Taipei resists shutting out foreign workers

Published by rudy Date posted on March 6, 2009

TAIPEI: Amid a record-high unemployment rate, Taiwan is resisting pressures to shut out new foreign workers from the island—and laying off more of them—a government official told The Manila Times.

Political Deputy Minister Pan Shih-Wei of Taiwan’s Council of Labor Affairs conceded that his government is facing domestic pressure, economically and politically, to clamp down on the entry of foreign workers, who number about 350,000 according to the latest figures.

“There’s pressure, sure,” he told The Times on Tuesday, adding that Taiwan’s situation is perhaps no different from other countries, like Singapore, which rely heavily on foreign labor.

The unemployment rate in Taiwan shot up to 5.3 percent in January—the last figure and the highest since 1978. That figure translates to some 578,000 out of about 10 million who are looking for work but cannot find one, according to government and media reports.

Market forces are also at play to ease the pressure to change government policy, as the number for foreign workers in Taiwan fell from about 370,000 from just a month ago, Pan said.

The most vulnerable of Taiwan’s industries is electronics manufacturing, where most of the 90,000 Filipinos are employed as factory workers. That industry was hit hard by the global crisis that caused Taiwan’s electronics exports to plummet 41 percent in December, compared to export figures the previous year.

“We see foreign workers as part of our success,” Pan said, adding that some local employers have talked to him recently to justify why they still need to employ foreign workers.

Foreign workers in Taiwan are mostly blue-collar laborers engaged in jobs that few Taiwanese are willing to take—what Pan described as “3K,” referring to the Japanese words for jobs that are difficult, dirty and dangerous.

“Some of the work in Taiwan [still] has to rely on foreign workers,” he added.

Plus, Taiwanese employers prefer Filipino workers because they are focused on their work and don’t mind putting in overtime, Pan said. “To our government and the people in Taiwan, I think they are part of our family. We appreciate them.”

Silver lining

Authorities in Taiwan had expected more layoffs in February, after the celebration of the Chinese New Year in late January, but that has not happened so far, Pan said.

“Generally, in Taiwan, in Chinese custom, the employer won’t layoff their workers before the Chinese Lunar New Year. So we [had] expected that in February, there should be more layoffs.”

“So it has kind of stabilized,” he said, referring to the local job situation.

Citing newspaper reports, some employers “see some light” at the end of the proverbial tunnel, with orders trickling from abroad.

Antonio Basilio, managing director and resident representative of the Manila Economic Cultural Office (MECO) in Taiwan, agreed with the observation.

He said some Taiwanese factories are indirectly benefiting from an economic stimulus package in China, allowing companies there to stay afloat and sustain some demand for various components that are made in Taiwan.

In fact, many Taiwanese factories are anticipating orders from China, which is why they have elected to hold off on layoffs and retain their existing Filipino workers by reducing the workweek, using flexible schedules and even holding off on overtime pay.

Basilio assured that the Filipino workers’ rights are protected under these survival schemes, and that “their minimum wage is always guaranteed.”

MECO has also offered to help Taiwanese companies that need to resort to those survival tactics, he said. Since October 2008, Basilio said they have talked to workers in some 95 companies, mainly to explain why the measures are necessary.

So far, only a handful of Filipinos have resisted scaled-back compensation scheme, the managing director said. That’s because the employer did not explain their moves to the workers, and the Filipino workers did not perceive the employers were being transparent, he explained.

Basilio also told The Times that the sharp drop in the export of electronics was offset by gains in the demand for other goods, such as bicycles and processed foods.

Some 5,000 Filipinos workers have lost jobs in Taiwan since the meltdown on Wall Street last year, but Basilio added that with the offsetting gain of new hires, the net loss of Filipinos workers was only 209 as of January 2009.

About 90,000 workers are in Taiwan, the Philippine official said. About 60,000 of the total are in manufacturing, of which 50,000 are employed in the electronics industry.

Looking ahead

Pan declined to say how many foreign jobs are at risk in Taiwan, especially if the global crisis deepens and lasts much longer than expected. Taiwan is hoping for a recovery to begin by the third quarter, he added.

“We’re still concerned about how to stabilize the employment [situation],” Pan told The Times, adding that Taiwan is spending about US$14 billion in a four-year program to boost local jobs, many of which in construction.

Taiwan hopes to keep unemployment rate below 4.5 percent this year, he added, although he qualified that he is not economist.

Late last year, Andrew Hsia, political deputy minister of Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told The Times in a roundtable interview that their government is launching a number of public works projects that would hopefully offset the job losses in the battered industries, like electronics manufacturing.– Dante “Klink” Ang 2nd, Executive Editor, Manila Times

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