Taiwan’s Migrant Backbone and Racist Underbelly – Confronting Discrimination, Privilege, and Classism in Taiwan

Taiwan’s Migrant Backbone and Racist Underbelly – Confronting Racism in Taiwan 

The recent outbreak of COVID-19 in Taiwan didn’t propel racism and discrimination in Taiwan. It simply shone a light on what we collectively all know but rarely admit— Taiwan has a problem with racism to Southeast Asians. 

Migrant Worker Discrimination During COVID-19

Due to fears of COVID-19 outbreaks among migrant factory workers, local governments such as Miaoli and some factories in other municipalities are enacting discriminatory policies. These rules include not allowing migrant workers to leave their dorms (a confined space where COVID-19 can easily spread). There have been many arrests for migrant workers that didn’t follow these locally discriminatory policies.

The CECC has already reminded Miaoli’s local government to follow Level 3 restrictions for all. Miaoli hasn’t really given a care. Instead, they made cringe-inducing graphics to make their discrimination look cute. 

Now the Guardian is painting a picture of a Taiwan that isn’t the typical “Vibrant Democracy” or the first country in Asia to legalize same-sex marriage. Nope, Taiwan is the place that locks up migrant workers to keep the economy running but lets locals gather in large numbers in offices, shops, and morning markets. It’s Level 3 for Taiwanese plus foreign professionals, but Level 4 for migrant workers.

The Guardian: Taiwan factory forces migrant workers back into dormitories amid Covid outbreak

The Guardian also reported that ASE is forcing migrant workers that live outside dorms in private apartments that they need to return to the dorms. They can face dismissal if not. 

Worse yet, migrant workers can’t change employers. This means many need to decide between continuing contracts with current employers or returning home. Focus Taiwan titled this article as “Taiwan bans migrant workers from changing employers due to cluster cases.” What they actually mean is “Taiwan bans migrant workers from changing employers but nobody else because that would be easier than treating people with dignity, but that’s only for foreign professionals and Taiwanese.” 

Focus Taiwan also reported the issue as “Migrant worker movements restricted amid surge in COVID cases,” meaning they are reluctant to call the policy for what it is, racist. 

The Reaction in Taiwan 

Many politicians, local and foreign personalities, and many people are against the discrimination. Tseng Wen-hsueh (曾玟學) posted about the terrible living conditions of migrant workers, and many other politicians inside and outside Miaoli are making their opposition very clear. Joe Henley also rightfully came out and called this situation for what it is, “Taiwan’s Migrant Worker Apartheid.” Brian Hioe (the legend) over at New Bloom wrote an article about the discriminatory policies targeting migrant workers, and there’s overall been more solidarity on my Facebook page around this topic. 

While the topic has seen a resoundingly larger pool of support against these discriminatory policies, many people support the mayor of Miaoli’s decision. After posting a petition to help migrant workers in the 150,000 member Facebook group “Things of Miaoli” the likes grew fast, but sadly so did racist, ignorant, and vile comments. I won’t single anyone out, but you can read the comments yourself that tell migrant workers to go back home and are all-around nastier than stinky tofu. 

What is incredible is the attitude many of these people have mirrors the same racist and conservative bullshit you see in the US of using cheap labor and discarding it once it becomes too troublesome. Southeast Asians are othered as a solution to a problem and are not seen as people. They aren’t legally on track of permanent residency. They must leave Taiwan after 12 years of work. Taiwan benefits from their labor, yet people still have contempt for the people who make their lives possible through their personal and financial sacrifices.

When legal immigrants and laborers in Taiwan are treated worse than those in the US, you know something is fucked up and has to change.

What Does This All Mean? It Means Confronting Privilege and Classism in Taiwan

While I don’t want to harken too much on concepts of privilege and other white-related frameworks, it’s most certainly true that Taiwanese are ignorant of their privilege in relation to migrant workers.

It’s almost Lynchian that the functional, everyday life of Taiwan is supported by the labor of hundreds of thousands of migrant workers that are treated so badly. Taiwanese live on a surface that’s supported by a workforce that’s treated as expendable. Now the buried issues of discrimination and inequality are coming to the surface of society through the medium of COVID, and certain people and local governments would rather not face it.

I have white privilege in Taiwan and all the societal and legal benefits that it gives me, and I can even see the bullshit that’s going on. Taiwanese need to as well. 

Confronting privilege and class is essential. I don’t think I’ll still use the term privilege as strong-arming western concepts that pertain to everything from racial inequity to colonialism, like white privilege can be problematic. Simply slapping the term privilege on Taiwanese concerning migrant workers might sound accurate, but I still can’t be sure if it’s really responsible as a transferred concept. 

Perhaps I can leave that to the intellectuals on Twitter since they better understand the framework on this stuff than I. I’m just calling it out for what I see it as, so please don’t crucify me. Just message me, and we can have an honest conversation.

I confront my white guilt and own it. It’s mine. I didn’t ask for it, but I was born with it, and it benefits me. I figured out in life, thanks to the patience and instruction of so many wonderful people, that I need to understand it and do what I can to fight against racial inequality.

Taiwanese need to face up to the inherent racism that exists societally against Southeast Asians and do something. My Facebook page is small, and I’ll never reach enough people. So please, share more news that you see on this topic and sign this petition to help migrant workers.

Confronting racism is always easy when it’s outward, but confronting it inward is hard. Many people simply don’t do it because it breaks too many preconceived notions of our place in this world. 

I used to think white privilege wasn’t really true. That changed. I changed. I realized that my baggage from growing up in Belfast on the Falls Road didn’t carry over with me to Taiwan or anywhere else outside of the British Isles. I’m just white and worshipped in many ways in Taiwan. A Southeast Asian and black person doesn’t have that privilege in Taiwan. They can’t simply move somewhere else and magically change how their skin is perceived. 

It’s time to face racism, discrimination, and privilege in Taiwan for the sake of the 800,000 plus migrant workers that keep Taiwan’s economy running and treating them like people, not concepts or an economical price.

Nihao's It Going?

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