Mokpo Temple, photo: Joe Slater


This mini-series of articles (see Pt I here and Pt II here)  have considered how East Asian countries avoid resorting to mass immigration in dealing with labour shortages, particularly in healthcare. In this last article, I will look at Taiwan and South Korea.

These two countries are often bracketed together. Both are successful, mid-sized economies, members of the Chinese cultural orbit, and products of geopolitical division. But they are surprisingly different.


Taiwan is historically a true “multicultural” society. It was never homogenous. Originally, its people were Malay-language speakers, who remain a minority today. Its Chinese population is divided between the settlers who came in and after Ming times, and the postwar mainlanders fleeing Mao.

The “original” Chinese live mostly in the south, speak Taiwanese Chinese and broadly favour independence. The Mandarin-speaking postwar newcomers mostly live in the north, dominate politics and are keener to accommodate Beijing. This means that Taiwan is less cohesive than South Korea or Japan, and more easy-going about immigration.

Still, immigration is limited. Taiwan does not accept refugees, though it tolerates Chinese defectors. Few other people choose to emigrate there (strangely, since it is one of the nicest places in Asia). Taiwan opened its doors to guestworkers in 1992. Numbers have grown steadily from the first 7,000, so that foreigners now account for approximately 3% of the population of 23 million, at around 700,000. Not counting refugees from China, they come mainly from regional neighbours: Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines.

Guestworkers are allowed to stay for a maximum of 14 years in Taiwan, under a contract roll-over system. General job applicants have to go through private brokers, who charge up to £1,000 in fees. The system is poorly policed, and many migrants get conned or pushed heavily into debt, which in turn leads to a high rate of “disappearance.” About 50,000 guestworkers have gone missing in recent years.

Migrants are particularly prominent in care work: over 9,000 work in long-term care institutions. But the standout number is the 210,000 live-in care workers for the aged in Taiwan. Japanese and South Koreans are much less willing to allow migrants into their homes.

South Korea

Unlike Taiwan, South Korea has a nearly homogeneous population and a long-standing aversion to accepting immigrants, though many Koreans have themselves emigrated over the years. It began accepting foreign workers much later than Taiwan, in 2004. Despite having over twice the population of Taiwan, it has only one-third the migrant workers at 260,000, most of whom work in manufacturing and farming.

South Korea’s migrant acceptance regime is stricter than Taiwan’s. The key difference is that it is government-organised, and tailored rigorously to measured need. The state comes up with totals of migrants needed in specific sectors. The priority is filling only jobs that South Koreans cannot or will not do. (Like fishing: in Mokpo I met a captain whose entire six-man crew were Southeast Asian). Companies may only ask for foreigners when they cannot recruit locals. Guestworkers are limited to a maximum of close to 5 years in most cases. The aim is constant churn. Permanent residency is rare, but is not ruled out. Like Taiwan, South Korea is not generally seen as a desirable migration destination.

Unlike Japan and Taiwan, South Korea insists on linguistic competency even in manual labourers. Migrants to South Korea need to study Korean before arrival, though in my experience the rule is not too rigidly applied. In any case, many foreign residents are actually ethnic Koreans from north China, who already do speak Korean and are culturally integrated. (South Korea also attracts Han Chinese, Southeast Asians, Uzbekis and Mongolians).

In both Taiwan and South Korea, immigration is at a fairly healthy level. Migrants are from regional countries, and less visible than in Europe. Apart from Indonesians, they do not bring religious baggage (Philippines’ Catholics cause no tensions). In Taiwan, Vietnamese and Indonesian restaurants are a staple of the street scene, and parks fill with Southeast Asians on Sundays, but otherwise there has been little impact on national life. In South Korea, many station areas have a Chinese flavour now (due largely to the ethnic Koreans from China). Taiwanese are generally welcoming. But many South Koreans are hostile to migrants; a petition against Muslim immigration got half a million signatures last year. Crime is a real concern. On Jeju island, for example, Chinese were responsible for over two-thirds of reported crime in 2016.

In both countries, office and professional jobs remain in local hands. Migrants are restricted to work in which a good command of written and spoken Mandarin or Korean is not necessary (both languages are very hard). Meanwhile, retail and restaurants are mostly locally staffed, since locals cannot count on benefits and have to take low-paid work.

Lastly, a few words on Hong Kong and Singapore, which both have fertility rates around 1.2. Despite its reputation, Hong Kong has never really been an international place. The island has a large expat community, mostly westerners, Filipina amah maids and other Asians. But the bulk of it, the New Territories, is overwhelmingly Chinese (including mainland Chinese “immigrants”).

Singapore has always been multiracial (albeit 70% Chinese) and multicultural. The government is trying to boost the population, but encouraging immigration has not played well. A few years back there were anti-foreigner demonstrations. It’s also worth mentioning that China has now become sufficiently prosperous to attract immigration, particular near the Afghanistan and Central Asia borders, as well as an estimated 100,000 Africans trading in Guangzhou and thousands of Filipina maids. China, though, is just as culturally exclusive as the other East Asian states.

In sum, I don’t see much change coming to East Asia. Migrant labour is controlled, incomers are treated as hired hands, not as settlers, and the cultural and linguistic barriers to integration are much higher than in the west. Because welfare provisions are so meagre (even in Japan, dole generally runs out after six months), local people are more willing to do low-paid work than Europeans. In Germany, a migrant can get a flat and 60% of the median wage without even working. That kind of pull factor is absent in East Asia. Migrants form segregated limited-term coolie corps. That is how they will remain.


(For my free downloadable pdf books on North Europe and East Asia, please visit this website)


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