Taiwan Reaches Out to Foreign Talent

More expatriate professionals are coming, but they are often confronted with red tape and a conservative corporate culture. 

California native Ryan Terribilini moved to Taipei over a year ago to set up his own fintech firm after he received a Taiwan Entrepreneur Visa, designed to streamline the process for foreigners starting businesses on the island.

Terribilini applauds Taiwan’s quality of life, friendly people and competitive costs. Yet, he complained that establishing a business here can be vexing.

“It takes three months to set up a company, compared to three hours in Singapore,” Terribilini says. “It makes you think, what’s the opportunity cost of doing business here?”

Many other foreign professionals share Terribilini’s concerns. Entrepreneurs chafe at what they describe as excessive bureaucracy and institutional rigidity, particularly in the banking system. Foreigners working in local firms are often frustrated by what they see as a brittle, hierarchical corporate culture.

This is troubling feedback for a government that is trying to create a more innovative, knowledge-based economy. Attracting foreign talent will be key to the initiative’s success.

Taiwan’s efforts to lure top-tier foreign talent includes legislation enacted last year that relaxes the rules governing their visas, employment, residency, and the stay of dependents. It also offers qualified foreign professionals enhanced health insurance, tax, pension, and other benefits.

The legislation, the Act for the Recruitment and Employment of Foreign Professionals, also created the Taiwan Entrepreneur Visa, which Terribilini received, and an Employment Gold Card for applicants in eight fields.

The Gold Card provides for special privileges for high-level talent in the eight areas of science and technology, the economy, culture and the arts, education, sports, finance, law, and architectural design.

In addition to serving as an open-ended work permit for three years, the Gold Card grants professionals a 50% tax reduction on the portion of salary above NT$3 million (around US$100,000) and their parents and adult children are allowed to stay in Taiwan on visits of up to a year.

“Taiwan urgently needs to attract people from abroad who have key specialist skills that can contribute to the development of our ‘5+2 industries’ and other innovative industries,” said Chen Mei-ling, Minister of the National Development Council, referring to the government’s plan to promote high-tech industries such as biomedicine, smart machinery and artificial intelligence.

“Such foreign professionals can bring technological know-how, innovative thinking, and an international perspective into domestic industries, boosting Taiwan’s competitiveness,” she said.

Chen said the government has been pleased with the response to the new law so far. As of mid-March, it has received 406 applications for the Employment Gold Card, of which 247 have been approved. These include 119 applicants involved in economic activity, 59 in science and technology, and 36 in culture and the arts.

By nationality, American applicants have been most numerous, with 58 cases approved, followed by UK nationals (27), Hong Kongers (26), Danes (16), Koreans (15), and Malaysians (12).

Interest in applying for the Entrepreneur Visa has been slower to develop. As of early March, 199 applications had been submitted and 172 approved. Americans received 31 approvals, followed by Hong Kong residents (29), French (19), UK nationals (14), Malaysians (13), and Canadians (11).

Fintech entrepreneur Terribilini attributes the relatively low number of visas issued to a complex application process that involves multiple government ministries, including the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Economic Affairs, and Interior. The lack of a one-stop shop for visa applications – with a clear contact window – could deter would-be applicants, he said.

In contrast, in Singapore, which foreign entrepreneurs laud for its pro-business ethos, the Ministry of Manpower is solely responsible for processing applications for its “Entrepass” for foreigners who want to set up a business there. The Entrepass has existed for well over a decade, and the procedure is more transparent and streamlined than Taiwan’s.

Minister Chen said that the Taiwan government has been striving to improve the working environment for foreign professionals here. She cites the launch of the Foreign Professionals Online Application Platform for the Employment Gold Card as having “greatly raised the efficiency and transparency of the application review process.”

By the end of this year, the government plans to further enhance the platform by “simplifying the lateral cross-agency review process, establishing a follow-up statistical report function, supporting mobile devices, and diversifying payment mechanisms,” she said. Ultimately, the platform will be expanded to incorporate the Entrepreneur Visa in addition to the Employment Gold Card.

In addition, the government has drafted a New Economic Immigration Bill, submitted to the Legislative Yuan late last year, to step up Taiwan’s recruitment of foreign talent, Chen said. The bill aims to further relax work, residency, and other regulations pertaining to foreign professionals.

“Foreign professionals who possess ICT expertise and international links are focal targets of recruitment,” she said.

Terribilini urges the government to waive the requirement that owners of new companies reside in Taiwan for six consecutive months before they can qualify for National Health Insurance (NHI).

“It’s sending the wrong message to foreign businesspeople, whose freedom of movement is constrained because they can’t leave Taiwan for half a year,” he said. Enrollment in the health insurance program should be permitted as soon as an applicant has received the visa and established residency in Taiwan, he said.

Pros and cons

Other foreign professionals share Terribilini’s concerns.

“Taiwan may be getting better, but everywhere else is getting better faster,” says Jessie Sum, a native of Canada and co-founder of Taipei-based Soda Labs, a startup that builds software platforms for conference-room smart displays and digital ad kiosks.

Soda Labs is currently in a partnership with Hon Hai Precision Manufacturing Co. (commonly known as Foxconn), the world’s largest contract electronics manufacturer. By taking Foxconn’s excess display inventory and bringing it to market, it can help the hardware giant earn revenue from software as a service. The inventory accumulates since some customers inevitably cancel orders, Sum says.

“Because Foxconn has always been a hardware manufacturer, it wouldn’t be easy for them to build a team like ours in-house,” he says. “It makes more sense for them to partner with us.”

Sum has previously set up companies in Vietnam, Thailand, Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Singapore. Among all those destinations, he found Taiwan to be the most difficult because procedures tend to be slow and inflexible.

“Vietnam is a bit rocky, but there’s leeway. Singapore is strict but everything moves fast,” he says. In contrast, “Taiwan has the longest procedure to get anything done, with the least leeway.”

It took Sum and his colleagues more than three months to incorporate their company in Taiwan and eight months to get a corporate bank account. He was only able to get the bank account because of sponsorship by AppWorks, Taiwan’s leading startup accelerator. Sum found the bank’s compliance process unreasonably cumbersome, even after allowing for strict anti-money laundering procedures.

Further, the limited business hours for Taiwanese banks (9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.) can be a problem for startups, which are often short of staff. “You could be working on product development or pitching to investors but instead you’re waiting in a long line at the bank,” Sum says.

Anthony van Dyck, a Taipei-based business owner and holder of a permanent residency card, has similar complaints about the banking system. His company, Halo Booking, provides hospitality management software to restaurants and hotels. He initially sought to open a corporate account with a local commercial bank that he understood to have a good online banking interface, but he was told he would have to wait two months for a compliance officer to inspect his office.

Considering that wait to be too long, Van Dyck instead opted to open the account at another bank where he had been an individual customer for years. He succeeded in establishing the account, but wound up having to wait six months for e-banking services because he is not a Taiwanese citizen. The bank told him the wait was required under Taiwan’s Anti-Money Laundering Law.

“Am I really a money-laundering risk?” he says. “It’s going to be hard for Taiwan to become a hub for international talent if banking here is a nightmare for foreigners.”

Alan McIvor, a recruiter at Bo Le Associates in Taipei, says that Taiwan’s relative geographic isolation and history play a role in its attitudes toward foreign business people.

“Taiwan was never part of the British Empire like Hong Kong or Singapore, nor was it a regional hub of commerce like Shanghai,” he notes. “It’s never been a place where large numbers of foreign businesspeople base themselves long term.”

As one of the few foreign recruiters in Taiwan, McIvor frequently is contacted by foreign job hunters. “It’s challenging to help foreigners find jobs here because many companies aren’t open to hiring them,” he says. “You would think that exporters targeting customers in the U.S. and Europe would want to hire qualified people from those places.”

The problem for many Taiwanese firms is that they aren’t equipped to capitalize on foreign talent, says Cindy Chen, regional head of the Adecco Personnel Co. for Taiwan and South Korea.

“They don’t have experience working with foreigners, so they don’t know how to use them to their advantage,” she says. “It wouldn’t necessarily occur to a trading company targeting the Russian market to hire a good Russian business-development person.”

For expats who do manage to land a job in a local company, the going can be tough.

Alexis Callan, a British national and experienced content marketer, works for a local company that wants to diversify away from China, which accounts for 80% of its business, and focus more on the U.S. and UK. However, the company is quite rigid about its marketing strategy.

“They seem to think that the way they market to China is the same way they should market to the UK and U.S., but the business cultures are very different,” she says.

As a foreigner working in Taiwan, Callan says she tries to be flexible but finds certain aspects of her company’s corporate culture difficult to get used to. Meetings tend to be unproductive because the company executives spend most of the time lecturing the employees, she says. Further, employees are expected to work overtime, if only for the sake of appearances.

Meanwhile, some in the foreign community are working to assist one another in career development in Taiwan. Bo Le’s McIvor, for example, serves as an organizer and speaker for All Hands Taiwan, a peer-to-peer resource network for expats seeking professional work on the island.

“There are a lot of people who are qualified to do something besides teach English in Taiwan, but have trouble finding other work opportunities,” he says. “We support them as they make the transition.”

For their part, foreigners can improve their prospects in Taiwan by developing professional working proficiency in Chinese, says Adecco’s Chen. She notes that Chinese is the main business language in Taiwan, even if foreign employees can use English for most of their job responsibilities. Adecco’s two foreign staff members in Taipei both speak Chinese and are literate in the language, she adds.

Terribilini, who has been learning Chinese since he arrived in Taiwan, agrees that Mandarin proficiency is an asset for foreign professionals here.

“I still have a ways to go to reach business fluency,” he says, “but I know enough to crack jokes and win an audience.”

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