Making a More Welcoming Environment for Foreign Professionals

Professional networking organization All Hands Taiwan holds regular events to assist local and foreign job seekers, as well as hiring companies. Photo: All Hands Taiwan

But various hurdles to achieving foreign talent integration remain.

Conditions for the more than 30,000 foreign white-collar professionals working in Taiwan have drastically improved in recent years, thanks to a combination of new laws, government initiatives, and an increasing demand for foreign talent in innovative industries. Obstacles to obtaining work authorization have been reduced and new opportunities are emerging in a broad range of sectors.

Nevertheless, numerous challenges remain. Outdated criteria for work permit qualification tends to limit the job options for many high-potential junior foreign professionals or recent graduates of overseas universities. High capitalization requirements prohibit certain businesses – especially those in Taiwan’s burgeoning startup scene – from legally hiring foreign talent. A lack of concise, accurate information available to both jobseekers and hiring companies makes the process of integrating foreign talent into Taiwan’s workforce a tough task.

In addition, although Taiwan’s government within the past several years has begun offering some very attractive grant, study, visa, and residency options for foreign professionals, the domestic promotion of these options has been insufficient. Foreign professionals residing in Taiwan are therefore often unaware that many of these opportunities even exist.

The Talent Circulation Alliance, in its 2020 Talent Circulation White Paper, recommends that in order to resolve these issues and better integrate the foreign talent already in Taiwan, legislation is needed to remove the current employment barriers. The TCA also urges the government to strengthen its efforts at marketing Taiwan’s various programs aimed at attracting foreign talent.

The main institutional factor inhibiting formation of a broader, more diverse pool of foreign talent is the current qualification criteria for work authorization. Taiwan’s labor laws stipulate that job-seeking foreign nationals must hold a bachelor’s degree and have two years of relevant post-graduation working experience to qualify for a work permit. Exceptions are made for those holding a master’s degree or higher in a relevant field.

Michael Fahey, an American lawyer with the Taipei-based firm Winkler Partners, suggests that the rationale for this requirement may have been to protect the locale workforce from facing too much competition. However, it might also have something to do with Taiwan’s experience using a developmental state model during its period of rapid economic growth in the 1980s and 90s. During that time, he says, the governments of the “Asian Tiger” countries, including Taiwan, sought to spur economic development through a range of interventionist policies.

One aspect of this model was bringing in foreign experts to help undertake industrial projects and train local workers so they could continue operations after the foreigners left. Fahey notes that Taipei’s early MRT system was built in this manner.

Whatever its origin, the two-year work experience requirement seems much less applicable now that Taiwan is seeking to transform itself into a knowledge-based, innovative economy and to plug up an increasingly salient brain drain from the island.

Christine Orchard, a marketing manager from the U.S. who has worked in Taiwan’s startup ecosystem for the past seven years, says that the two-year requirement not only restricts job-seeking foreigners with limited experience, but makes it more difficult to fill certain positions.

“Say we want to hire someone from Argentina, someone with knowledge of that specific market,” Orchard says. “A lot of the time, you’re going to get students who don’t have that experience. It’s definitely put up a lot of barriers to hiring.”

Besides the work experience requirement, the positions that foreign jobseekers are applying for must pay a minimum of NT$47,971 per month, or slightly more than double the country’s minimum wage. Since this amount far exceeds market salaries for entry-level Taiwanese workers, it disincentivizes employers from seeking foreign talent even in cases where their expertise or language skills are in demand.

To legally hire foreign employees, companies established for less than one year must also provide proof of operational capital of at least NT$5 million, while those incorporated for one year or more are required prove revenues in excess of NT$10 million. Although there are some exceptions to these benchmarks, they are often vague or difficult to meet. For startups and many local SMEs looking to diversify their teams, the hiring requirements can be prohibitive.

Alternative Solutions

Confronted with these barriers, many foreign professionals are forced to find workaround solutions.

Much of this potential talent pool gets caught in the “teaching trap” – teaching English or other languages to children or adults at Taiwan’s ubiquitous private cram schools. For such work, the statutory two-year minimum experience requirement does not apply, and the salaries can be on a par with or higher than many entry-level white-collar jobs. The main issue with this route is that there is little room for advancement. Another problem is that unless the foreigners work in such positions for five consecutive years until they qualify for permanent residency and an open work permit, their career choices are confined to cram-school teaching.

A different option for foreigners with certain skillsets is to freelance for companies and clients while they are searching for full-time work. At a roundtable event held by the American Institute in Taiwan’s Talent Circulation Alliance in March, one participant noted that many companies that can’t afford to hire full-time foreign staff rely on this type of work.

Unfortunately, freelancing is technically illegal given the Employment Services Act provision that all foreign nationals must possess a work permit for any work performed within Taiwan. The exceptions to this rule are foreigners with permanent residency or residency through marriage, which allows them to obtain an open work permit.

Nevertheless, full- or part-time freelancing is a common practice for foreigners in Taiwan. In a private survey of over 1,000 foreigners conducted by the professional networking organization All Hands Taiwan, almost 50% of respondents admitted that they had been paid under the table for freelance work in the past. The types of work engaged in ranged from writing, editing, and marketing to photography, creative and technical services, and private tutoring.

The accrued experience from doing such work should make the foreign professional more competitive on the job market, but because of the illegality it is difficult to use it as proof of work experience when applying for authorization for legitimate full-time work.

Another possible approach is to apply for a degree program at a Taiwan university. An increasing number of such programs are being offered in English to attract more international students. Incentives such as the Taiwan Scholarship offered by the Ministry of Education, which give recipients a full ride at the university program of their choice and a monthly living stipend, make this option even more appealing.

Since 2017, work permit applications for graduates of Taiwan degree programs have been based on a point system, rather than the usual checklist where any criteria not fulfilled results in automatic disqualification. Under this system, items such as the applicant’s Chinese-language ability, work experience, and salary level are awarded points, and if the total reaches at least 70 points they qualify for a work permit.

Orchard, the American marketing manager, chose to study for an MBA at National Taiwan University and describes the experience as worthwhile. Through her program, she was able to create a network of contacts – both industry leaders and classmates – which proved indispensable in her job search after graduating.

Earning his MBA from National Sun Yat-sen University in the late 2000s began opening doors for Australian Trent Prestagar as well. His first job after the program was as a technical writer at Taiwanese tech hardware company D-Link, where he eventually advanced to his current role as Product Marketing Manager.

Yet going back to school is not always the most reasonable option for foreign professionals who may have some experience but don’t meet the threshold for the work permit. Some, especially recent graduates of foreign universities, may wish to get started building a career before taking on another degree program. However, Taiwan’s existing work authorization system is not designed to accommodate that.

The Talent Circulation White Paper recommends regulatory changes to help break through some of the main current institutional barriers to integrating foreign talent in Taiwan. It references a pending piece of legislation drafted by the National Development Council that is aimed at relaxing or removing some of the most significant remaining institutional obstacles. The bill, called the New Economic Migrants Act, would create a new category of foreign laborer, the mid-level technician, which refers to foreigners possessing such intermediate skills as tradesmen and machine and equipment operators.

Even more significantly, the Act as currently drafted would remove the work experience and salary requirements for all foreign white-collar jobseekers. Instead, all work-permit applications would be based on the point system now limited to graduates of Taiwanese universities.

Fahey of Winkler Partners points out that the draft Act also eliminates companies’ capital requirements for “nationally important industries.” Although the definition of such industries is yet to be determined, the official explanation accompanying the provision states that it takes into consideration that many types of companies do not need large amounts of capital to operate. It specifically cited “startups utilizing digital technology,” small and medium enterprises in certain innovative industries, and “artistic and cultural ventures.”

The Talent Circulation White Paper argues that these and other provisions of the Act are necessary to overcome some of the direct impediments to employment and employability of foreign talent in Taiwan.

Better Information Needed

One complaint among many foreign professionals in Taiwan is the lack of clear information regarding the work permit application process. Juan Fernando Herrera Ramos, a Honduran national who has worked in Taiwan in human resources, law, business development, and media, has written several articles about the dearth of information available to foreign job seekers and hiring companies, inspired by his own experience after receiving his master’s degree from National Taiwan Normal University.

In several instances, Ramos says, the HR department at hiring companies procrastinated on filing his work-permit application, with one company sitting on it for four months. At one point a company he was working for told him he didn’t need a work permit, but given his law and HR background, Ramos knew better and pushed back until the employer relented.

When another company worried that his salary, which didn’t meet the NT$47,971 minimum, would disqualify him, he needed to inform them about the point-system process for graduates of Taiwanese universities. Ramos says that all these companies wanted him on board, but due to a severe lack of information about how to legally go about hiring foreigners, he came close to losing his residency in Taiwan.

The Ministry of Labor’s Workforce Development Agency in 2015 established the EZ Work Taiwan web portal, which provides pertinent information on working in Taiwan in English and Chinese. Fahey of Winkler Partners describes this website as a good resource for those who are just getting started. It includes a section on the “consultation mechanism,” a relatively unknown alternative for companies who don’t meet the normal work authorization criteria for hiring foreign professionals. In various cases, foreigners with a least a bachelor’s degree can be hired by schools or companies in the capacity of consultants or coaches.

While online information like that provided on EZ Work Taiwan is helpful, not everyone is aware of this source. The foreign talent-friendly legislation proposed by the TCA could therefore provide better guidance or authorize formation of an advisory body for Taiwanese employers wishing to hire foreign professionals.

Most foreign professionals interviewed for this report found the process of looking for suitable work in Taiwan relatively easy and straightforward. But a decent grasp of Chinese was usually necessary to navigate all the different parts of that process. Although well-established online job banks like 104 and 1111 have seen an increase in the number of English-language postings in recent years, applicants must still be able to read Chinese to register and create a profile on these websites.

Chinese-language ability is not only valuable in the job search, it is a necessary skill for a large share of the jobs on offer to foreigners in Taiwan. Cameron Scott, a Scottish HR recruiter for the local electric scooter company Gogoro, says that around 80% of his daily work is conducted in Chinese. “Even then,” he says, “I still struggle” with the language.

According to Scott, it’s not always a matter of being able to produce content in Chinese, but “more about whether you can integrate into the team, fit in with the culture, understand your co-workers, and really get the most out of it.” The language barrier, he says, is usually one of the biggest challenges to more fully integrating junior-level foreign talent in Taiwan.

Survey data supports that conclusion. The above-mentioned All Hands Taiwan survey found that almost 30% of respondents had difficulty finding a job because Chinese fluency was required for most openings.

Certainly, being able to speak the local language is important in integrating into any society, and many foreigners can speak Chinese to a degree, even if it is not enough to thrive in a Chinese-only work environment. Nevertheless, if Taiwan is to truly internationalize its workforce and bring more foreign talent into the equation, the TCA’s suggestion to make English the language of work in Taiwan would be a critical component in that transformation.

Lack of Promotion

Over the years, the Taiwan government has introduced numerous programs aimed at attracting and cultivating foreign talent, ranging from scholarships and grants for Chinese-language and degree studies to ever more enticing visa and residency options. Unfortunately, inadequate promotion of these programs has meant that many potentially interested parties, including foreigners already in Taiwan, are unaware of their existence.

Among the more notable of these programs is the Employment Gold Card offered by the NDC. It was implemented in 2018 as part of the Act for the Recruitment and Employment of Foreign Professionals, with the goal of attracting more highly skilled or specialized foreign talent. It combines four documents into one card: a residence visa, Alien Resident Certificate, multiple entry permit, and open work permit. Gold Card holders are therefore afforded a much higher degree of flexibility in terms of where they can work.

However, the All Hands Taiwan survey found that around half of respondents had never heard of the Gold Card. In addition, 43% did not know about the Entrepreneur Visa, another residency program geared toward foreigners who want to establish or expand a startup in Taiwan.

The TCA recommends that the government undertake more marketing efforts directed at foreigners currently residing in Taiwan, since that should bring a greater return on investment in increasing enrollment in these programs.

All Hands co-founder John Murn says domestic promotion can be effective because the foreigners living here tend to already have an affinity for Taiwan. They are therefore more likely to become cheerleaders for Taiwan and to help spread the word about the many incentives available to interested foreign talent.