Showing posts with label foreign_labor. Show all posts
Showing posts with label foreign_labor. Show all posts

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Paper Ninja Stars (or: Fear, Foreboding and the Taiwanese Left)

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The graphic that appeared by the names of some Taiwan Statebuilding Party candidates in the 2020 election on official ballots


First, an announcement: you’ll be seeing fewer (and shorter) posts from me between now and June. I am now officially shoulder-deep in dissertation writing and really must concentrate on that. I’ll update occasionally, but in the meantime I’ll be posting relevant content by others on the Lao Ren Cha Facebook page (yes, that is a thing which I never formally announced). 

Anyway, let me tell you a story. 

When I was in junior high, I was the target of a not-very-successful bully (everyone else hated him too; his bullying did not win him any popularity). He’d randomly trip me in the hall, push or whack me for no reason. Once, he ran into a classroom I was in, put some tape he’d pulled from a cassette around my neck and ran out holding both ends. One day, he made a paper ninja star and flung it at me just as a class we had together was about to start. It nearly hit me in the eye.

I lost it. I got up, slapped him hard across the face, picked him up by the neck - lots of adrenaline going - threw him into a row of desks, and then kicked him so he slammed further into those desks. I may have done more; I was a whirling dervish of rage and I truly don’t remember. 

My response was way out of proportion to his throwing a paper star at me. But honestly, considering everything else he’d done over the past two years, it had been a long time coming. I don’t condone violence and would not do this as an adult, but I’m also not sorry for beating the crap out of him as a teenager. 

So what? 


I’m not talking about those who pointed out the logistical issues or the question of priority. Those opinions are reasonable. I’m talking about those who expressed that the lives of those people were not Taiwan’s concern - despite their being family members of Taiwanese nationals.

I had been trying to start from kindness - that is, recognize that it’s important to treat even people you don’t like as human beings whose lives matter. I’ll be the first to admit I don’t care for the attitudes of Taishang generally. And, just as importantly, that it’s not right to dismiss children as ‘not our concern’ because you don’t like the decisions of their parents - decisions the children had no say in. 

After acknowledging that, talk of logistics becomes possible, and the same decision may have been made in the end because China has left Taiwan with so few options - but the process of the discourse matters. 

I stand by that view, but here’s what’s changed: I should have also started from kindness when considering Taiwanese public opinion. 

With a few exceptions of some extreme comments online that do not represent the norm, I highly doubt most people actually want to punish those children by refusing them evacuation because they dislike their parents. Most people are quite capable of realizing that those children did not choose to be Chinese nationals.

Rather, it was a howl of rage from Taiwanese who’ve chosen to stay and engage with their country, who are sick and tired of both China’s bullshit and Taishang opportunism and sellout behavior that actively harms Taiwan. Howls of rage are not always politically correct, but that does not render them unjustified. This one was a long time in coming, and I should have seen that immediately. 

In other ways, I’ve tried to be empathetic to these expressions of anger. While I appreciate the discussion of Sinophobia in Taiwanese discourse, generally I feel we should always - always - view statements that may seem aggressively nationalist or anti-China on their face in the context in which they are made. 

Taiwan has been treated like garbage by the Chinese government for so long - and individual Taiwanese have been insulted by a large number of Chinese citizens so regularly - that honestly, can you blame them for lashing out? Maybe give the victims in this game a break instead of (yet again) putting the burden of assuming a conciliatory tone on them. 

Especially when they already know that it’s logistically impossible to do much for those children and accompanying spouses, it becomes easy to vent one’s justified rage at Taishang who expect special treatment and whine and writhe with entitlement when they don’t get it. 

That said, my actual conclusions remain the same: a different active response is not logistically possible, but I still cannot condone a “those children aren’t Taiwanese so they are not our concern” attitude. Even when their parents often have an opportunistic, have-your-Chinese-money-but-get-Taiwanese-benefits-too attitude to Taiwan (to put it gently).

The difference is this: I’ve come to realize the public anger mostly did not stem from the question of the Taishang children specifically, just as my throwing that kid into a desk in junior high wasn’t really about a paper ninja star. 

And that’s just it: while remaining true to ethical convictions that do matter to me, I could have started from kindness when evaluating a facet of public opinion that bothered me deeply. Both were possible. 

So where did my original reaction come from? 

Fear, honestly.

I don’t think the ethical divide on this issue is really that great, if it’s there at all. But where I saw “people lashing out at foreigners...and I’m a foreigner!”, I suspect most people saw “we’ve been bullied for so long by China and people who sell out to China, and we’re sick of it!”

“Foreigners” as a general class was never really the point.

This fear also includes worries over the unstable life situations all immigrants face. I do wonder, for some people (though not all), at what point in a crisis I might be deemed “not Taiwanese enough” to receive the same assistance as everyone else, as a taxpayer and part of the system. 

I’ve had a few experiences in the past where expressing a political opinion that a Taiwanese local did not personally agree with caused that person to default to “well, you’re not Taiwanese” (implied: so you don’t matter). That a lot - if not most - locals might actually agree with my opinion didn’t seem to register. I’ve had people just assume that if Taiwan faced a true emergency I’d just leave, because theoretically I "can" (I wouldn’t - and there are real questions over whether I actually "can"). 

At what point does a reaction like that spill over into views on who should get access to what services?

But, overall, I doubt most people would think I should be denied, say, medical care in Taiwan during a pandemic. I pay for NHI just like everyone else, after all, and don’t try to game the system the way a lot of Taishang do. In any case, there’s an element of white privilege which would blunt such an effect. 

Remember, however, that the vast majority of foreigners in Taiwan are not white, they are Southeast Asian, and they have neither the privilege nor often the resources to weather a public opinion backlash against their access to health services in Taiwan.

Is it any wonder, then, that when I hear “Taiwanese citizens first!” that it puts me on edge, even though I know that’s not meant to include me?

But, there’s an even more complex fear: fear that the Taiwanese political left I generally support does not actually support people like me. 

As much as I hate them, I can’t deny that the immigration reforms the KMT passed under Ma Ying-jeou were genuinely helpful for foreigners and conveyed a more welcoming attitude (though, again, that was very much contingent on white and Han privilege - rules were relaxed for Chinese accompanying family, and foreign professionals like me, but nothing really improved for the blue-collar workers who make up the backbone of Taiwan’s foreign labor and community). 

I also don’t doubt that the Tsai administration is more or less on our side: they passed some pretty striking immigration reform themselves, though again they seemed to encode privilege into law, demarcating in even more detail which immigrants were ‘worthy’ and which were not (spoiler alert: I’m not). 

But those left of Tsai - think the NPP, back when they mattered? They were key voices in scrapping the proposed relaxation of rules on hiring foreign workers, such as the required salary floor and required previous work experience for professionals. (Their arguments did not make a lot of economic sense, either - they just ensured that people who wanted to move to Taiwan either could not do so, or got stuck teaching English when they really didn’t want to, which isn’t good for the profession.) I hear noises from them that immigration should be controlled to ‘protect Taiwanese jobs’ and no specific support from them on the ever-present dual nationality issue, despite their putting forward an ‘internationalized’ face more broadly. At the end of the day, a few (though not all) of them are still localists who may be friendly to ‘foreigners’, but will always consider immigrants in Taiwan to be just that - only foreigners, never ‘new’ members of a common community. That is, if they consider us at all. 

So, when newly-elected legislator Chen Bo-wei made the news saying that “foreigners” (外籍人士) should pay more for health insurance in Taiwan, surely it is understandable that it sounded as though he were referring to all foreigners. After all, the term he used is fairly broad: I might be considered 外籍人士

Several people asked his office for clarification, at which point it was explained that he specifically meant Chinese accompanying family, who are covered under a different category of National Health Insurance (foreign residents like me are covered like ordinary taxpayers as we work here), and whose 'residency requirements' were relaxed under Ma Ying-jeou. Simply put, Chen - a known localist - should have made himself clear from the beginning and not spoken so carelessly. 

In a world that made sense, I’d still disagree with Chen: Chinese are foreigners, just like me. Therefore, eligible Chinese nationals shouldn’t obtain NHI coverage under a special category, any more so than any other foreigner. Acknowledging that they’re not like other foreigners, if anything, implies that there is a special quasi-intranational relationship between Taiwan and China when I’d argue that there shouldn’t be. 

However, the world doesn’t make sense, and I don’t know that we’re at a point in international relations where adjusting the law in that direction would be feasible. 

In any case, surely one can see how a statement like Chen’s would raise concerns. The KMT is out of power and they’re awful (and Han supremacist) anyway - they might’ve passed some strong immigration reform, but to them Taiwan’s fate is ultimately Chinese, period. The DPP under Tsai is more internationally oriented than in the Hoklo chauvinist Chen years, when there was essentially no forward momentum on immigration policy. 

But, the Tsai administration is also slow and cautious. The Taiwanese left - those whom I’d otherwise tend to agree with - are not necessarily strong allies of the foreign community. This makes it hard to know quite who to support.

With all this in mind, is it any wonder that criticism of “non-Taiwanese” getting access to “Taiwanese” resources would cause worry in Taiwan’s foreign community? We’re not exactly sure who our allies are, though we know we have them.

And we're the most privileged foreigners (after perhaps overseas Chinese who have obtained ROC nationality). What about the most vulnerable?

But, there are times when something that looks on its face like an anti-foreigner backlash isn’t really that at all: it’s a reaction to years of being bullied (by China) and really has nothing to do with “foreigners”, or “children”. I can’t ever agree with the more extreme comments I saw (e.g. “bastard children of traitors and their mistresses”) and I still think that the child of a citizen deserves to be treated as more than just a foreigner regardless of their nationality. Context matters, however, and the anger I witnessed certainly has a a fraught one. 

Monday, October 28, 2019

In Taiwan, women are the real labor movement

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In both domestic and foreign labor, it's the women who are pushing the real changes

In the span of a few short years, I've noticed something regarding labor actions in Taiwan: all of the most successful ones (as well as less successful but highly visible actions) have been organized and carried out by women.

The Taoyuan Flight Attendants' strike (which you might know of as the "China Airlines strike") of 2016, called “first successful strike held by an independent labor union in Taiwan’s history" by the union director has overall been upheld as an example of what organized labor can achieve if they persist. Of course, the flight attendants themselves - remember them, occupying the road around the China Airlines headquarters? - were predominantly female, as were the organizers and public faces of the movement (including the union director, Su Ying-jung). 

The EVA Airlines strike, though less successful, garnered a high level of visibility, both domestically and internationally. Though they gained fewer concessions than the earlier flight attendants' strike, I do think it creased a sense that striking is a legitimate way to push for a better work environment rather than pushing "too far" and being taboo. Of course, most of the EVA strikers were also women.

There was also the China Airlines pilots' strike, which skewed more male (in Taiwan and globally, in the airline industry men are more likely to be pilots and women are more likely to be flight attendants. Someone's going to get mad at me for saying this, but the reason is sexism. But, it's not directly related to my point here.) The pilots' strike was also largely successful, but came on the heels of (and was perhaps spurred on or inspired by) the success of the flight attendants' strike. Other labor organizers have pointed to the China Airlines flight attendants' strike for giving their own initiatives more visibility.


2016 China Airlines strike
China Airlines Flight Attendants' Strike, from Wikimedia Commons - you'll see both men and women engaging in the strike, but I can assure you that the organization and core of this action was predominantly female

These strikes were historic in Taiwan, in part because there really hasn't been much in the way of labor movements or strike actions in the country since the 1990s. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, there was a strong uptick in the number of autonomous labor unions formed, in contrast to the old-style, often conservative, government-backed unions which were mostly formed to prevent organized labor from making significant ground or challenging KMT control of and profit from the island's most lucrative industries (there's a long history of state interference and personal and party benefit from industry in post-war Taiwan and of course the military dictatorship didn't want organized labor threatening their control, and most autonomous organizations of any kind were banned - labor, women's organizations, you name it). As Martial Law was lifted and Taiwan began the process of democratization, unions in general threw off the shackles of state or corporate control and protests, strikes and various labor actions did take place, but then the movement lost steam. 

Around the same time, the Supreme Court upheld the ruling against RCA for exposing workers to toxic waste - especially carcinogenic solvents - causing high incidents of cancer among former employees. Though the RCA workers did not have all of their demands met, RCA was ordered to pay damages to afflicted former employees and their families. And, again, most of the workers involved and the people who organized to fight the lawsuit were women.

I have been looking into it and can't find a similar example of an organized group of male workers bringing a lawsuit against a former employer and winning in the way that the RCA workers did - if you know of one, please clue me in. There's a reason, however, that this case was considered historic.

While all this was going on, there has been exactly one large cross-industry labor protest of note, which took place in late 2017. Though many of the attendees were female, if you look at the photos, you'll see that huge blocs of industrial union participants were male (indeed, check out the photo of the Chunghwa Telecom Workers' Union from that link). The women I saw in attendance tended to be foreign domestic workers fighting to end their exclusion from many of Taiwan's labor protection laws, and young protesters showing up to represent a variety of related but not-quite-the-same causes, such as marriage equality and Taiwanese independence.

For a number of political reasons which are not quite relevant here, the usual activist groups and left-leaning political parties were largely absent in any organized form, though individuals from those movements did show up.

And that protest went exactly nowhere, and a lot of people felt tricked or misled by the organizers, myself included. To be honest, beyond the foreign labor groups and some of the individual young activists who showed up, the whole thing felt like conservative older men and some leftie labor activists who aren't exactly pro-Taiwan (some people call them 'pro-unification left') coming together to hold banners, and create a whole bunch of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

In short, it sure feels to me like the backbone of the labor movement in Taiwan is female. Not only that, but the future of labor movements in Taiwan are, as well. It's the women who fight back, the women who lead historic strikes, and the women who get results while the men hold signs and criticize President Tsai (but where were they when working conditions were degrading under President Ma? I remember no large labor protests from those eight years. Do you? Why, whatever could be the reason?) and nothing happens.

I've also noticed that the fact that women are leading the labor movement is simply ignored in media reporting of their success. New Bloom, which is usually quite good at highlighting issues of misogyny and gender/sex discrimination, called the China Airlines flight attendants' strike predominantly young, which is true (flight attendants in Asia skew young), but not predominantly female, although it was. They did point out that the EVA Airlines flight attendants were all female, in the context of EVA's frankly sexist and probably illegal hiring policy, but not in the context of women being the vanguard of contemporary labor movements. Taipei Times didn't bring up gender at all when discussing the flight attendants' strike or the RCA lawsuit.


EVA Airlines strike photo from CNA via Taiwan News

Of course, it shouldn't matter, because labor is labor regardless of gender. But considering historic discrimination against women in labor around the world, including Taiwan, what is considered to be overall low labor participation by Taiwanese women (more on that later, though), and the overall tendency of small and medium-sized businesses to be represented by men (regardless of who is doing most of the work) and the painting of men, traditionally, as hard-working entrepreneurs but not women (see the male-oriented phrase 黑手變頭家 which lionizes male 'black-hand' laborers for becoming successful business owners)...it does matter. It has to matter. I hope for a world where someday it doesn't, but in 2019, it does. 
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One of the few examples of a group of women at the 2017 labor protest

It truly feels like women are on the front lines and taking the initiative in a society that is still oriented to respect male labor but not female labor, and getting zero credit.

This invisibility of women as the backbone of labor in Taiwan has historical roots - at least, I think it does.

Looking at Taiwan's labor history, those post-war "home industries" and "home factories" where individuals did manufacturing piecework in their homes were often seen as a way for the women of a household - who, by the way, still had to do all the regular household labor - to help the family income. Men and young people engaged in this work as well: I remember a student who'd reached an extremely high perch in an internationally-known Taiwanese company telling me about pressing plastic leaves for fake flowers with one hand while studying with a book in his other hand, because his father's income as a bus driver wasn't sufficient to support the family. But, so often, it was "housewives" who did this work.

When factories - both large and small - drove Taiwan's industrial miracle, they often looked to women as sources of labor. This was in part because they could pay them less, and in part because they expected the women to leave their jobs as soon as they married and (probably) got pregnant, meaning they wouldn't have to worry about things like severance pay or a retirement pension as they would with long-term male workers. For the smaller factories, men were often the sales and public face of the company, but women did a huge proportion of the actual manufacturing. These factories and industries were seen as 'male' - all those 'black hand' laborers working their way up in the world - but they weren't, really.

When 'family businesses' became part of the small-and-medium sized enterprise boom that helped make the Taiwan Miracle possible, who do you think in the family did all the back-end work? The 'man' (usually a husband or father in the family) would be the public face of the company, but the person keeping the books, taking stock, perhaps doing a large proportion of the actual work, and often making important business decisions was that man's wife. Mr. Chen might be the 老闆 (boss) with his own business card, but Chen Tai-tai - the 老闆娘 - is the real boss. If you want something done, don't talk to Mr. Chen - talk to his wife. Of course, she does all that and also all of the housework and child-rearing, but probably doesn't have a business card.

I say all of this anecdotally, but I've brought up my observation to countless Taiwanese friends and students and not one has disagreed, and while none of my reading states this explicitly, it's strongly implied in several of my sources.

And yet, when one reads about society in the Taiwan Miracle (there's even a book called State and Society in the Taiwan Miracle, which mentions 'businessmen' but generally not the women who actually did a great deal of the work), rarely are women's contributions to this miracle acknowledged, and they're certainly not given credit for being the backbone of this miracle, which I absolutely believe they are.

I've seen this play out in my social circle as well. One of my best friend's parents run a small business in Taiwan, and until recent years my friend's father was the 'face' of that company (though her mother also did a huge amount of the work). Recently, my friend has taken over a lot of the operations and she does get credit as the 'public face' of her family's business, but that's a modern development. But, remember a few paragraphs ago when I touched on "low labor participation" of Taiwanese women? This friend of mine doesn't draw an official salary. As far as I'm aware her job isn't official at all. While she is absolutely employed, I'm not at all sure that the government considers her as 'part of the labor force' (I don't know how they arrive at those statistics). I get the feeling that a lot of wives and daughters do in fact participate in labor outside the home, but aren't counted because it's all informal.


Informality is quite possibly a key, in fact, to why Taiwanese women get so little credit when they deserve so much. Taiwanese labor contracts - if there's a contract at all, which there often isn't in the case of family - in these small businesses are often extremely informal, looking more like agreements between relatives, neighbors or friends than formal work contracts (that's backed up by academic research, not just an observation). I count women's labor for a family business to be labor 'outside the home', though often it takes place literally inside the home (the home often doubling as an office for the family business, or being physically connected to it, in the case of family factories). Families themselves might consider this work to not be labor in a workplace but rather just..women's work that women do for the family, at home.

How much of the labor of women is simply not counted because of this?

To drive home my point, I want to leave you with a story that goes further back in Taiwanese history. In her excellent book, Anru Lee narrates how textile production was banned under Japanese colonial rule, when economic policy was essentially mercantilist (foodstuffs such as rice and sugar would go to Japan, finished goods would come from Japan to be sold in Taiwan). But cloth was scarce, especially during the war, and there was profit to be made in weaving and selling it - so families, often women, would do so. Raw cotton had to be imported and wasn't available to these women, so they'd use cotton from old clothing and household products. Then they'd use their recycled-material cloth to swaddle and carry their babies in public, where they could then sell that cloth without being noticed (women were also considered less likely by the Japanese authorities to break the law, so they wouldn't come under as much scrutiny). In this way, women contributed economically to their households, and did so entirely under the radar.

And it seems women in Taiwanese labor are still under the radar, even when they take to the streets.

* * * 
A few sources for this piece which I didn't explicitly mention (and are in print so can't be linked) but deserve credit: 



In The Name of Harmony and Prosperity: Labor and Gender Politics in Taiwan's Economic Restructuring by Anru Lee

Women's Movements in Twentieth-Century Taiwan by Doris T. Chang

The Trade Union Movement in Ma's Taiwan by Yu-bin Chiu and Uneasy Alliance: State feminism and the conservative government in Taiwan by Huang Chang-ling, both in Taiwan's Social Movements Under Ma Ying-jeou, edited by Dafydd Fell. 

Thursday, September 26, 2019

Immigration and racism in Taiwan: it's not about who you are when you come, but who you become after you arrive

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Silhouettes of a visitor and a foreign resident in Taiwan

Perhaps an explosive title, but hear me out. I'm going to talk mostly about Taiwan in this post, but the ideas I want to express can be applied to more or less any country (there may be a few exceptions that I'm not aware of  - but by and large this is a global problem). Otherwise, let's just jump right in.

In Taiwan, it's fairly easy for professionals to immigrate and gain permanent residency, at least compared to much of the rest of the world. If you are a professional with at least two years' experience in your field or a Master's degree in any field (which has to be a face-to-face program and in some cases, excludes part-time programs) and someone will hire you, you can come to Taiwan with few problems. If you stay for five years, you can get permanent residency. That's actually not bad by global standards. It's much harder to get a visa to work in most Western countries, and permanent residency (e.g. a green card) can take ages. Of course, some are easier than others.

But it is discriminatory - if you're from a family that is middle class or wealthy, you're more likely to have access to the education you need to get hired. You're more likely to speak an international language (such as English, though for Taiwan, Mandarin is a huge help), because you had access to that same education which probably included it. You probably also come from a worldlier 'family culture' that would have encouraged knowing such a language: families where parents and relatives speak a foreign language are more likely to have offspring who also grow up to speak that language.

So, off the bat, any sort of points-based or 'professional' based visa system is automatically classist, because mostly people born into certain social classes have the access to the education and training they need to get hired and obtain a visa in a country like Taiwan (or Australia, or the US, or...etc.)

If you come from a 'developed' country, many (or most) of which are majority-white for historical reasons that are deeply unfair, you are far more likely to be born into such a family. What is the likelihood of, say, a European being born into circumstances that would allow them these advantages, compared to, say, someone from Southeast Asia outside Singapore? A lot greater. So what are your chances of meeting visa requirements calibrated to attract 'professionals' if you already come from a developed (and therefore more likely - though not necessarily - majority white) country? Comparatively speaking, how likely are you to be able to meet those same requirements if you come from a developing country that is almost certainly not white? Anecdotal evidence does not count. "I'm white but my life was tough" does not count - that's not statistical likelihood. "I'm from Vietnam but my family was rich" is also not statistical likelihood. On average, what are your chances?

Since race intersects with class - the color line is the power line is the poverty line - and you are simply more likely to be from a privileged background if you are white - such a system also gives an unfair advantage to people who are white. There are exceptions for sure, but again, we're talking averages here.

In Taiwan's case, I simply don't care if the goal is to attract certain kinds of professionals, in part because doing so is simply inherently classist (and therefore racist) - and that is exactly how Taiwan's immigration system works, both in terms of getting visas to come here, getting permanent residency, and getting citizenship. If you qualify for a professional visa, permanent residency is fairly easy, but if you come here to study - say, you are one of the Southeast Asian students that Taiwan hopes to attract - that doesn't count, and it can be difficult to transition. If you are a blue-collar worker, there's no path at all. To be a citizen, you have to be even more 'qualified', which probably means coming from an even wealthier background, or have 'Chinese ancestry' (which is a law that's obliquely about race).

You can come here and seek a better life, but probably only if your previous life was comparatively privileged, and you can stay forever, but you're probably already really privileged if qualify just isn't a good look.

I also believe that it doesn't actually achieve Taiwan's goals. The birthrate is falling, and while I don't necessarily think "we must unceasingly increase our population so the young can support the old" is a good long-term plan - Taiwan's easily habitable areas are already densely populated and there is finite space and resources - the best way to ensure population stability is to loosen immigration requirements. A lot of these immigrants will marry and have children locally, which is a huge bonus for Taiwan. Not just  professionals: everyone.

In addition, I'm not at all convinced that the visa requirements and citizenship, plum blossom and gold card requirements actually meet Taiwan's needs. Taiwanese media routinely talks about the need to train more vocational workers, there is an oversupply of local workers for white-collar jobs (which is one reason wages are low, though not the only one), and with a low birthrate, Taiwan's labor force depends on immigration. Yes, this is true even despite the brain drain due to low wages and stressful, borderline-tyrannical office culture. And yet, it's especially true for blue-collar workers, because local vocational training is not particularly good and not highly-respected.

It would simply be smarter and truly meet Taiwan's needs, then, to relax rules for blue-collar immigrants, not just white-collar ones. So why have white collar workers been specifically prioritized? (That's a rhetorical question. The answers are racism and classism.)

And, of course, that's not even getting into what white collar workers Taiwan actually needs compared to whom it is trying to attract. With an initiative to become "bilingual by 2030", you'd think they'd want more qualified teachers and teacher trainers who can train up newly-hired local and foreign teachers, and yet for the education sector, only "associate professors", not regular teachers, qualify for dual nationality. That makes no sense at all.

And finally, it's simply the right thing to do. A place - whether that's a country, region or city - prospers when it is open to everyone seeking a better life, and the drawbacks are few. Yes, an influx of labor may cause short-term drops in wages, but those tend to recover. Yes, increased multiculturalism can cause friction, but it doesn't have to be that way, and the advantages of being exposed to people whose backgrounds and worldviews are unlike your own outweigh the drawbacks. Plus, it's a super great way to not be racist! They bring talent and creativity as well as hard work. They open businesses, get married, start families. They fill needs and niches in society. They matter, even if they don't come with a pre-fab education or specific work experience.

In other words, it's not about who you are when you come. Or it shouldn't be. It's who you become after you arrive. 


I want to insert a little story about how I came here and taught English with very few qualifications (some teaching experience in a variety of settings, from children to adults, from monolingual to multilingual, in the US and outside of it, both English and native-speaker literacy, but no formal training.) I want to talk about how the only way I got to where I am now - the person who trains people like my former self - is because of the opportunities I could only access after I got to Taiwan. I want to talk about how I could never have afforded my subsequent training and education with the low purchasing power my American existence felt like it was dooming me to. But I won't (I mean, other than the fact that I just did). I grew up with English as my first language, and standard American English at that. I'm white. I was privileged enough to be born into a family that, with some difficulty, sent me to university. I'm already privileged, so my story isn't the point.

Otherwise, if you say you support immigration to Taiwan but you only mean immigration for the already-privileged, you don't really support immigration. You support classist, and therefore racist, immigration policy. You support people who look and sound like me, but not anyone really different from you. I mean that for Taiwanese as well: yes, we are different, from different backgrounds. Yes, this might lead to some differences in worldview. But, educated Taiwanese readers who can read this in English, you and I have more in common because of our class background than either of us have in common with someone from a truly marginalized community. Especially if you are Han Taiwanese - Han privilege is absolutely a thing, and you know it.

If those other people like us are Asian - say, Hong Kongers, Singaporeans or Japanese - then they are just that much more similar to you, coming from the same region, though not the same culture and society.

Do you really want to support only people who don't seem so different - people like me - or do you really want to support Taiwan being an international society where everyone can seek a better life?

Taiwan is already a multicultural society - though the rate fluctuates, the number of Taiwanese children with a foreign parent has always been higher than a lot of people realize. After all, most of the time, those foreign parents are Asian, so it's hard to tell. For the past few centuries, this country has had foreign travelers, residents, colonizers and spouses interwoven into its cultural and historical fabric. Although there's a 'majority' culture, it's only a monoculture if you want to believe it is (and if you think 'monoculture' includes other foreigners if those foreigners happen to be Asian).

I see no reason why that can't be reflected in a better, more egalitarian, more welcoming and less racist immigration policy. 

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Bad reporting, Han Kuo-yu, and racism against Filipinos in Taiwanese society

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This meme - not established Taiwanese media -  is the most accurate translation of Han's actual remarks that I've found. 

So, I'm sure you've all heard by now that Kaohsiung mayor Han Kuo-yu is a racist crapsack, but you might not be entirely clear on exactly how much of a racist crapsack he actually is, because it's impossible to figure out what his exact words were from print media. 

In looking for Han's direct quote, I found three different versions in United Daily News, Liberty Times and Storm Media, and decided none of them could be fully trusted. So, I found a video. Here's exactly what he said, with video evidence:


我想高雄市民跟台灣人民的心理狀態一定很大衝擊,怎麼瑪麗亞一下變成我們老師了?

My translation:


I think the hearts of Kaohsiung residents and Taiwanese would be greatly shocked, how can a Maria become our teacher?

'Maria' is a pejorative for a Filipina woman, connoting a woman of humble means who performs domestic labor. It's equivalent to calling them maids - referring to every woman in the Philippines as 'the help'. This particular insult is well-known in Taiwan, where many workers from the Philippines perform blue-collar labor in Taiwan. It's not just a racist word, it's a sexist one too as it specifically denigrates the domestic labor done by foreign women.

That word, "shock" (衝擊) can also mean an assault or lashing - it could just as easily be translated as "would assault the hearts of Kaohsiungers and Taiwanese".

The "...because how can a 'Maria' become our English teacher" is also important to understanding Han's meaning, it implies unlikeliness, impossibility, or mockery. How could The Help possibly teach us?

This is what he means and an accurate translation of his remark makes that clear.

Han goes on to say (from the video linked above, translation mine):


往菲律賓取才我覺得這個在一個克服的過程。... 如果我們從菲律賓引進教英文的師資,高雄的家長能不能接受? 所以我才會用瑪麗亞三個字,來做一個表述,所以我用瑪麗亞三個字不是有其他的意思在。...你為什麼不找美國,澳大利亞,英國的,你為什麼找隔壁菲律賓的?我的意思是說,家長心裡會有一個障礙。可是呢?菲律賓外語人才的輸出,已經很成熟,這個兩個這間,怎麼樣說服高雄的家長? 
Filipino talent, I think this is a process of overcoming....if we introduce qualified English teachers from the Philippines, would Kaohsiung patriarchs/heads of household/old-timers be able to accept it [with the implication that they would not]. So, I can only say 'Maria' it's just an expression, so when I say 'Maria', there's no other meaning....Why don't you find American, Australian, English ones, why do you find people from the nearby Philippines? My meaning is, that's a mental obstacle for these 'patriarchs'/old timers. But? The Philippines sending out foreign language speakers is already very common. Between these two [extremes], how can we convince those old-timers?

This sounds like a reasonable position to take, because it's surely true that there are many racist people in Kaohsiung and Taiwan who would be bothered by or opposed to having teachers from the Philippines in positions of authority and respect in Taiwan, because to them, they are just "Marias".

That doesn't absolve Han of his initial comments, though. First, to say "I didn't mean anything other than that by the word 'Maria'" is about as tired an excuse as "I only used the N-word because I heard it in a rap song, not because I meant something racist."

And it doesn't hold up to even the barest scrutiny as an explanation: he's not quoting anyone in particular when he calls Filipinas 'Marias'. The word came out of his own mouth. He used it offhandedly, like a normal word anyone would use. He didn't adequately signpost his remarks as a quote or description of an attitude, because that's not actually what they were despite his "clarifications" later.

If Han had really meant to describe what Taiwanese think, and make it clear that he disagrees, he wouldn't have said 'Maria' so casually in the first place. This marks him not as an ally, but a concern troll: defending his words as describing what the other side thinks, but showing through his unconsidered language choices that, on some level, he is a part of that 'other side'. Someone who truly wants to change racism against Southeast Asians in Taiwanese society would simply not say "...how can a Maria become our teacher?"

It boils down to his meaning being, "I don't hate Marias, I'm just worried about racism in Taiwan, what with everyone used to them being so poor and being maids and all, it's sad to me that nobody wants those Marias to be their English teachers. I'm just concerned!" 


He didn't say "many Taiwanese unfortunately have an obstacle in their thinking to accepting the idea that teachers from the Philippines could teach them, and that is wrong. We need to persuade them and overcome this obstacle, because there are many qualified professionals, including teachers, from the Philippines." He didn't even say "many Taiwanese think of workers from the Philippines as 'Marias' and that is a problem", which, while a bit gasp-worthy, is at least kind of an accurate description of what some Taiwanese people think.

He said, and I repeat, "how can a Maria become an English teacher?" as casually as an American racist might say "How'd a ________ like her get a nice car like that?" 

(And see how I made it quite clear that such horrid language describes views that exist in the world, but does not reflect my own views? It's not hard.)

At the very least it didn't occur to him that unthinkingly tossing off the 'Maria' epithet might be a problem. That only happens when someone already thinks of a group of people that way, not when they are signaling disagreement or condemnation of an opinion others hold.

And if a leader is caught in such a gaffe and tries to insist that they don't personally feel that way about a particular group, but they're just worried that everyone else does, that's simply unacceptable. Leaders should not inflame societal prejudices, even if they are common; they should be examples of a higher, more forward-thinking standard. 


Let's keep in mind as well that he tows the same 'concern troll' line with marriage equality, saying his real concern is "the next generation" (won't someone think of the children?), not that he is anti-gay, while fraternizing with anti-gay groups


And he didn't even bother to defend his remark until later in the meeting when directly asked about it, or show awareness that 'Maria' is more than 'just an expression'.

If you look at reporting of Han's comments, you get distortions of what he said all over the place (all translations are mine). Some make his wording look a lot worse - from UDN:


引進菲律賓人才,這恐怕對高雄人、台灣人心理衝擊大,因為瑪麗亞怎麼變老師了?
Introducing Filipino talent, I'm afraid (as in, scared - not regretful) that this will be a shock to Taiwanese and Kaohsiung residents, because how can a Maria become a teacher? 

From Liberty Times:


這恐怕對台灣人心理衝擊大,因為瑪麗亞怎麼變老師了?
I'm afraid that this would be a shock to the Taiwanese, because how can a Maria become a teacher?

And from Storm Media, inexplicably making him look better:


韓國瑜認為,確實能夠借重,但必須先克服市民及台灣人民的心理障礙,讓「瑪莉亞變老師」,很多人內心會有衝擊。 
...「我覺得我想高雄市民跟台灣人民,心理一定有很大衝擊,瑪莉亞變成我們老師了,這要克服的過程,這可能心理衝擊很大。」 
Han Kuo-yu believes it is indeed possible to take advantage of /get benefits from [talent from the Philippines], but the psychological barriers of the people of Taiwan must first be overcome - to let "'Marias' become teachers", a lot of people will be shocked.  
"I think / I think that Kaohsiung residents and Taiwanese will be very shocked, Marias become our English teachers, we need to overcome this, this can be a huge shock." 

Storm tried to soften the impact of his words by mashing two quotes together - "Marias become our English teachers" and "we need to overcome this", making it seem as though he said these two things at the same time, when he didn't (which the video makes clear by his different positioning). It also erases the "because how can a Maria become our teacher?" by selectively cutting his quote and replacing "because how can..." (怎麼) with "let" (讓) outside the quote marks. 

In English the reporting isn't much higher quality.

From Focus Taiwan, which offers the most accurate translation:


Responding to a proposal that Taiwan could hire bilingual Filipino white-collar workers at a conference on Wednesday, the mayor said employing "Marias" as teachers would be a psychological shock for Taiwanese.

There's also this from Taiwan News, which is far worse but just translates the garbage from Storm Media above but does so in a way that make Han's comments sound erudite in English, when they weren't particularly eloquent in Mandarin:


In response to this, the Kaohsiung Mayor admitted the Philippines’ abundance of skilled labor could benefit the city, but said its residents would first need to overcome some “internal conflicts.”
“I believe witnessing ‘Marias’ become teachers would cause a clash in the hearts of the people of Kaohsiung, and Taiwan’s population at large. This is something that needs to be overcome; likely a huge internal conflict,” Storm quotes Han.

And the Taipei Times, with what I think is the most inaccurate translation:


Han on Wednesday told a meeting of the Chinese National Association of Industry and Commerce in Taipei that he feared that hiring educated employees from the Philippines as English teachers “would cause a psychological shock for Taiwanese, as people might wonder: How has our Maria become a teacher?” 


Focus Taiwan accurately placed the 'Maria' comment within the attitude of Han, which is the context in which he made it, and not as a description of what he thinks other Taiwanese think. The other two make him sound much better than he actually did, and situate the 'Maria' quip not as Han's own word (which it is) but as a description of something he disagrees with (which is not what he said until pushed - which outs him as a concern troll.) Some translations (like Taipei Times' work) add connotations to the translation - e.g. "wondering" - that are simply not there in his actual words. 

All of these seem so odd to me, because the video of his remarks is publicly available. I'm not even a native Mandarin speaker or a perfectly fluent one, and yet I found and translated it with little problem.

So why do some quotes - like Liberty Times and UDN - make Han's remark seem more shocking than it was (and to be clear, it was quite shocking on its own and did not need to be sexed up)? And why do others - like Storm Media - make it sound like not much at all? How is this unclear and inaccurate media reporting of Han's remarks affecting how Taiwanese think about the incident, and is it distorting public discourse?

In English at least, it is having a distorting effect. Several posts on social media have pointed out that Han's remarks should not be considered offensive, because that's what some Taiwanese really think, based on the Taipei Times and Taiwan News translations.

This makes me wonder how can we even have a real conversation about Han's remarks and racism in Taiwanese society if what we read isn't quoting him correctly.

I'm not sure why Storm Media - which I've found to be typically more reliable - made Han look better than he deserved, and why a pan-green and pan-blue rag each made him look worse. But because the inaccuracies are present across the entire media-political spectrum, it doesn't point to an attempt to polarize the Taiwanese political cleavage.

Rather, I think it's just plain old bad reporting.

I'll finish off with something bad, then something good.

Something bad:


Kaohsiung Mayor Han Kuo-yu (韓國瑜) on Saturday apologized for a recent remark in which he referred to Filipinos as "Marias," saying the term, considered by many to be a racial slur, was a slip of the tongue.
Han was sorry for the misunderstanding caused by his misuse of the term and said he looks forward to future cooperation with the Philippines, it added. 

No, Focus Taiwan. NO NO NO NO NO.

"Maria" is not "considered by many" to be a racial slur. Jesus F. Christ. It is a racial slur. Period. Han Kuo-yu said it, and only tried to insist it was a description of what other people think after he was called to task for it, without ever explaining why he'd throw it out so casually (because there is no explanation that absolves him).

It was not a "misunderstanding". We all understood him perfectly. People in the Philippines understood him quite accurately. And he didn't misuse the term - he used it exactly as it's meant to be used in racist speech.

Just as when my (dearly departed) grandpa referred to "those people" and then insisted, when I pressed him, that he hadn't meant it as an insult but "they're just a different community", I knew perfectly well that that's not what he'd meant. 


But then there's the good thing: when I moved to Taiwan 12 years ago, I don't know that a comment like this would have caused this kind of uproar in Taiwan. I passed more than one "Foreign Labor Go Home" protest, with old men carrying signs. I don't even know if such language was common then, because my Mandarin was crap, and I never heard of anyone raising a fuss about it.

But in 2019, despite some attempts to justify Han's language, the overwhelming response of Taiwanese public discourse is that it is not acceptable to talk this way, and racist speech and actions should not be tolerated.

If Han is correct about how many Taiwanese might think of English teachers from the Philippines - and he is, for some people - the fact that the backlash has been so swift and damning proves that not all Taiwanese think this way.

That said, it doesn't seem to be hurting his approval ratings, although I have long suspected something is really weird about whatever force underlies those ratings which is propping up Han. 


Taiwan has a long way to go - we need to treat immigrants from Southeast Asia better, end discrimination and give them the same opportunities for permanent residency and citizenship that white collar workers (who are largely Western) have - but this is real progress. 

Friday, December 28, 2018

Taiwan needs to figure out how to treat foreigners better

It pains me to say it, but Taiwan has some deep discrepancies between the human rights ideals it claims to espouse, and how it treats not only its own citizens, but also those who come to Taiwan to study or work.

Instances of Taiwanese universities using the New Southbound Policy as basically a vector for scamming Southeast Asian students are starting to feel not like horrifying exceptions, but the norm. It's happened now with not just Sri Lankan students (news of which broke just months ago) but Indonesian ones as well, at more than a handful of universities.

These universities take government subsidies meant to help them attract students from Southeast Asia, and then use them to pay brokers to bring students over. These students are then assigned jobs in factories, and attend class only a few days a week, if at all. These factory jobs are called "internships", but they aren't learning opportunities - they are basic blue-collar work - and they aren't even allowed for first-year students, and certainly shouldn't be taking up most of one's week, as work is limited to 20 hours/week for foreign students here.

These are scams aimed at getting free labor - or even labor that has paid to be there, as some of these students are paying tuition to do this. They are violations of human rights.

Taiwanese people would not accept this happening to their own citizens, so it disgusts me that it seems to happen so easily to foreigners.

The "university" system here isn't the only vector for abuse - how domestic workers (who are predominantly female) and fishing boat workers (predominantly male) are treated, not to mention regular factory workers, is obscene. 

Taiwan is trying to take a big step forward by reducing its economic dependence on China through re-invigorating ties with Southeast Asia through the New Southbound Policy. But the high-minded ideas of the central government just aren't trickling down to those meant to actually implement it through outreach (including businesses, employers and universities).

Attempting to take advantage of a government policy aimed at improving the country to line one's own pockets is not unique to foreign residents or the New Southbound Policy (certainly this happens in the domestic sphere as well - just ask how property developers circumvent the "green space" law by giving politicians reduced-price apartments they can flip and profit from, or how some local politicians take advantage of local charities). However, I can't help but think in this case, there's an element of racism at play.

If this were happening to Taiwanese, the outcry would be swift and condemning. Instead, the government "will conduct an investigation" (hardly decisive action they need to be taking). This after it's obvious that those in government who set up the programs with universities - if they can even be called that - knew how likely it was that they would try to take advantage of both the government and the foreign students. If they weren't aware of this possibility, they wouldn't have talked to the university presidents in person and warned them off doing exactly this. 


Initiatives like the New Southbound Policy aren't going to work if the people in charge of actually implementing various initiatives are using them merely to take advantage of Southeast Asian people. They're not stupid, guys. They know that there's a lot of racism against Southeast Asians here. They know that these scams exist. They know that they can't necessarily trust these programs. And neither the people nor the governments there are going to stand for it. They are already angry.

I'll say it again: if Taiwan continues to be known for treating Southeast Asians badly, and is seen as using the New Southbound Policy for their own enrichment with little concern for the effect on Southeast Asian people or economies, it's not going to work. The New Southbound Policy will fail, and we'll be stuck with a choice between China strangling our democracy or our economy - exactly the thing we seek to avoid. 


One of the things that has really impressed me about Taiwan is how this country consistently pushes itself to live up to its purported ideals: democracy, freedom, human rights. It's not that other countries don't do that, but Taiwan seems (to me anyway) to make more progress more quickly than other parts of Asia, and the struggle just seems more visible here (and more accessible in terms of being connected or understanding, on a personal level, the bleeding edge of the push for social change.)

But we have to admit that Taiwan, as much as it may be a place one can love deeply and make a commitment to, is far from perfect. That's true not just in terms of how it treats its own citizens, but how it treats foreigners here. It has ideals, but as things stand right now, it simply doesn't live up to them. 

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

If you're a foreign working woman in Taiwan planning to have kids, you're probably going to get screwed

I'll be expanding this more in the coming weeks, but I feel like I need to say something now, however short and underdeveloped.

If you are a foreign woman working in Taiwan, and you are intending to have children here, there is a very high possibility that you're not only going to get screwed by your employer, but that it's already happening.

A huge percentage of foreign workers here - even the "foreign professionals" - work jobs that pay an hourly rate. The vast majority of these jobs are cram school/buxiban jobs (some of which pay a salary, but many/most don't.) (Most of these jobs are not remotely professional, even though they ought to be, and are poorly paid by real professional standards, but that's a different discussion.)

We're already getting screwed out of benefits we're meant to have, such as paid typhoon days and national holidays. Employers - private language schools, mostly - just don't provide them, and good luck leaving and finding another job that does.

Well, here's another benefit workers - even foreign workers on hourly pay - are meant to have: paid maternity leave. Your employer is meant to calculate your estimated hourly pay during your absence and, well, pay you that.

But how much you get paid for maternity leave depends partly on how long you've been employed there, and partly on labor insurance, or 勞保. To get the paid maternity leave benefit, you must be signed up for labor insurance.

And most private language schools that employ foreign teachers never do this.

I have heard varying accounts of whether labor insurance is required by law for foreign employees. Notably, however, it is absolutely not true that an employer can choose not to offer it. An employer telling you "we don't offer labor insurance", and then insisting they don't have to, even if you want it, is lying to you. They typically try to evade the issue by simply not telling you it's an option, hoping you'll never find out that if you ask for it, by law they have to register you.

If you do ask...well, results vary. I typically say good things about my various employers, save one really bad experience I had. They've been, for the most part, a cut above the typical clown academy here in Taiwan. But I'm going to go ahead and say a few critical words now:

At one school where I taught exam prep classes (I've since left for unrelated reasons), I was first ignored when I asked about labor insurance, then told they "don't offer it". I replied that they had no choice, they ignored me again. I said that if I was not signed up for it, I would report this issue to the government. I didn't particularly want to report anything to anyone, but I kept getting stonewalled when trying to access my rights. Then they acted as though this made me the "problem" or "high-maintenance" employee (it didn't - I just wanted what I was legally entitled to and kinder, more private entreaties were ignored.) I got my labor insurance. Others are not so lucky - I can handle being unfairly thought of as "difficult", because at least I won, but not everyone wins.

The problem is, most foreigners either don't know they are entitled to this, think it's something the company can "offer" rather than something that cannot be denied them, or don't realize that it matters. So most working foreign women here have a safety net they don't necessarily even realize they ought to have.

So if you're a foreign woman here, and you decide to pop out a screamer, whether or not you get paid maternity leave - which you are entitled to by law even if you are on an hourly wage - depends entirely on whether or not you signed up for labor insurance. If you didn't sign up, no paid vagina-healin', baby-wranglin' time for you. If you let the issue slide when your employer refused to sign you up, same deal. You just got screwed.

What's worse is that even if you are signed up for labor insurance, a huge number of schools underreport income (my former exam prep institute employer sure did). You might think this isn't a big deal, that "that's how it is here", but your labor insurance is based on your reported income, so if you get pregnant and take maternity leave, the pay you are entitled to matches the craptastic income that's been reported for you, not what you actually earned.

I have also heard stories of schools being reluctant to grant maternity leave even if their employees have labor insurance, although that hurdle can often be gotten over if you are willing to call (or threaten to call) some relevant authorities. They might try to screw you in other ways, though (e.g. extending your probation for vague reasons that don't quite make sense to justify paying you less).

Of course, Taiwanese women face massive issues accessing maternity leave too, something that seems to be rarely written about. Most of what I see in English consists of lavish praise of Taiwan's maternity leave policies - and at least compared to the USA (which is a legitimate horror show in this regard) - which rarely includes the uncomfortable truth that, while employers can't exactly deny their employees this leave, they can and do pressure them to take as little of it as possible and find other passive-aggressive ways to punish female employees who don't comply. Plenty of Taiwanese women don't feel they can access their full legally-entitled maternity leave either.

There is a difference, though: Taiwanese women know this is a problem. They are at least aware of what they are supposed to be getting. There is a foundation there for fighting back.

Foreign women in Taiwan? They may not even realize they're getting screwed. But chances are, they are.