Lan, Pei-Chia. “Legal Servitude and Free Illegality: Migrant ‘Guest’ Workers in Taiwan.” Asian Diasporas: New Formations, New Conceptions. Eds. Rhacel S. Parreñas and Lok C. D. Siu. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2007. 253-277. Print.
In her essay Lan broadly explores the experience of migrant guest workers in Taiwan. She asserts that “transmigration within Asia” has greatly increased “in the last decade” as workers, generally from Southeast Asian countries, come to fill the demand for cheap labor in the rapidly industrializing East Asian states (254). Lan argues that migrants are heavily exploited within the guest worker contract system, emphasizing that many actually find more freedom, better working conditions and wages by running away from their employers and assuming a state of illegality. She accentuates that such realities challenge popular assumptions about “improved security within legal realms and prevalent vulnerability in irregular migration” (254). Lan further demonstrates that in spite of globalization, the nation-state still retain their incredible influence in the world economy by regulating international labor flows.
Lan defines “guest worker” as “migrant workers [who] are employed on temporary contracts and are prohibited from immigrating or becoming naturalized” (255). She suggests that this system can be somewhat paralleled to indentured servitude or the “‘coolie’ system” in the United States (255). Lan emphasizes that as “guest workers,” migrants are treated as merely “disposable labor,” and are only allowed residence within a country for a specified term (256). Forbidden from developing family or communal ties that will lead to any form of “permanent settlement,” their labor is merely exhausted for the defined period and then they are expected to return to their home country. Lan accentuates that the guest worker system in Asian countries is particularly distinct because of the incredible degree of direct government intervention and regulation. She reveals that “[s]everal Asian governments, for example those of the Philippines and Indonesia, have established special labor export agencies within their national bureaucracies to regulate flows, train potential migrants, and promote their workers to receiving countries” (256).
In her discussion of Taiwan, Lan suggests that in “October 1989” the government “authorized a special order that allowed foreigners to work for a national construction project,” which gradually extended to private sector work (257). She further notes how Taiwan’s “Council of Labor Affairs (CLA)” was established to levy quotas and manage the distribution of migrant workers in various industries. She accentuates that these guest worker policies are specifically aimed to “ensure that migrant workers are temporally transient and spatially fixed” (258). While these laborers are geographically within the nation-state they are barred from permanent residence. Lan interestingly notes, however, that these policies differ in terms of class. Whereas blue-collar workers are rigorously regulated by the quota system and “are not eligible for permanent residence or citizenship,” white-collar workers are not subjected to the same restrictions (258). Lan argues that one of the most disabling features of the guest worker contract is how it “depriv[es]…[migrants] of the right to circulate in the domestic labor market” as they can only work for their designated employer for their specified term in Taiwan (259). She suggests this is one frightening demonstrating of how the government manages it’s the international labor population and essentially “monito[r] the weareabouts of these ethnic others” (259).
She suggests that migrants also have to pay exorbitant placement fees in order to secure employment in Taiwan. Lan notes that this is probably due to the fact that Taiwan is a desirable place to work and offers relatively higher wages than other Asian countries. Probably the biggest reason, however, is that the competitive broker industry fighting for the business of a “limited number of employers possessing quotas” (260). Lan emphasizes that as these employers receive “kickback[s]” from broker, the financial burden is subsequently displaced to the migrant workers (260). She notes that within this system, quotas are more valued than the workers themselves, who are easily disposable.
Lan goes on to discuss how the “bondage of contract employment” essentially turns the guest worker system into a form of slavery as migrants lack real legal protection due to their alien status and are deprived of the right of mobility, the right to quit and change employers. Lan suggests that workers are often compelled to overlook their unfavorable working conditions and abuses so as to get their contracts renewed and pay off their accumulated debts. She reveals that in light of these harsh realities some migrants choose to runaway.
Lan emphasizes that with their new undocumented status many migrants find better working conditions, as they gain the freedom to choose whom to work for and can leave whenever they please. With their new employers they can also use the threat of quitting to negotiate better wages and hours. While Lan acknowledges that undocumented workers do face some risk such as deportation and “lack of legal protection and health insurance,” she claims that they surprisingly find more satisfaction with their “illegality.” She goes on to discuss how migrants have subverted the original regulative measures of the passport as form of national identification by creating and obtaining forgeries to (re)enter Taiwan and work outside of the terms granted in their guest worker contracts.
She ultimately concludes her essay by asserting that “[t]he ‘guest’worker policy in Asia has created a highly exploitative system of labor migration. Migrant workers not only lack political rights and civil liberties but also are deprived of the economic right of market mobility” (271). Lan also offers a final warning to countries such as the United States that are thinking about instituting a guest worker system to supplant more “irregular migration” flows (272). She accentuates that without proper regard to upholding the civil rights of migrant workers, the US may be sanctioning and indeed perpetuating a more insidious system of slavery.