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After dead-end jobs, promise of a future for migrant workers in Taiwan

Taiwan is home to almost 600,000 low-skilled workers from Southeast Asia, who often face isolation and don't learn transferable skills. The One-Forty Foundation helps workers adapt and prepare for better careers in Taiwan or their home countries.

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Indonesian students and their teachers at One-Forty School in Taiwan. The One-Forty School aids migrant workers, particularly from Southeast Asian countries, in creating personal goals and bridging the gap with locals.

Courtesy of One-Forty Foundation

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Working in a foreign country, often for weeks without a break, with no friends or knowledge of the local language – this was the situation for Yani, a young woman from Indonesia living in Taiwan’s capital city, Taipei. Until then, she had been pursuing her father’s dream for her: a chance at a better life through education. But her father’s sudden death left Yani with no choice but to join the workforce to support her family after graduating high school. Having heard that higher salaries could be found abroad, she left everything familiar behind and emigrated to Taiwan.                                                             

Yani’s story is not an unusual one. Many families in Southeast Asian (SEA) countries such as Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, and the Philippines send members abroad to find better job opportunities. Today, Taiwan hosts almost 600,000 migrant workers from these countries, or one in 40 residents. Although jobs can be found – mainly in laborer positions such as domestic caretaking or fishing – a vicious cycle is perpetuated because these jobs usually offer limited transferable skills, restricting the workers to low salaries when they return home. Just as bad is the isolation endured by these migrant workers owing to differences in language, religion, and culture.

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The One-Forty Foundation, a Taiwanese nonprofit, aids migrant workers in cultivating personal goals and bridging the gap with the locals. By doing so, it attempts to improve the structural economic problems in Southeast Asia as a whole. The organization holds a variety of intercultural activities providing a platform for residents and locals to create mutual understanding.

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The founders of the One-Forty Foundation, Kevin Chen and Sophia Wu, started it in 2015, after Mr. Chen took a three-month trip to the Philippines. He made many local friends and discovered that most of their families had worked in Taiwan. Even as a Taiwan native he had not realized the impact of these migrant workers on his home country.

The One-Forty School holds classes teaching SEA migrant workers skills that they need for a steady career in either Taiwan or their home country, including Chinese lessons and business courses. The Chinese classes start with listening and speaking, then move on to reading and writing. One-Forty also encourages migrant workers to take the TOCFL (Test of Chinese as a Foreign Language) to show concrete proof of their skills to future employers.

In the business courses, migrant workers learn to manage their personal finances and to run a business with marketing and cost calculation tools.  Recently, One-Forty also created classes in subjects such as computers and cosmetics. Having started with just 15 students in the first semester, the school received more than 100 applicants this year. Since 2016, the organization has broadcast lectures on its YouTube channel, catering to workers with little spare time or living in different cities. Today there are more than 100 videos on the channel, and more than 13,000 people have subscribed to it.

Through continuous fundraising, the One-Forty Foundation hopes to establish a brick-and-mortar school for migrant workers in Taiwan. At the same time, the organization is promoting its online classes overseas.

In addition to classes, One-Forty holds an Open Sunday event once a month. Open Sunday not only allows migrant workers to enjoy some leisure time, but also creates a forum for them to socialize with locals. This cultural gathering is often based around a cooking party theme, where migrant workers teach participants to cook the traditional delicacies of their hometown. Sometimes the group takes day trips around Taiwan.

Chen and Ms. Wu believe in the importance of making issues real for an audience, and their foundation’s website features a “Migrant Life” channel, giving voice to migrant stories. These activities and stories help locals to recognize the inaccuracy of stereotypes and to overcome feelings of discrimination against migrant workers, seeing them as more than just factory workers or caretakers.

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Yani, the Indonesian migrant, was one of the 15 students who attended the first semester of One-Forty School. Now she has returned to Indonesia and is employed as a Chinese translator at a Taiwanese company, earning a monthly salary of $20,000 New Taiwanese dollars (about $660), three times the local average. Thanks to the One-Forty Foundation, co-founder Wu and Yani became close friends; Wu was even Yani’s bridesmaid when she got married in Indonesia.

“What’s really impressive is that you really join someone’s life, become a part of their life journey. Yani said she is grateful to me, but I appreciate her so much too,” Wu says.

This story was reported by The China Post, a news outlet in Taiwan. The Monitor is publishing it as part of Impact Journalism Day, an international effort by more than 50 news organizations worldwide to promote solutions journalism. To read other stories in this joint project organized by Paris-based Sparknews, please click here.