Indonesia suspends student internships to Taiwan

Indonesia’s ministry of foreign affairs this week temporarily suspended the recruitment of Indonesian students by Taiwanese universities under a university-industry internship programme after reports alleged that some of its students had been exploited by companies in Taiwan.

The move threatens to sully the reputation of Taiwan’s higher education sector just as it is seeking both to recruit more foreign students from Southeast Asian countries under a ‘New Southbound Policy’ of building stronger political and economic ties within the region and to counter a declining birth rate in Taiwan that threatens to shrink the student population.

The reports follow a previous investigation into allegations that surfaced in October of some 40 Sri Lankan students at the University of Kang Ning, a private university in the Tainan area on Taiwan’s southwest coast, who were made to work in slaughterhouses and food processing plants in Tainan and Taipei. The University of Kang Ning was last year under threat of being downgraded to a vocational college due to low enrolment and was keen to attract international students.

Allegations of foreign students being forced to work long hours in low-skilled jobs in factories in Taiwan are also being investigated by Taiwan’s foreign ministry after opposition legislator Ko Chi-en, a member of Taiwan’s nationalist Kuomintang party, said six Taiwanese universities allowed Indonesian students to be used as cheap labour in factories. She made the allegation in a report she sent to Taiwan’s ministry of education at the end of last year.

Indonesian foreign ministry spokesman Arrmanatha Nasir said in a press statement that the Indonesian Economic and Trade Office to Taipei "has asked for clarification and coordinated with local authorities to investigate the implementation” of the study-internship scheme. Recruitment and sending of students under such a scheme will be suspended "until better management [of the scheme] is agreed", the spokesman said.

Internship programme introduced in 2017

Taiwan has been trying to attract foreign students under its New Southbound Policy scholarship programme launched in 2016 to increase cooperation and student exchanges with 18 countries in Southeast Asia, South Asia and Australasia.

In 2016 Taiwan’s ministry of education set a goal of attracting some 58,000 foreign students by 2019 under the New Southbound Policy – a jump of around 30,000 foreign students within three years, from just 18,000 in 2016.

The Southbound industry-university cooperation programme, which includes internships, was introduced in 2017.

Ko said in late December that some 300 Indonesian students at the private Hsing Wu University in Taipei had only attended classes for two days each week, while working the rest of the time packaging contact lenses in a factory.

“From Sunday to Wednesday they are transported in trucks to a lens factory to work together for 10 hours [each day] from 7.30 in the morning till 7.30 pm,” she said, adding that the students pack 30,000 lenses per day, standing up all the time. Some of the students had been working in the factories for over a year, she said.

“This is not an isolated case, but a recurring pattern” that shows how universities, employment agencies and companies are taking advantage of the New Southbound Policy internship programme designed to encourage students from Southeast Asia to take classes and complete internships, Ko said.

Other reports suggest the Indonesian students were served meals at the factories that included pork, which is forbidden for Muslims.

Hsing Wu University officials denied the allegations, saying students had never been forced to work in factories, had never packaged 30,000 lenses a day, and the institution had followed all the relevant and legal procedures of the programme.

Role of agencies

“Universities offer internship programmes and receive subsidies from the ministry of education, and employment agencies trick students into joining the programmes,” Ko said. “Institutions then arrange for internships at companies, which pay employment agencies for introducing the workers.”

Agencies have even boasted about how students recruited under the programme are more “useful” than migrant workers, because they are not subject to labour law restrictions, she said.

The six universities are among a total of eight institutions taking part in the student internship programme which does not allow students to work in their first year. Thereafter they can work 20 hours a week.

Under the Southbound programme, the eight universities received subsidies from Taiwan’s ministry of education, which some universities had used to pay employment agents to recruit students from South and Southeast Asia, Ko said. Agents also received fees from companies for the internship deals with the universities. According to Taiwan’s Liberty Times newspaper, the universities paid brokers TW$200,000 (US$6,500) for placing 1,000 students.

The previous case of the Sri Lankan students also involved agents, who normally recruit migrant workers, being paid by a university. Those students were told that the work was a way to pay their tuition fees but the University of Kang Ning claimed it had received no money for their work and that the students still owed them fees, according to an investigation by Taiwan’s ministry of education late last year.

The University of Kang Ning also denied it had arranged for Sri Lankan students to work off-campus, saying it regarded such activities simply as students’ part-time jobs. However, in the wake of the government’s investigation, it subsequently said it would waive students’ tuition fees for the last academic year but hoped that the remaining 41 students – 28 have already returned to Sri Lanka – would start paying tuition fees this year.

Taiwan’s ministry of education in November described the incident with the Sri Lankan students as an “isolated case” and said the university would face disciplinary action, including the suspension of its right to recruit foreign students, a reduction in its student enrolment quota or a cut in government subsidies for the coming academic year.

However, the ministry said it had complied with a request from legislators to set up a task force to investigate whether institutions were contravening education and labour laws.

Then Deputy Minister of Education Yao Leeh-ter said in November that the incident should not detract from the work of other universities in promoting Taiwan’s education in line with the government’s New Southbound Policy.

Indonesian investigations

The Indonesian Economic and Trade Office to Taipei said it is investigating the internship programmes at all eight universities.

Lalu Muhammad Iqbal, the Indonesian foreign ministry’s director for the protection of Indonesian citizens abroad, said in a statement in early January that the government, through the trade ministry, had asked the the Indonesian Economic and Trade Office to Taipei to “further investigate the wellbeing of the students enrolled in the college internship scheme and make sure that local authorities take the necessary concrete steps to protect their interests and safety”.

Taiwan’s foreign affairs ministry estimates that some 6,000 Indonesians are studying in Taiwan, and as many as 1,000 are enrolled in the college-internship scheme at the eight universities for the 2017-18 period.