TAIPEI – In April, Japan undertook a policy initiative meant to alleviate problems caused by its rapidly graying population, including labor shortages, rural depopulation and increasing pressure on social services.
Key to the policy is a visa plan to bring in more foreign labor over the next five years, including 345,000 blue-collar workers from China and Southeast Asia.
To attract quality workers, Japanese planners are trying to not only correct past problems, but also let “qualified migrants” stay longer, bring their families, and in some cases become citizens.
Such changes will alter the social fabric of a nation long resistant to immigration. But more generous work visas will also increase competition for migrant labor in the region, especially among advanced economies with similar demographic problems and a poor record of hosting visiting workers.
Taiwan is a case in point.
With one of the lowest fertility rates in the world, Taiwan will soon surpass Japan in the ratio of elderly to young residents, with projections suggesting that by 2065 there will be only one working-age Taiwanese for every retiree.
Policymakers have responded with pension reforms designed to keep people working longer, investments in robotics and artificial intelligence, and programs to encourage women to have more children while staying employed.
As useful as such efforts may be, experts agree that for economies like Taiwan, a viable demographic future depends on immigration — a mechanism that might be further complicated by Japan.
Commenting on Tokyo’s new policy, Taiwan’s Lo Ping-cheng, Cabinet minister for migrant labor, said attracting foreign labor was bound to become more difficult as the region improves and Southeast Asians become less likely to seek jobs abroad.
However, “if Japan begins offering better terms, we’ll be in trouble,” he said.
Taiwan began importing foreign labor in 1989, when Thai workers were brought in to help with highway construction. The 1992 Employment Service Act provided the legal basis for such hiring beyond state infrastructure projects, and today there are about 800,000 foreign people working in Taiwan. The majority are unskilled laborers in sectors ranging from fishing and manufacturing to domestic service and elderly care.
But while Taiwan has experience, 30 years of hosting foreign workers has not always gone well, with exploitation and mistreatment rampant in many sectors.
Complaints include overwork, unpaid wages, dangerous working conditions and intimidation. Sexual assault claims have also been made. Because those sectors fall outside the labor laws, domestic workers and fishing crews are paid below minimum wage and are regular victims of forced labor.
Wu Jing-ru of the Taiwan International Workers’ Association makes Lo’s point more bluntly.
“If Taiwan wants to attract quality workers, treat them better,” she said.
By Wu’s account, the main problem lies with the nation’s private labor brokers. These people can obtain visas for a substantial fee. They also collect a monthly fee from workers and assess additional charges for such services as housing and health care.
Aside from the fees, which cut deeply into earnings that would otherwise be sent home, the broker system is widely suspected of exploitation. Such corruption takes the form of payments to ignore abuse, for example, and to see that regulations remain biased, such as a rule that ties workers to specific employers so they cannot leave bad jobs or seek better ones.
Rules like these clearly favor brokers and employers.
But policymakers are unlikely to make sweeping changes, such as doing away with the private broker system altogether.
More likely will be a series of incremental reforms as the market for foreign labor tightens and legislation must match what is offered elsewhere.
Such changes have already occurred for white-collar professionals. About 32,000 foreign professionals work in Taiwan, and most are treated far better than blue-collar migrants. Indeed, 15,000 qualify as permanent residents, a status that does not require brokers, visa renewal, or even steady employment as individuals can leave jobs when they wish.
Things were not always this way.
An arrival in the mid-1990s, university professor David Stewart recalls renewing immigration documents each year at the police station and standing in line with laborers from Thailand and the Philippines for mandatory health checks in the basement of a hospital.
“On the job regulations often treated foreigners differently: limits on research funding, for example, contract-dependent visas and reduced pension benefits,” Stewart said.
The change began when it became clear that Taiwan’s economic needs were exceeding its human capital, and policymakers began drafting laws to attract applicants in the competitive marketplace for professional talent.
In 1999 qualifications for permanent residency were established. Three years later the rules were changed so foreign professionals would receive the same pensions as their Taiwanese colleagues.
Lawmakers have continued to amend these and other policies, making them fairer and more inclusive.
“Conditions have greatly improved,” Stewart said.
By raising the bar for foreign labor, Japan’s expanded visa program promises similar improvements, and not just for workers.
Ian Goldin, professor of global development at Oxford University, points out that immigrants provide more than cheap labor. To aging communities, they bring youth, incentive, new ideas and new blood. As dozens of Western countries attest, given the chance, newcomers stay, raise families, start businesses and, in time, become proud citizens of new homes.
Critics point to the rise of xenophobia in the United States and the European Union as a reason to resist immigration in Asia. Yet despite recent troubles, many such countries, as well as others like Canada and Australia, have been remarkably successful in assimilating immigrants and accepting them into their communities.
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Looking to such a future, Taiwan’s Education Ministry recently added seven Southeast Asian languages to school curricula from first grade to college, enabling children from the region to use their native tongues at school and Taiwanese to learn the languages and cultures of their neighbors.
Similarly, to facilitate the cross-border movement of its migrants, the Philippine trade office in Taipei has been offering Mandarin classes and other training programs.
In the private sector, businesses, too, are reaching out, providing multicultural media, while Muslims have remarked favorably on the growing availability of public prayer rooms and halal-certified foods.