COVID-19 in Taiwan and Human Trafficking

by Jeff Cheung

The Taiwanese economy like the rest of the world has been shaped by the Covid-19 pandemic in recent years. Measures taken in response to the outbreak of the pandemic have restricted economic activities and altered people’s livelihood. In comparison to other advanced economies, Taiwan has successfully prevented large-scale domestic outbreaks. At the same time, a swift mobilization of resources also ensured that medical services would be readily available to those suffering from COVID-19. Thus, the Taiwanese economy was mostly stable and even saw major growth in exports and its GDP during the pandemic.

However, some industries remained severely affected by the pandemic measures such as the tourism and service industry. Due to the tightening of entry requirements, night markets that were once crowded became empty, while hotels and hostels struggled to survive. Apart from the loss of tourist expenditure, domestic consumer spending has also fallen by 4.2% in the 2nd quarter of 2021. Subsequently, working hours had to be cut as means to minimize costs. Since the end of these pandemic measures looked to be distant, many businesses had no choices either to close or cut their costs. The unemployment rate too rose to nearly 4.8% between 2021 and 2022.

People who had lost their jobs had to look for alternative ways to earn a livelihood. This unfortunately led to an increase in the number of people who were at risk of human trafficking. Human traffickers in their attempts to manipulate people would often mask elaborated traps as fake employment offers. People were attracted to such online offers of employment due to a lack of job opportunities and financial hardship. These lucrative offers on job-finding websites often put a strong emphasis on short working hours and high salaries. Human traffickers marketed employment advertisements as prospective overseas opportunities in developing countries in Southeast Asia. They were tailor-made for these low-income groups as they did not require strong educational background or job experience. The locations of which were often in Southeast Asia such as Thailand, Cambodia and Myanmar. Human traffickers would also go to the extent of preparing flights and transportation arrangements for their victims.

Once fallen into these traps, victims had little chance to escape as they were locked in buildings guarded by gunmen. They were forced to commit fraud online and received punishments if they did not perform as per expectations. The punishments included physical damage inflicted by stun rods or lethal weapons, while female victims were often sexually abused.

Since June 2021, there have been hundreds of people trapped in Southeast Asia. People in Taiwan started a campaign to further warn people of these employment frauds, and some of them even travelled to Cambodia and Myanmar, attempting to rescue them. Although cases have already dropped significantly after media attention, it cannot be neglected that lives have been lost in this human trafficking crisis, so how did the Taipei government respond and has it been successful?

The government relied on nongovernmental assistance in the early stages of this crisis. Since Taiwan is not a registered country under the United Nations, and it does not have any formal diplomatic relationships with Southeast Asia, it encountered difficulties in intervening in the situation overseas. Even worse, these Southeast Asian countries are often heavily corrupted to the point that the police or regional government often have stakes in these criminal activities. While nongovernment groups have made huge efforts to plan rescue operations, the results however have been very disappointing.

In the view of the Taiwanese government, finding the reason behind these young adults accepting these dubious job offers would be key to preventing similar situations in the future.

The pandemic played a vital role in pushing them to do so as some of them have lost their income due to rising unemployment. However, the problem of social fluidity should also be considered as the reason for young adults taking risks and leaving Taiwan to work in a foreign country. Most of the victims were young people who do not fully enjoy the fruits of economic growth and development. They were stuck at the bottom of society, hence were the first to suffer when economic difficulties came.

To conclude, human trafficking in Asia has reflected the severity and dangers of rising unemployment. Whilst for most sectors, the government has done very well to protect the economy in response to the outbreak of the pandemic, some industries still faced huge losses and had to cut costs, which created structural unemployment. In order to make a living, the unemployed would then take extra risks to cover their loss in income. Therefore, it serves as a crucial warning to governments that although data and statistics may be effective in government policy-making, it is still very important to take every stakeholder in society into account to maximize the overall well-being and to protect the safety of society.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own, and may not reflect the opinions of The St Andrews Economist.

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