FEATURE/Free Mandarin classes offered as part of drive to retain skilled foreign workers
By Sean Lin, CNA staff reporter
By the time the clock strikes 9 a.m., the searing July heat is already permeating the city of Taipei. In a private girls' high school, Filipino and Indonesian students are sitting in a classroom, eager to learn, surrounded by coffee, energy drinks and milk tea. Their first task? Sing along to "Friends," (朋友) a 1997 hit by Mandopop singer Wakin Chau (周華健).
If this has you scratching your head in bewilderment, you probably have never heard of the free Mandarin course the Taipei Department of Labor is offering migrant workers in the city.
A life-changing opportunity
Now in its second year, the program, launched in collaboration with Taipei Language Institute, is designed to not only help migrants breeze through their day-to-day lives in Taiwan but also to help them obtain the certification necessary for them to be re-designated as members of the "foreign intermediate skilled workforce" by the Ministry of Labor (MOL), which can help them earn higher wages.
Acknowledging Taiwan's need for foreign workers amid a labor shortage in the country, the Cabinet on April 30, 2022, launched the "Long-Term Retention of Skilled Foreign Workers Program," under which foreign workers who have worked in Taiwan for six years or more and have passed a skills test, plus foreign students that have obtained an associate or higher degree in Taiwan may be eligible for reclassification as being part of the intermediate skilled foreign workforce.
To attain the status, migrant live-in caregivers were also previously required to pass the education ministry's Mandarin or Hoklo (also known as Taiwanese) test, or their employer had to formally inform the local government that they could speak Mandarin or Hoklo well enough and therefore did not need to be tested.
Hsu Yu-han (徐郁涵), a section chief at the Taipei City Foreign and Disabled Labor Office, said that migrant live-in caregivers would now be able to attend 36 hours of Mandarin or Hoklo classes and be granted a certificate, which would allow them to bypass the language proficiency test.
As such, migrant live-in caregivers employed in Taipei, who make up about 90 percent of the city's migrant workforce, could take advantage of the free Mandarin course, Hsu said.
After finishing the language lessons and completing 20 hours of caregiving training, they can then be re-designated as intermediate skilled foreign workers, and be eligible to earn higher wages, Hsu said.
According to the Workforce Development Agency's (WDA) website, there is no limit to the number of years intermediate skilled foreign workers can be employed in Taiwan.
Furthermore, their employers are not required to pay an employment security fee, and the workers can also receive a higher salary and advance their skills.
To prevent migrant workers from impacting local workers' employment opportunities, those that hire migrant workers are required to pay an employment security fee under the Employment Service Act, which the government draws on when working to boost the employment rate, improve labor welfare, and when overseeing the employment of foreign workers.
After working for another five years with the status, such individuals can apply for permanent residency, according to the website.
Intermediate skilled foreign workers continue to receive labor and health insurance protections and if they work in industries covered by the Labor Standards Act and retire in Taiwan, they will receive a lump-sum pension payment calculated under the pre-July 1, 2005, old labor pension system.
The minimum monthly wage set for live-in migrant caregivers is NT$20,000 (US$625) and they are not covered by Taiwan's Labor Standards Act, while the minimum monthly wage stipulated for migrant workers in construction, manufacturing and skilled care facilities is NT$26,400, consistent with that defined under the Act. The minimum monthly wage for migrant fishermen employed on distant water fishing vessels is US$550.
Under a set of foreign worker employment qualifications review standards introduced by the MOL, however, foreign workers will receive a pay raise when they qualify as members of the intermediate skilled foreign workforce, on the condition that their monthly wages, negotiable with their employers, were lower than the minimum payments set for intermediate skilled foreign workers stipulated in the Employment Service Act.
Under this designation, live-in caregivers are paid at least NT$24,000 a month, caregivers at skilled care facilities are paid at least NT$29,000 a month, those who do not have work experience but have earned an associate or higher degree in Taiwan are paid no less than NT$30,000 a month, and those working in construction, manufacturing, and deep-sea fishing are paid no less than NT$33,000 a month.
Hopes and dreams for the future
According to the WDA, 10,276 intermediate skilled foreign workers, comprising 4,072 industry workers and 6,204 caregivers, have been employed since the program's launch until June 30 of this year.
However, with the rising trend of learning Mandarin, many students enrolled in the program are already thinking about their post-Taiwan plans.
Pariatun from Indonesia said in addition to learning to speak Chinese, she hoped to learn to write Chinese characters because she wants to teach Chinese when she returns to her home country.
"In Indonesia, there are a lot of jobs that require you to speak some Mandarin or cook Chinese dishes. You can earn more money if you have these skills."
Aside from singing Mandarin pop songs, students also learned phrases that can be used in a range of real-world situations, such as when out shopping, engaging in their domestic care roles, or going to the hospital.
During the class, the teacher instructed the students to repeat the new phrases after her before they broke off into pairs to practice the new vocabulary in short dialogues.
Freeya Ouyang (歐陽心如), who was commissioned to teach the program, said the Mandarin or Hoklo migrant workers learned in Taiwan would significantly increase their mobility between Mandarin-speaking countries and come to their aid if they decide to do business or find jobs in those countries.
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