by Brian Hioe

Photo Credit: W5865188/WikiCommons/CC

NEWS THAT UGANDAN students were forced to work in factories at the Chung Chou University of Science and Technology is the latest incident of international students being coerced into forced labor in Taiwan. Chung Chou University is located in Yuanlin in Changhua. 

The Ugandan students in question originally were told that they had received scholarships as well as paid internships opportunities and that courses would be taught in English. Nevertheless, as it turned out, these paid internships were in fact factory work, and there was little instruction in English. In spite of promises of scholarships, students owed the university money.

That Ugandan students were forced to work in factories at Chung Chou University was first reported on by The Reporter, one of Taiwan’s best-known investigative reporting outlets. In particular, the presentation of the report took the form of a comic by Lau Kwong Shin, a Hong Kong artist living in Taiwan in light of the deterioration of Hong Kong’s political freedoms. Lau is known for his political comics, particularly regarding the 2019 protests. 

Screenshot from the report

The report was based on interviews with a 21-year-old student, Collines, who had been working under such conditions for two years. The conditions that students were working under only became known after the university tried to deport Collines and to bill him 100,000 NT in tuition, leading him to write a letter to the Ministry of Education about the conditions faced by him and other Ugandan students. 

Since the news broke, the Ministry of Education has announced that Chung Chou University will no longer be allowed to receive international students. Subsidies to the university will also be reduced. However, one notes that there have been a number of such incidents in past years, suggesting that the issue has deeper roots, and is more widespread than simply one or a few universities.

In 2018, a similar incident involved students at the University of Kang Ning in Tainan sent to work in a slaughterhouse. This was followed in 2019 by reports of Indonesian students at the Hsing Wu University in New Taipei being forced to make contact lenses in a factory, as well as at five other universities, and students at the Yu Da University of Science and Technology in Miaoli from the Philippines being forced to work in a tile manufacturing factory. Likewise, in June 2020, it was reported that 40 students from Eswatini at Mingdao University were forced to work in a refrigerated factory skinning chickens. 

Some of the involved universities reportedly used funding from the Ministry of Education to pay broker fees, to bring students over. In some cases, students did not receive wages for their labor. Instead, factories made “donations” to universities. After their conditions were reported on, some of the students received funds for tuition, but still could not pay for their full education, and faced the difficult choice of whether to stay in Taiwan or return to their home countries. 

Photo credit: W5865188/WikiCommons/CC

These forced labor incidents take place at a time in which Taiwanese universities are increasingly dependent on international students to stay afloat, given the declining birthrate in Taiwan. More generally, Taiwan saw an explosion in the number of colleges and universities from 28 in 1985 to 145 by 2005. The large increase in the number of universities currently operating in Taiwan may have led to a lack of oversight, and many of these universities may now be scrambling to stay afloat to avoid being shut down because of low enrollment. Consequently, universities may be willing to turn a blind eye to the practices of brokers in order to make up for declining enrollment numbers. 

Though the Ministry of Education and Ministry of Labor have sometimes sought to frame these incidents as isolated, that there have been such incidents at ten universities in the last four years points to a larger pattern. Indeed, one suspects that many universities may simply view students from southeast Asia, Africa, or elsewhere as simply cheap labor and a means to make money, rather than students. Students notably face the same exploitative practices that target migrant workers–pushing them into paying exorbitant fees to brokers to arrange their employment and transportation to Taiwan, then making them work long hours for little pay. This more broadly points to the dismal outlook in Taiwan for many migrants. Nevertheless, repeated incidents of students coerced into forced labor are likely to make it even more difficult for universities in Taiwan to attract students. 

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