Editor note: The Chinese version of this article was originally published on May 30,2017 before the passage of the milestone Act for the Recruitment and Employment of Foreign Professional. However, it provides a relevant perspective and insight into the reasoning behind the Act and other internationalization movements in Taiwan.
Translated by: Wordcorp
On May 31, 2017, the Economics Committee, Legislative Yuan, will review the Executive Yuan’s version of the Draft Act for the Recruitment and Employment of Foreign Professional Talent. Looking back, over a year ago, when I first entered the Legislative Yuan, I held the forum “Entrepreneurial Industries Marching to the World: Responses and Challenges.” Participants offered their firsthand observations and suggestions regarding the predicaments of foreign talent working and residing in Taiwan. This forum resulted in the National Development Council’s agenda to revise the law. Now, seeing that this draft is finally going to be discussed, I feel a complicated mix of emotions.
When it comes to improving the situation for foreign talent to work and reside in Taiwan, people intuitively feel that having more foreigners in Taiwan will affect employment - that many white-collar jobs will be taken away by foreigners. After the report on the forum came out, I was immediately criticized severely on PTT, a bulletin board system. People even called me names like “the Mother of Low-Pay White-Collar Foreign Laborers.” To be the one who proposed this issue was clearly political suicide. So, why would both the Executive Yuan and I risk offending the public to raise this issue?
This issue should be addressed from several aspects: historical, political, and economic. On the eve of the review, I would especially like to explain in detail that improving the situation of foreign talent in terms of jobs and residency is not an effort just to bring a one-sided impact on employment. Rather, it is the key to Taiwan’s internationalization, which is the key to Taiwan’s development. Internationalization involves two key terms: knowledge and division of labor.
International Talent are a Driving Force
Let’s take a look at this chart from the Directorate General of Budget, Accounting and Statistics, Executive Yuan. Several trends can be observed: 1. The economic growth rate has been declining; 2. Consumption and investment have been fluctuating; and 3. Net foreign demand, or exports, has also been declining. This chart looks cold and detached, but the information it delivers is shocking: the international community has increasingly less need for the products and services provided by Taiwan.
We should remember the teachings of Mr. Tsiang Sho-Chieh to not overly rely on fiscal and monetary policies, while offering tangible or intangible subsidies for export industries. We should not embark on a wrong path that focuses only on making money by wasting resources. We cannot overlook the fact that Taiwan is an island with limited resources. We need to make money through exports as a way to pay the bills needed to import resources. Consequently, the decrease in dependence of the international community on Taiwan serves as a major red flag.
Of course, the greater environment that resulted in the shrinking of Taiwan’s exports involved the rapid rise of countries involved in China’s "Red Supply Chain", which provides more competitive goods. Even so, we cannot comment on the progress of others. Instead, we should turn around and ask ourselves what we can do for our own growth. Since over-reliance on fiscal and monetary policies cannot be long term plans, we must work on other areas. The first is knowledge.
Here, knowledge does not consist of rigid statistics, such as the national literacy rate, the college student ratio, or the number of doctoral and master’s students - figures that can be constructed as long as the government spends money on education and construction of universities. Instead, knowledge here echoes the definition by Friedrich Hayek: concrete knowledge spread through every corner of society that can be utilized to satisfy needs and to adapt to change. Only with this kind of knowledge can we understand how to utilize the skills and professions we learned in school to satisfy the needs of the international community.
To be even clearer, for the international community to need us, we must know what they want so we can find proper methods to satisfy those needs. What kinds of product or marketing strategies can hit the right spots and convince people to pull out their wallets? Who do we need to contact to establish connections with local authorities and enter local markets? Where can this kind of rapidly changing knowledge be found? Certainly, they cannot be found in government gazettes or textbooks. Instead, they can be learned from members of the public who come from all walks of life.
The skills and professions of Taiwan’s talent have been lavishly praised by the international community. However, facing the digital era and changes in the global market, Taiwanese talent still seems to lack the sensibility to convert their skills into attractive solutions, to convert knowledge learned from books into products people are willing to buy and into stocks with potentials that investors are willing to invest. Knowledge is something that we can work on for ourselves. To recruit international talent is to import their knowledge of the global market into Taiwan’s industrial ecosystem, and help Taiwan reenter the reformed global value chain.
Division of Labor Creates More Opportunities
Now let’s take a look at the statistics from Singapore’s government from December last year. Even under its restrained foreign labor policy, foreign laborers comprise one-fourth of their labor population. The open foreign labor policy has been at heart of Singapore's fundamental policy since its inception. Aren’t they afraid that too many foreign laborers would take jobs away from locals?
Looking at the data from 1992 to 2010 (before 1991, Singapore did not provide independent data on the unemployment rate of local residents), the unemployment rates of Taiwan and Singapore were not that different. Singapore’s unemployment rate is far lower than the theoretical standard of full employment. In fact, the impact of foreign laborers on employment does not seem as horrible as one imagines. High income, high growth, and a high employment rate have now become major parts to Singapore’s image. How could it be so? Where did so many jobs offering so much income come from?
Jobs are not like natural resources; if you get one, I lose one. Instead, jobs are, in theory, infinite. Job opportunities are created by people to satisfy an unimaginable multitude of needs. To provide products or services, labor is divided, so that people can help one another using their specialties. It is precisely because foreign laborers take jobs that local laborers do not want to do or cannot do that allows local laborers to focus on jobs they are better at: providing services for the international community. This is the second key term—division of labor.
Consider the knowledge of various markets I mentioned earlier as an example. Can industries be understood through long-term market surveying and through working at a local place? Yes. Taiwan business people have long been doing it that way. However, how much time and resources does it take to study and to investigate this? In this digital era when industries renew so rapidly, how much effort is needed for an update? By contrast, creating an international work environment helps local talent gain knowledge from foreign talent and connect with the world through half the effort and double the rewards. Dividing labor and benefiting one another with one’s strengths is the way to catch up with the international market, which changes every second.
To regain the status of being valued in the international community, we need to allocate various resources, techniques, and knowledge, and develop professionalized division of labor to win the favor of consumers from other countries. To find our role in the international market supply chain, markets in other countries will pay for more job opportunities. Do not think of the economy as dividing a cake and see only the job opportunities in front of you. See instead the connection to the international market. That is the real way for Taiwan to survive.
Current Arguments over the Act
After explaining the principle, now let me get back to the concrete act. The sources of doubts are mainly the 19th act on job-searching visa and the 20th article on internship right after graduation. Those who are against the 19th article believe that real talent would not need a year to find jobs; rather, they should have offers lined up for them. People who think so underestimate the predicaments caused by information asymmetry and the various concerns of the employers and the applicants.
From the foreigners’ perspective, moving to Taiwan is a big move. Even for young professionals with relatively low opportunity costs, it is difficult for them to find enterprises whose corporate culture and work fit them. From the enterprises’ perspective, determining whether an unknown foreigner with whom they lack a mutual background would be competent in a position requires them to be extra careful.
For senior mid- to high-level foreigners, the job opportunities are naturally fewer, and the companies auditing and interviewing people for this kind of position are relatively strict. To find a suitable job commonly takes six months to a year. Moreover, foreign talent who are looking for jobs in Taiwan do not commit crimes such as theft or robbery, and the money they bring with them will be spent in Taiwan. If they should commit a crime, they will be punished by law. Sticking to the one-year visa duration and sarcastically stating that those people with that visa have no real talent are only letting emotions get the better of you.
As for internship, since the announcement of the Guidelines for Enterprises and Legal Persons Applying for Foreign Students to Come to the Republic of China for Internships in 2009, enterprises of a certain scale have been able to legally apply to hire foreign interns. Have the enterprises exploited it and taking many foreign interns with low salaries? Let’s take a concrete example. Legislator Chen Yi-Ming was afraid that once this law passed, Din Tai Fung, who had been working on a cooperative education program with Chung Shan Industrial and Commercial School for many years, would exploit foreign students, who would take away the opportunities once open to Chung Shan Industrial and Commercial School students.
According to the aforementioned Internship Guidelines, Din Tai Fung had long satisfied the criteria and could have applied for foreign interns. But why didn’t it do so? It is not only because foreigners are foreign. Local students have significant advantages in language and culture, and they can be cultivated long-term. By contrast, even if hiring foreign students is cheaper, it may not be more economical. This echoes what I said earlier: foreign talent have their strengths, and local talent have theirs. What should be happening between them is division of labor that is mutually beneficial, not competition until one of them dies.
Since in the long run, offering internships to foreign students has become a fact, the claim that this act will have a great impact is an unsound worry. What we should worry about is, instead, the dated management culture and low salary industry environment, which cannot attract more and better foreign talent to help update Taiwan’s industries and make a contribution in internationalization. What we should do right now is to improve the residency act and utilize policy leverage to solve the management culture and industry environment problems.
Imagine a Taiwan Truly Integrated on the World Stage
Whenever we talk about opening up, we cannot avoid touching upon China and its threat to our political future. During the committee’s review on the 21st article, there will unavoidably be discussion regarding residents from Hong Kong and Macao. What I want to remind people is that our concerns regarding China are the precise reasons why we should be actively connecting with the world. We should let more people from various countries live in Taiwan; enjoy Taiwan’s democratic law, conveniences, and diverse culture; and praise us for our high human rights status, for we are about to become the first country in Asia to legalize same-sex marriage. This will intangibly connect Taiwan’s future with people from more countries.
Just as Berlin has used their friendly immigrant environment and diverse cultural interaction to stimulate creativity and become the foundation for Germany’s entrepreneurial core, I hope Taiwan can also become the entrepreneurial foundation for not just Asia, but also the world. The key step is to improve the environment for immigration legally to elevate the level of knowledge exchange and shape Taiwanese’ skills and professions into world-class products and business models. After all, we need the international community to need our products and services.
I sincerely hope that when the draft leaves the committee, we can be proud and tell friends from various countries, “See? We sincerely welcome you!” This is because they are not actually foreigners. They are partners who will laugh, weep, and work with us.