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Late salary, working full day – no extra money: Indonesian domestic migrant workers in Taiwan

By Wisnu Adihartono | Issue 23


Image by Bohdan Chreptak from Pixabay.

Since the 1990s, the international migration between Southeast Asia and Taiwan has gained momentum. This is particularly true regarding migration to Taiwan, including contract workers, immigrant spouses, and international students. This happened because, in the late 1980s, several prominent public construction projects in Taiwan were seriously delayed due to a lack of workers. Among the new destinations, Taiwan was particularly attractive due to the significant increase in manufacturing costs and the sharp appreciation of the New Taiwan Dollar. In 2000, the national composition of the contract workers showed that Thailand was the dominant country (44%), followed by the Philippines (30%), Indonesia (24%), and Vietnam (2.4%). The latest available data as of April 2015 reveals that Indonesia has taken the lead in market composition (47%), Vietnam was the second (28%), while the Philippines and Thailand dropped to 20% and 10%, respectively. The number of Southeast Asian contract workers in Taiwan was 572,555 at the end of April 2015; historically, Taiwan has been a society of migrants. In many periods, immigration was an essential component of the population growth in Taiwan. The number of Southeast Asian workers in Taiwan remained relatively stable in the first decade of the 21st century (351,000 in 2009), and Indonesia is now the biggest provider of workers to Taiwan. Indonesians are highly concentrated in the service sector (76%), while workers from other countries primarily engage in industrial employment.


Indonesian domestic migrant workers in Taiwan: An Overview


Taiwan is a developing country that relies heavily on unskilled foreign labour but has weak mechanisms to prevent exploitation and discrimination of migrant workers. Conversely, one of the developing countries in the region that experienced high unemployment rates, especially after the Asian financial crisis in the late 1990s, is Indonesia. Between 1997 and 1998, 5.1 million Indonesian citizens lost their jobs, and another 4.2 million had to stop working. As Indonesia had no benefit system, unemployment was a misery, and many people in precarious living and working situations were trapped. Given these events, the possibility of social mobility through migration encouraged Indonesians to travel to Taiwan to support themselves or their families. The system for incorporating Indonesian migrants into households in Taiwan is well-structured at the grassroots level. This goes hand in hand with the commercialisation of the migration process, where an "immigration industry" is established; thus, Indonesian migrant workers who are integrated into this process continuously become the property of others without self-determination. This means that they have almost no power to control themselves. The lives of Indonesian domestic migrant workers are monitored by their employers. They have nearly no autonomy to report to the authorities if they have been exploited, so many remain silent. Such incidents are also perpetrated by employers in the Arab region, Malaysia and Singapore, which also receive many Indonesian domestic migrant workers. Although workers have the opportunity to seek help or report such exploitation, they remain silent for several reasons.


Late salary, working full day – no extra money


Before getting into what Indonesian domestic migrant workers face in Taiwan, what needs to be examined first is the quality of life that they obtain. The concept of quality of life broadly encompasses how a person measures the “goodness” of various aspects of their life. This evaluation includes a person's emotional reaction to life events, disposition, sense of fulfilment and satisfaction with life, and work and personal relationships. The term “quality of life” is also often referred to as “well-being”. What Indonesian domestic migrant workers in Taiwan feel about their quality of life varies; some are happy because their employers fulfil their rights, but there are still many whose rights are simply ignored. We can see this in the condition of domestic workers.


The work conditions of Indonesian migrant workers who are domestic carers in Taiwan are getting more and more squeezed, and exploitation continues to exist. Fajar, who has been working as a domestic worker in Taiwan since 2012, earns a salary of 17,000 Taiwan dollars, equivalent to 8.4 million Rupiah. With this amount, he can save and send some of the money to his family back home. However, the money he earns gradually decreases overtime as his salary has stayed the same for six years. Whereas formal sector salaries continue to rise, and the standard reaches 25,000 Taiwan dollars. In addition to meagre salaries, domestic carers are often maltreated by their employers. Fajar, who is also the Chairperson of the Taiwanese Consolidated Labour Association (GANAS), said their working hours could be more transparent, their workload is continuously increasing, and they have no holidays. In addition, many employers withhold their passports and documents so they cannot find better jobs. Yu-Kuo Su from Taiwan's Ministry of Labour does not deny that some employers still mistreat foreign workers; she said migrant workers can report employers. However, reporting an employer takes work. In many cases, migrant workers will lose negotiations because they usually do not have supporting evidence. Sometimes, Indonesian domestic migrant workers go to Taiwan informally or without official documents issued by the government or agencies, so their support systems are significantly limited when they encounter difficulties. They tell their friends secretly, and when their friends suggest investigating their case thoroughly, they are stuck as they do not have official documents.


However, the Taiwanese government has actually allowed workers who choose to work as domestic workers to switch to more highly skilled jobs such as working in factories, but the requirements to work there are also very difficult, especially for domestic workers from Indonesia. The Taiwanese government requires domestic carers to first reach a salary of 24,000 Taiwanese dollars, equivalent to 11.8 million Rupiah. According to Fajar, this does not make sense.


So what will the Indonesian government do to address this issue? The Director of Indonesian Citizen Protection at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Judha Nugraha, said that he would strengthen cooperation with civil society organisations and the Indonesian community in Taiwan. However, until now there has been no change. Indonesia, through official and unofficial agencies, continues to promote and “export” its domestic workers. I am of the opinion that if Indonesia has not been able to upskill its workers to higher levels, it should continue to let them work in the domestic sphere but this must be done through legal means. There should be no more Indonesian domestic workers who go outside Indonesia through illegal means because the consequences will be heavier than those who go through legal means. One method that can be used is that the Indonesian government must also collaborate with N.G.Os that work in labour distribution to be able to at least minimise unwanted incidents experienced by workers.



Dr. Wisnu Adihartono holds a PhD in Sociology from École des Hautes Études en Social Sciences (EHESS), France. His research experience and interests are in sociology of migration, gay studies, diaspora studies, sociology of everyday life, micro sociology, and Southeast Asian studies in particular on Indonesian, the Philippines, Malaysian, and Singapore studies as well as Taiwan studies. Wisnu currently works as Global Advisory Committee for Asia Equal Foundation and he lives in Jakarta. He can be reached at wisnuadi.reksodirdjo@gmail.com or wisnuadihartono@aol.com


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