Thursday, April 15, 2004

Foreign university English teachers as foreign labor

While I wasn't paying attention, the status of foreign university teachers in Taiwan changed slightly. We found out the other day that instead of getting our work permits through the Ministry of Education, we will now have to apply through the Council of Labor Affairs. We are classified as "foreign professional workers" (外國專業人員) according to the information on the Bureau of Employment and Vocational Training (行政院勞工委員會職業訓練局) website. This puts us in a category with "sports coaches and athletes," seafarers, full-time foreign cram school teachers, etc. (See "FAQ for hiring foreign professional workers".)

Unlike other foreign workers (domestics, caretakers, construction and factory laborers), foreign professional workers don't appear to have a limitation on the duration of their employment. Other foreign workers can work in Taiwan for up to 2 years before their employers must apply for an extension--the total amount of time they can work in Taiwan can't exceed 6 years. (See "Rights and Obligations of Foreign Workers").

Like other foreign workers, however, foreign professional workers need to get a health examination as part of the application process. This also seems to apply even to university teachers who have been here for several years already. The health examination includes a medical history, a physical examination, and laboratory examinations for HIV, tuberculosis, a stool examination for parasites, and a check-up for leprosy. It's easy to feel rather offended by such examinations for a couple of reasons: 1) most of us have never had to go through this before in Taiwan; 2) those of us who are university teachers don't tend to think of ourselves as possible carriers of HIV, TB, parasites, and the like. However, I wonder if, related to this second reason, our response doesn't grow out of a class-based and, for many of us, race- or ethnicity-based sense of our identities as white-collar workers who come from "developed" nations. I've complained myself about this whole process, partly because being required to take an examination that implies I might have parasites offends against my sense of myself as a "clean" person. (Ignoring the question of where has my sense of myself as "clean" come from? Has it not come at least partly from my identity as a middle-class white Euro-American?)

The MOE-operated work permit system of the past allowed foreign university English teachers to identify ourselves as different in kind as well as in degree from foreign laborers. Now that we have to operate under some of the same rules as other foreign workers, the class- and race-based differences that underlie our identities (and our reactions to this change in administration) might become more pronounced. On the other hand, the new situation might also allow us to identify more with other foreign residents of Taiwan.

Note: Scott Sommers, whose blog I've mentioned before, has started a lively discussion on the concept of foreign English teachers (in Asia) as "economic migrants." One of the issues that Kerim Friedman raised in response to some of Scott's comments had to do with the race and class of Westerners 'migrating' to Asia to teach English (see "Migrants" on Kerim's blog). I'd be interested to hear how the status change I'm discussing above might affect, if not the economic status, the self-identity of university-level English teachers in Taiwan. As I understand it (correct me if I'm wrong), (legal) foreign English teachers in cram schools have always gotten their work permits through the Council of Labor Affairs. As Scott mentions (somewhere), there's often a lack of identification (and even some level of suspicion) between foreigners who teach in cram schools and those who teach in universities. Now that we're all--to some extent--in the same boat, there seems to be one less feature of our professional lives that distinguishes us.

No comments: