Restrictions urged as Taiwan moves to attract more foreign talent

Office workers make their ways in downtown Taipei in this undated file photo. Civic groups voiced their concerns Wednesday about a draft act aimed at attracting more foreign white-collar workers to Taiwan. (NOWnews)

TAIPEI (CNA) – Civic groups voiced their concerns Wednesday about a draft act aimed at attracting more foreign white-collar workers to Taiwan, and urged the government to restrict the number of foreign professionals permitted to work in the country in order to protect local workers.

The groups voiced their concerns about the Draft Act for the Recruitment and Employment of Foreign Professional Talent at a press conference at the Legislative Yuan, a day before the act is scheduled to be reviewed by legislative committees. The draft act eases restrictions on the employment of foreign professionals and is aimed at increasing Taiwan’s international competitiveness.

At the press conference, Lai Chung-chiang (賴中強), convener of the Economic Democracy Union, said his group is not against Taiwan opening its doors to more foreign teachers, artists, technicians and other professionals, but demands to know if any restrictions will be placed on the total number of foreign professionals permitted to work in the country.

“I also support having more foreign teachers in Taiwan to make our culture more diverse, but I am against an opening measure with no upper ceiling,” said Lai, whose union consists of dozens of civic groups focusing on democracy, labor, the environment, youth and other issues.

Even the U.S. Congress has set an annual cap for its H-1B visas at 65,000, with an additional 20,000 visas for applicants with master’s degrees, he said, urging the government to set a cap on the number of foreign workers.

In response, Chen Ya-wen (陳雅雯), an official from the National Development Council (NDC), which proposed the draft act, told CNA by telephone that her council has not set a cap on the number of foreign workers because the primary purpose of the act is to attract foreign talent to Taiwan and to do that, Taiwan needs to be welcoming.

“Currently, compared to other countries, Taiwan is at a disadvantage in areas such as wage levels, so we believe we should not begin (the measure) by setting a quota,” said Chen, a section chief at the NDC’s Department of Human Resources Development.

Moreover, there are already restrictions in place to ensure that the foreign white collar workers permitted to work in Taiwan are professionals whose expertise is needed by Taiwan and who are hired with monthly salaries of at least NT$47,971 (US$1,588), she said.

“Our impact assessment shows that the number of these foreign professionals will not have too much of an impact on the current domestic job market,” she said. “We should first pass the law with an open mind and make adjustments later depending on the actual situation.” In addition to quantity control, representatives of the civic groups also questioned the fairness of giving foreign professionals preferential tax treatment and easing restrictions on their families’ enrollment in Taiwan’s national health insurance program, as stipulated in the draft act.

In the area of taxes, during the first three years of employment in Taiwan, certain categories of foreign professionals will be taxed on only half of their income in excess of NT$2 million.

In regard to health insurance, spouses and dependent children of foreign professionals will no longer have to wait six months to become eligible for Taiwan’s national health insurance, and can be insured as soon as they obtain documentary proof of residence, according to the draft bill.

Chang Feng-yi (張烽益), executive director of the Taiwan Labor and Social Policy Research Association, said the big tax break is an unjust clause, unless the country of the foreign professional also gives Taiwanese nationals similar tax breaks.

Lai also argued that the six-month waiting period for national health insurance enrollment was implemented for a reason – to prevent foreigners from using work as a cover for coming to Taiwan for cheap medical treatment.

In response, the NDC’s Chen said the tax break is to make Taiwan more appealing to foreign talent, while existing data show that foreign professionals and their spouses contribute more to the national health insurance program than they receive from it.

Meanwhile, Taiwan Labour Front Secretary-General Son Yu-liam (孫友聯) questioned if the minimum monthly salary of NT$47,971 is reasonable, since the number was calculated in 2004.

He said statistics from the Ministry of Labor show that the average monthly salary of technical workers in the industrial and service sectors exceeded NT$66,000 last year, but the government continues to base its policies on salary levels from 13 years ago.

In response, Chen said the figures are indeed outdated, adding that her council advises the Ministry of Labor to review the Employment Service Act.

By Christie Chen