by Brian Hioe
Photo Credit: Kyu20161025/WikiCommons/CC
KAO YUAN UNIVERSITY proves the latest Taiwanese university accused of sending foreign students to work in factories under the auspices of a work-study program. As a result, the school has been banned from enrolling foreign students.
In a video shown during a press conference held by legislator Fan Yun, along with Taiwan Association for Human Rights secretary-general Shih Yi-hsiang and Taiwan Labor Front secretary-general Sun Yu-lien, two Filipino students alleged to have been forced to work in factories after arriving in Taiwan.
These were primarily factories located in Tainan or Kaohsiung and their experiences included being forced to work up to forty hours a week operating machinery. Students described being forced to continue to work despite injuries or developing occupational conditions, such as eczema, and being told to lie if asked about their working hours by government inspectors.
Likewise, students described being fined for workplace mistakes, and having to pay exorbitant fees to brokers that arranged for their transportation, study, and employment in Taiwan. Some reports state that students from other nationalities, such as Indonesian students, were also forced to work in factories by Kao Yuan University. For its part, Kao Yuan University has denied the allegations.
Kao Yuan University joins a growing list of Taiwanese universities that have been accused of exploiting foreign students as factory labor. In 2018, students at Kang Ning University in Tainan were found to have been sent to work in a slaughterhouse. Subsequently, in 2019, there were reports of Indonesian students at Hsing Wu University in New Taipei being sent to work in a lens factory and Filipino students at Yu Da University of Science and Technology in Miaoli sent to work in a tile factory.
This was followed by reports in 2020 of students from Eswatini at Mingdao University being sent to skin chickens in a refrigerated factory and in 2022, Ugandan students were reported at the Chung Chou University as also having been sent to work in factories. Mingdao University and Chung Chou University are both located in Changhua.
Clearly, the phenomenon of foreign students being sent to work in factories is increasingly widespread in Taiwan. Students that have been sent to work in factories include students from Southeast Asia, Africa, and other places. Nevertheless, the response of school administrations is usually to deny this, or to try and paper over the incident by offering scholarships to affected students.
Yet, in many cases, the harm that has been done is irreversible. And that such incidents have continued to happen suggests that light has only begun to be shed on a widespread phenomenon or that public exposure of such incidents is not a deterrent to university administrations engaging in such behavior.
In the past few decades, Taiwan saw an explosion in the number of colleges and universities from 28 in 1985 to 145 by 2005. In a time of a decreasing birth rate, there are increasingly few students to make up enrollment, forcing some schools to turn to mostly Southeast Asian students to bolster the falling student population, needing tuition to survive.
Nevertheless, this is thought to be a contributing factor as to why schools engage in predatory behavior toward their students, seeing as university administrations may receive kickbacks from sending students to work in factories. One notes that much as how employment brokers charge expensive fees on migrant workers to arrange their work and transport to and from Taiwan–something that has led migrant worker advocates to call for the dismantling of the current broker system. Yet brokers have now inserted themselves into the university system.
Indeed, such incidents have the potential to damage Taiwan’s reputation internationally, as well as to deter students from other countries from studying in Taiwan. At the same time, students who are sent to work in factories at these universities sometimes hail from Taiwan’s few remaining diplomatic allies, which are all countries that Taiwan is significantly larger than, in terms of the size of its population and economy. This demonstrates, then, how Taiwan sometimes engages in exploitative behavior towards smaller countries. Otherwise, some of these students hail from countries that Taiwan imports migrant labor from. Coerced labor with regards to such students, then, dovetails with mistreatment of migrant workers in Taiwanese society and points to structural racism in Taiwanese society.
While the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Labor have sometimes downplayed such incidents as isolated in nature, there is clearly a broader pattern that can be established at this point. Unfortunately, it proves another question entirely as to whether politicians have any incentive to take action regarding such cases of student exploitation.