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Migrant-led labor group speaks on Taiwan's undocumented workers problem

Taiwan's labor ministry cites 84,000 missing migrant workers

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Fishermen prepare to depart a Taiwan port. (CNA photo)

Fishermen prepare to depart a Taiwan port. (CNA photo)

DONGGANG, PINGTUNG (Taiwan News) — Leaders of a migrant-led workers association said Taiwan's high rate of undocumented migrant workers is a systemic issue, and increasing fines will not solve the problem.

On Oct. 18 Taiwan’s labor ministry said there are 84,000 migrant workers unaccounted for, and that penalties for illegal workers will as much as triple to combat this. However, Indonesian Seafarers Gathering Forum (FOSPI) Chair Achmad Mudzakir told Taiwan News on Friday (Oct. 20) that this approach is unlikely to work.

Mudzakir said because there are greater economic opportunities for migrant workers in Taiwan, some will choose to work illegally and pay fines if caught. He said some workers may also wait for the government to offer immunity for overstaying and runaway migrant workers, as some have proposed.

Migrant workers are permitted to work in Taiwan for between 12 and 14 years before they must leave the country. Mudzakir said that some workers want to remain after this time, and the lack of legal ways to do this means they must work illegally if they want to stay.

Permanent residency visas are available to foreigners who have stayed in Taiwan legally for more than five years, but Mudzakir said this is not a realistic option for migrants. As of 2020 the minimum wage a permanent residency holder must earn is around NT$47,000, much higher than the basic salary of migrant workers.

Increasing the maximum period a migrant can work in Taiwan would be a “win-win” solution for all parties, Mudzakir said.

FOSPI’s Vice Chair Nofian Kubalang said that the high rate of runaways is a systemic issue, and solving it needs to focus on brokers and agencies. “They need to show transparency about what jobs they are offering, the conditions, and make sure workers understand them so they don’t change their minds when they arrive,” he said.

Migrant-led labor group speaks on Taiwan's undocumented workers problem
A Taiwanese fishing vessel in Donggang port. The vessel is relatively larger than other fishing vessels and may go to sea for 10 months before returning to land. (Taiwan News photo)

Kubalang also said that the recruitment fees agents charge migrants for securing work may actually incentivize people to run out on their employers once they arrive in Taiwan. He said agencies may charge high fees for securing work, and some migrants will choose to escape pre-arranged work for illegal work to avoid them.

Both Kubaland and Mudzakir said that in the case of the fishing industry, migrants are sometimes not aware of the conditions they will face once onboard fishing boats. FOSPI Secretary M. Rofiqudin agreed, and said after one voyage, some may flee from their job because they do not want to return to sea.

Fishing vessels may spend up to 10 months at sea without returning to land. Workers on the boats very rarely have any access to Wi-Fi, lack adequate food and fresh water, and may face abuse from their captains.

Rofiqudin said that fishermen legally have the right to end their contracts if they wish, but can face physical and verbal abuse when they ask to do so. “If we do terminate our contract, according to the law, we only have two months to find a new contract, after that, we will be deported,” he said.

“They don’t want to go back home to Indonesia, so what can they do? They escape,” Rofiqudin said.

Rofiqudin said that those fleeing fishing boats often seek work in Taiwan’s agricultural sector, which faces a significant labor shortage. Mudzakir said this points to the nature of the problem with runaway workers.

“If there were no illegal jobs for the workers, the workers would not run away: It’s systematic,” he said. Mudzakir said that if all undocumented migrant workers were arrested, Taiwan’s economy would face major issues because so many work in agriculture.