislator Fan Yun, and TLFA Secretary General Sun Yu-lien. (Taiwan News photo)

On the list

The MOE has been investigating KYU since last month and has twice sent officials on surprise visits to the university to interview students. The MOE said it will continue to make surprise inspections at certain universities related to their foreign student enrollment, classes, teaching faculty, and student rights.

Kao Yuan was placed on a "special guidance" list of schools at the beginning of the year and barred from enrolling new international students, the MOE announced in a statement early on Friday. Improvements in the school's education of overseas students is one of the requirements for removal from the list.