Luzhou is some kind of magical, out of time place. But this time, we wandered on the edge of the city, and discovered another side of Taiwan, one that is less brilliant. We met some factory workers working in rather poor conditions for car manufacturer sub-contractors. Here is how it works.
While there were of course traditional houses and temples, a large part of the area we went into was industrial, made of endless lanes of corrugated iron buildings, and that gave a rather surrealistic look, because of course as anywhere in Taiwan, the vegetation had also slowly started to invade the place. This was rather charming actually. As we were taking pictures though, we met a group of 4 guys having a cigarette break being watched by a security guard (it was around midnight). As I found out, they were factory workers working for an auto-pieces equipment manufacturer. This company, it seems, as so many other small Taiwanese businesses, was employing them to make auto-parts that are then sold to big companies like Ford or GM.
They were of course curious about us and we had some kind of conversation, but their chinese wasn’t so good – I am not sure to have fully understood what they were telling us. But from the part we understood, I found them to be representative of something common in Taiwan, ie the use of foreign workers to achieve the convenience of obedient, submitted workers, without the hassle of opening a plant abroad. This is not precisely glamour, but that’s how the world works today.
The idea, as I was also told in Vietnam last year, is that while the average salary in Vietnam is roughly around 200USD, Taiwanese business men (as well as Koreans and a few other countries) offer those guys to go to work in Taiwan, for a higher salary, which as those people we met in Luzhou explained to me, is roughly 400+ USD. This way they are able to save some money and send it back home, and company are able to get the cheapest possible workers for their manufacturing.
My idea is: why not. But the 2 points that I find controversial are that:
1) It is really hard for them to get protection and have their rights respected because they don’t know anyone and don’t speak a good chinese. For example, it looked liked the security guard in the place we went to was constantly keeping an eye on them, and they reported working long hours (13, 14 hours a day?), without any chance to get out of their working place but once a week-and not too far, there are some pools and bars for workers in the immediate surroundings. I can’t tell for sure, but it also looks like at midnight they were just finishing their work.
2) As per Wikipedia, the minimum wage in Taiwan is set at NT 17.880, ie roughly 600USD. I don’t know if this is what those guys really earn, they told me less than that. So rather than employ Taiwanese, companies just prefer to import cheap workers who can this way earn more than in their own country. This time I met Vietnamese, but other parts of Taiwan are almost entirely made of Filippinos or Indonesians coming to work here. At first I thought of something like social dumping, but from what I understand, young Taiwanese starting to work earn close to those 600USD. So maybe the standard for factory worker would be higher, I don’t know. I can only assume that those foreigners would work more because it is easier to control them. For Taiwanese, that there is some kind of competition on the jobs coming from abroad, and that’s a rather strange feeling. In Taichung county, I heard that the unemployment for Taiwanese is quite high, while factories are packed with Filippinos. This is a strange situation!
So that’s the situation as I just experienced it this night, but if you have any thoughts or information about the situation of foreign workers in Taiwan, feel free to drop a comment!
I don’t have a lot of information about the situation of those workers, and my assumption is that while conditions are hard, it looks still manageable-but it is tough to work hard and be far away from one’s family, being locked in a factory for long hours, that’s for sure. I don’t know how it compares to the situation in other countries as well. But meeting those guys, at least, is a reminder that behind the shiny products we buy, there’s a lot more we can’t see, and that this is often organized for profit. Although I know it rather abstractly from TV and news, when I buy something I rarely think about those who make it, and this night, I could feel on a very small scale all the loneliness implied in this situation. I could also easily imagine the millions and millions of people working in the same conditions everywhere on the planet.
UPDATE: I juste read an interesting article that has maybe a more balanced point of view in the China Post and want to share it here-it states basically that the conditions in Taiwan are more attractive for Philippinos than in other countries like Singapore and Malaysia (which I can believe easily). However, I think also that Philippinos are more organized and supported by their government than Vietnamese, so the question remains entire. The article also suggests that the salary in factory is approaching 925 USD, which is actually a good salary in Taiwan.