Monday, October 12, 2020

Skilled Migrants Go South: Taiwanese Expatriates in Indonesia and Vietnam

Jian-Bang Deng
Professor, The Graduate Institute of Futures Studies, Tamkang University


According to the national statistics of Taiwanese government, around one
of fifteen Taiwanese nationals is currently working abroad and it is still in a
rising trend. Past studies on Taiwanese expatriates were mainly focused on those
who going to the US and to Mainland China. This paper, however, explores the
migration of Taiwanese professionals to Indonesia and Vietnam and discusses the
phenomenon of a south- south mobility. Based on ethnographic studies and in-depth interviews with Taiwanese professionals, this paper discusses how the decision for a south-south migration was made among these expatriates. It also deals with the ways and channels in which Taiwanese professionals became expatriates in their host country and how they cope with the difficulties facing in their host societies. Moreover, this paper
aims also to answer what does working experiences overseas mean for expatriates’
individual career development and to highlight the potential of emerging trends of
south-south movements.

1. Introduction1

Skilled migration is not a new phenomenon in Taiwan. Beginning in the
1970s, many Taiwanese companies have been invested abroad and set up their
businesses in multiple locations across the world, in particular, in the United States
of America (Keng 1997). Working abroad was since then attractive for many
Taiwanese managers, but it seems at that time only a few people being offered the
opportunities to move and an overseas job was not being paid much attention. It
was around in the late 1980s, as many Taiwanese manufacturing factories due to
labor shortage and cost reasons relocated to Chinese booming economic zones in
Pearl River Delta area in Southern China, companies were willing to bring more
their senior and experienced employees together to move and expatriates have
become common in Taiwan (Deng 2017).

According to the national statistics of Taiwanese government, for the year of 2107, there are 736 thousands of Taiwanese working abroad (DGBAS 2018). With comparing to the total number of employees in Taiwan in the same calendar year, it indicates that around one of fifteen Taiwanese nationals is working abroad and it is still in a rising trend (National Statistics 2017). Nevertheless, past studies on Taiwanese expatriates were mainly focused on those who going to China or to the United States (Keng 1997; Waters 2002; Wong 2004; Moore 2016; Chiu et al. 2009; Tseng 2011; 2016). This paper, however, explores the migration of Taiwanese skilled professionals to Indonesia and Vietnam and discusses the phenomenon of a south- south mobility.

Research on skilled professionals emphasizes the elite mobility and their
movement to global centers (Beaverstock 2002; 2003; Farrer 2010; Leonard 2010).
An expatriate career was imaged by many as a career of better opportunities
elsewhere outside the home country with a good relocation package which may
include a high salary, moving costs, healthcare, assistance in finding a job for spouse and international schools for the kids, temporary housing allowance and
regular holidays and travel expenses for back home country during the expatriation
(Ramsey 2019). All these benefits for expatriates tended to point out that an
overseas career would let expatriates or skilled professionals enjoy a high quality
of life and a privileged status in the host country they stay. And it is very likely,
with this valuable experience, further to pave the way for career advancement.
Therefore, the British scholar Leslie Sklair (1992) described these skilled
professionals as the “transnational capitalist class”. He argues, under the trend of
globalization and the rise of globalizing cooperations, skilled professionals belong
to the ruling class in the global economy and control many forms of the capitals.

However, as Adrian Favell et al. in their book “The Human Face of Global
Mobility” pointed out, the continued globalization has led to a specular
liberalization of the free movement of persons (Favell et al. 2006: 1). The increased
opportunities on mobility does bring a lot of people become globally mobile.
Nevertheless, from Favell et al.’s viewpoint, many of them would be hardly to
describe as “elites”, since they might include mid-level technical and clerical
employees, ambitious or adventurous mobile middle classes etc. (Favell et al.
2006). Migration scholar Anja Weiss shares the same perspective and suggests
that highly skilled migrants are often not “as elite as that of Sklair’s transnational
capitalist class” because they are still subject to many migration controls (Weiss
2005). Fechter and Welsh (2010) examined the expatriates with the postcolonilal
approaches also pointed out that western migrants are assumed to move as
highly skilled individuals, and therefore their relatively privileged position in
the host global cities were often taken for granted. In fact, they argued, there
is an increase of those migrants taken lesser-skilled jobs and earning a middleincome
(Fechter and Welsh 2010). This paper thus questions the notion that the
phenomenon of increasingly globally mobile should be understand as a kind
of elite mobility and it aims to illustrate a south-south mobility such as
Taiwanese skilled professionals to Indonesia and Vietnam which could play an
significant role contributing to the “massification” (Favell et al. 2006) of global
expatriate mobilities.

2. Transformation of Taiwanese Businesses in China and the Movement of Taiwanese Skilled Professionals to Southeast Asia

In the past decades, skilled migration of Taiwanese professionals has always
been a phenomena close to the migration of Taiwanese businesses to overseas. This
was especially true for Taiwanese expatriates in China from the 1980s until the
early 2000s. The high dense concentration of Taiwanese manufacturing companies
in the Pearl River Delta area in Guangdong province in the 1980s and 1990s and
electronics industry and other manufacturers moving northward to the greater
Shanghai area in late 1990s and early 2000s brought many Taiwanese moving to
China for work (Chen 2012).

After the mid 2000s, however, many Taiwanese manufacturing companies were
faced with numerous challenges and were forced to shut down their factories in the
fast-growing areas of southern China. These severe problems included labor
shortages, rapid rise in labor wages and the influence of local state’s policies in
favor of high-end technology industries that replaced labor-intensive industries.
The Chinese phrase for this phenomenon became known as“emptying the cage for
new birds” ( 騰籠換鳥). In particular, with the enactment of the new Labor
Contract Law by the Chinese central government in 2008 and the global financial
crisis that hit the world in the same year, the survival of these manufacturing
industries in the Pearl River Delta in southern China became even more difficult.

Table 1:Taiwanese Investment in China(2010-2019.08) (Unit:100 Million USD)
Source: Mainland Affairs Council, Taiwan (2019)

In looking for ways to survive, some Taiwanese factories tried to move away
from low-end manufacturing, but that required a great amount of know-how, which
burdened the enterprises, in particular the small and medium-sized ones, with a
high threshold. Other companies resorted to shift work to inland China (Deng
2017). Even then, there was also the growing trend of moving part of the factory
production lines, including the relocation of the whole plant, especially those
considered to be traditionally labor-intensive, further southward, to Southeast Asian
countries such as Vietnam, Indonesia and Cambodia where the labor was cheaper
than China’s.

Table 1 showed the Taiwanese investment in China has been declined since the
year of 2010. Over the past year, the trade dispute between China and the United
States made the matters even worse. According to the statistics of Mainland Affairs
Council in Taiwan, the investment of Taiwanese businesses to China has dropped
to around 2,580 million USD in the first eight months of 2019, only 40% of the
investment volumes compared to the same period in previous year. On the contrary,
Taiwanese investment in Southeast Asian countries, as table 2 shows, arrived
92.78 billion USD in early 2018 in which Vietnam and Indonesia (each with the investment volume of 30,940.8 million USD and 17,682.6 million USD) were
ranked the top two nations for Taiwanese investment in Southeast Asian region.

Table 2:Taiwanese Investment in Major Southeast AsianNations(until 2018.03)(accumulated)(Unit:Million USD)
Source: The Ministry of Economic Affairs, Taiwan (2018)

The large amount of investment of Taiwanese businesses also brought many
Taiwanese nationals to work as expatriates abroad. As table 3 shows, through the
past nine years from 2009 to 2017, Taiwanese working abroad has continuous
risen from 66.2 thousands to 73.6 thousands and Southeast Asian countries were
the second favorite region which had a number of 109 thousands in 2017 and
accounted 14.8% of the total number of Taiwanese skilled migrants (DGBAS
2018). Obviously, while Taiwanese businesses experienced big changes in
operation in China’s market, Taiwanese nationals working in the global south
countries were arrived a new high point in the past few years.

Table 3: Statistics on Taiwanese Working Abroad - According to Nationality/ Region, 2009-2017 (Unit: in thousands)
Source: National Statistics, Taiwan (ROC) (2018)

3. Ethnographic Data and Methods

Data for this research was based on qualitative interviews and observations
conducted in the fieldwork between July 2018 and April 2019 in Indonesia and
in Vietnam. The fieldwork was conducted mainly in three cities (Hanoi and Ho
Chi Minh city in Vietnam and Jakarta in Indonesia) and their nearby areas where
various Taiwanese manufacturing companies centered.

Among them, Hanoi city is located in the northern part of Vietnam with only
a few hundreds kilometer from the China’s border of Gaungxi province. Together
with its neighboring areas Bắc Ninh( 北寧)province and Bắc Giang( 北江)
province, these regions have become in recent years a major site for industrial
manufacturing on electricity for many foreign investments like Samsung or
Foxconn technology group.On the contrary, Ho Chi Minh city and its neighboring
Bình Dương ( 平陽) province attracted many labor-intensive industries like
manufacturers in shoes, furniture and clothing production.

Jakarta is the capital city of Indonesia. Many of the Taiwanese manufacturing
companies such as footwear manufacturers or garment factories were centered
in the economic zones of the city’s harbor or located close to the west border of
Jakarta, the Tangerang regency.

A total of 31 interviews were conducted: 12 in Jakarta of Indonesia and
19 in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh city of Vietnam. Among them, it included three
Vietnamese interviewees with years of working experiences in Taiwanese
manufacturing companies, two mainland Chinese interviewees who were currently
employed by Taiwanese companies and one Indonesian Chinese interviewee
who served as manager for a Taiwanese garment manufacturing factory.

4. The Decision to Move South for Work

Becoming an expatriate is usually an attractive idea for many people,
particularly when it comes with imagination of a higher salary and other related
possible benefits. However, moving abroad is an enormous decision that often
comes with a big change in people’s personal lives. Following were narratives from
the interviews with three Taiwanese skilled migrants in July 2017:
We started our recruitment in the company with a management trainee program.
During the periods of the trainee program, I had dozens of trainee colleagues, with
around 10 to 15 people. But, finally only three of them could pass this program and
were able to work abroad. Of course, everyone were well aware at the beginning
that the purpose of this trainee program is to send the trainees to work overseas.
Nevertheless, some of them thought that their initial plan was to move to China for
work, but finally realized that their expatriate assignments get them to a location
in Indonesia or in Cambodia. They thought that their economies might not be
advanced than that of China, and therefore they hesitate to make the decision to
come (Kerry, production manager, 29 years old, female, University degree, on
board 2012 ). 2

I began with my career in the company TN in 2000, then I switched my job
to another company which was located in Dongguang city of China in around the
time between 2003 and 2004. This company then wanted me back to work for
them again and gave me an expatriate assignment to a garment plant in Jordan.
Our factory in Jordan, however, forced to shut down in 2006. Expatriate managers
there were then sent to work to Cambodia, to Indonesia or to work back to Taiwan.
I’m one of them being sent here (Sam, factory chief, 39 years old, male, university

Before I took the expatriation, I has been worked as a sales representative
at a Taiwanese security services for several years. However, as the Taiwanese
government planned to implement a policy on securities transaction tax and led to
a very negative effect on stock’s market prices, I started to think to work abroad. I
thought I can good at the English language, so I might take this advantage and to
find a job overseas easier. Besides, I didn’t think there’s any enormous difference
between a job to Southeast Asian countries and to the other well developed
countries like Japan or the United States. I think, all the jobs abroad made me a
better opportunity to meet more people of different cultural backgrounds than
that of Taiwan (Ken, QC manager, 30 years old, male, university degree).4

These three Taiwanese skilled migrants showed differences in gender, ages
and job positions, however, they took the same route to have their expatriations
to the city of Jakarta in Indonesia in last few years. Certainly, their reasons to
accept the expatriate assignments to overseas countries might be very different.
The cases from the the production manager Kerry and the garment factory chief
Sam represent a classic model of expatriate assignment. They are the so-called
assigned expatriates (Anderson et al. 2013). They undertake a working career
overseas mainly relying on the organizational sponsorship, on the assignment from
the mother company in Taiwan. When Taiwanese businesses moved their part of production lines to the Southeast Asian countries, they were being sent to these
overseas locations to manage the local manufacturing plants.

Moreover, since China is the world’s factory for a long time, many of
Taiwanese skilled migrants I met in the filed work they might have had several
years’ working experiences in China before they moved to Southeast Asian
countries. This was especially true for Taiwanese manufacturing companies located
in the surrounding areas of Ho Chi Minh or Hanoi city in Vietnam which owned an
earlier production operation in China. Like a young Taiwanese engineer working in
the Foxconn technology group in Hanoi reported:

My previous employment was related to industrial production on optical
technology which was based in Shanghai. I have been worked there for several
years. Since my job is a process engineer, so I have many opportunities to visited
various industry plants to help them optimizing industrial processes. In late 2012,
the company wanted to shift part of their production lines to Vietnam and for this
reason the employer asking me the willingness to relocate. Then, I took this job
transfer. (Vincent, 39 years old, male, master degree).5

The previous work in China shaped the unique experiences for many Taiwanese
skilled migrants in southeast Asian countries. Certainly, not all skilled migrants
have a previous work experience in China and some of them even have the
willingness purposeful to build a career in Southeast Asian countries. The case of
QC manager Ken represents the other type of expatriation. These skilled workers
often decide on their own to work and to live abroad. They cloud be described as a
group called “self- initiated expatriates (Deng 2018). During the field work, I found
skilled migrants who find a job in service industries are more likely to take a selfinitiated
expatriation than those of woking in manufacturing industries.

5. Young Taiwanese Skilled Migrants and the Southeast Asia

Beyond the types of expatriation, one might wonder the question whether
Taiwanese skilled migrants in Southeast Asia countries tended to build a uniform
distribution in different age groups or some age groups have more expatriates than the
other groups? Table 4 shows that Taiwanese skilled migrants who move to Southeast
Asian countries have a higher percentage of young people than those pursue jobs
to China or the United States. For instance, 35.6% of skilled migrants in Southeast
Asia in 2014 were in the ages under 30, while it took only took 16.9% in the US
and 13% in China in the same period. Although the percentage of young skilled
workers in Southeast Asia has slightly declined in the following years of 2014, young
professionals still represent a significant group to these countries (table 4).

On April 5 of 2109, I made a group interview with four skilled migrants of a
shoe manufacturer in Ho Chi Minh city. Three of them were under the age of thirty
years old. Following is the narrative from one of the group interviewees.

I joined an internship program to come to this shoe manufacturer in 2015. After
around four and half months of internship, as the program ended I was determined
to stay. Two major reasons were crucial for me to make this decision: one
is the relative higher salary comparing to that of Taiwan, the other is that we were
offered with six times in a year to return Taiwan for holidays (Itin, 26 years old,
female, university degree).6

Table 4: Statistics on Taiwanese Working Abroad - According to Region and Age Group, 2009-2017 (Unit: in percentage)
With a overseas job, young skilled migrants found they could enjoy both a
higher salary and at the same time to take the time to travel a lot during their
expatriation abroad. However, when asking they to look themselves into the future
whether they will continue to stay in the current city to build career over the
next ten years. They often consider the expatriation not as a permanent, but as a
temporary stay in their lives.

6. Conclusion

Taiwan continues to see a rising trend for many skilled professionals working
abroad. Beyond the destination of China, Southeast Asian countries have become
the second significant region to attract Taiwanese nationals to work. This paper
showed the motivation for their movement to the southern countries like Indonesia
and Vietnam builds two major types: the assigned expatriation and the selfinitiated
expatriation. Moreover, it showed an expatriation in foreign countries
is not a career only for people who already have a job in Taiwan. Instead, many
Taiwanese skilled professionals who are both young in their ages and highly
educated also show an increasing willingness to accept an expatriate assignment
abroad. All these types of skilled migration will help bring the mobilities of the
global south a new face in the future.

Keywords: Skilled migrants, expatriate, Taiwan, Indonesia, Vietnam
1.This research is sponsored by the Ministry of Science and Technology of Taiwan(project numbers: MOST 103-2410-H-032-069-MY3 and MOST 106-241-H032-055-MY2).
2 Interview with Taiwanese expatriate, Jakarta, Indonesia, July 10, 2017.
3 Interview with Taiwanese expatriate, Jakarta, Indonesia, July 15, 2017.
4 Interview with Taiwanese expatriate, Jakarta, Indonesia, July 10, 2017.
5 Interview with Taiwanese expatriate, Hanoi, Vietnam, March 24, 2019.
6 Focus group Interview with Taiwanese expatriates, Hanoi, Vietnam, April 5, 2019.

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