TAIPEI (CNA) — Taiwan’s Ministry of Education (MOE) said Thursday it will investigate allegations by a teacher’s union that students from Eswatini, the nation’s only diplomatic ally in Africa, were forced into exploitive “internships” after enrolling in a work/study program at MingDao University (MDU) in Changhua County.
The case, which only broke in the Taiwanese media last week, goes back to 2018 when MDU recruited about 40 students to a four-year “Taiwan Work/Study Scholarship” program, promising the opportunity to develop off-campus work skills and experience while completing a Bachelor of Business Administration degree.
In a recruitment brochure, the university offered applicants a range of financial inducements, while touting the program as “ultra-affordable.”
In November 2018, Eswatini media reported that the students were being forced to work 40 hours a week peeling chicken skins in a refrigerated factory in exchange for their lessons and accommodation.
Following the incident, the MOE ordered the university to cancel the students’ employment contracts and assist them in returning to a full class schedule.
At the same time, it penalized the university by reducing its international student recruitment quota for the 2019-2020 academic year.
However, the ministry made no announcement of the incident at the time, and it was not covered by the Taiwanese media.
According to the MOE, the students remained enrolled at the school and were given tuition discounts, grants for living expenses and assistance in finding legitimate internship opportunities.
Earlier this year, however, the students reported the university to the government after it reduced their financial benefits and imposed new minimum work requirements for their internships or other “service learning” activities, the ministry said.
On May 13, ministry officials were dispatched to the university to resolve the matter. Several Taiwanese media sources reported that officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Kingdom of Eswatini embassy also attended the meeting.
Following the publication of several stories on the topic, MDU President Kuo Chu-hsun (郭秋勳) held a press conference on May 21 with five of the students, who denied that their work conditions amounted to labor abuse.
However, in a Tuesday letter to the MOE, the Union of Private School Employees accused the university of taking international students’ wages in the form of monthly “donations” from the factories where they worked, and using only a portion of them to offset their tuition and expenses.
As evidence, it pointed to publicly-available donation records kept by the school for 2012-2018, which it urged the MOE to investigate.
In an interview with CNA, union president Yu Jung-hui (尤榮輝) said the university had forced the students into “fake internships” without any form of oversight, and had damaged Taiwan’s reputation internationally.
Rather than trying to “cover up” the university’s behavior, the MOE should ban it from recruiting international students for the 2020 school year, Yu said.
In response, MDU Secretary-General & Director of Human Resources Chan Kuo-hua (詹國華) denied Wednesday that there is any connection between international students’ tuition and the corporate donations the school receives.
The discounts offered to students from Eswatini — including semester tuition of only NT$10,000 (US$333), as compared to the standard rate of around NT$50,000 — add up to far more than the companies donate to the school, Chan said.
Regarding the allegations of labor abuse, Chan said that under the original program, students studied three days on campus and worked three days in internships every week. He added that the university suspended this arrangement on orders from the MOE.
However, because many international students still need internships to meet their expenses, the university had more recently allowed them to voluntarily choose internships from a screened list of employers, with a limit of 20 work hours per week, Chan said.
The internships are arranged directly between students and the employers, without involvement from the university or employment brokers, and are in compliance with Taiwanese labor law, Chan said.
In a statement to CNA Thursday, the MOE said it plans to investigate the evidence provided by the Union of Private School Employees.
Meanwhile, it reminded universities that using brokers to recruit international students or arrange work opportunities for them is illegal, and said those found violating the law will face severe penalties.
The incident is one of several in recent years in which students, often from non-Western countries, have been recruited to work/study programs at private universities, only to be forced into exploitive work environments.
In 2019, students from the Philippines enrolled in a program at Yu Da University of Science and Technology in Miaoli accused the university and an employment broker of forcing them to work 40 hours per week at a tile manufacturing facility, double the maximum 20 hours a week legally allowed for such programs.
Earlier that year, Indonesia temporarily suspended an exchange program to Taiwan following allegations that students at Hsing Wu University in New Taipei were forced to work more than 40 hours a week at a local factory making contact lenses.
In 2018, University of Kang Ning in Tainan was penalized after the MOE discovered students from Sri Lanka recruited for a work/study program had been sent to work illegally in a slaughterhouse.