As Taiwan gradually makes itself more hospitable to migrant workers, municipal governments are making it possible for new residents to have a say in how cities and counties spend their money. Chou Ya-wei and Alison Hsiao report on recent efforts.

 

In what is possibly the first participatory budgeting project in Asia involving migrant workers, people from Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam last month and earlier this month were invited by the Department of Labor in Taoyuan, where one in six of the country’s 600,000 migrant workers is based, to help plan their own leisure activities using the local government’s budget.

Hailed as one of the key practices of participatory democracy, participatory budgeting ensures that people have equal participation in the making of decisions pertaining to the allocation of public funds that influence important aspects of their lives. Such efforts occur at a time when traditional representational democracy is carried out behind closed-doors and often has descended into irrelevance for the general public.

Despite the practice’s more than two-decades history since it was pioneered in Porto Alegre, Brazil, in 1989, Taiwan has not experimented with participatory budgeting, largely because, until 2014, it had little knowledge of its existence. This changed in the lead-up to the nine-in-one elections in November that year, when the campaign team of Ko Wen-je, the mayoral candidate for Taipei, introduced the idea, pledging to include the city’s residents in budget planning. That promise soon caught on around the nation, with the Ministry of Culture and the administrations in New Taipei City, Taichung and Kaohsiung taking experimental steps in carrying out this “new” model of democracy.

The Taoyuan City Government also joined the fray, and its department of labor went one step further by calling for the participation of non-citizens.

“It’s not that the government has never held leisure activities for foreign migrant workers, but in the past they passively took part as requested, sometimes by their employers or brokers,” said Lai Shih-zhe, senior executive officer of the Department of Labor and the brain behind the participatory budgeting event held in late September and early October.

What was lost in this passive participation was migrant workers’ agency and subjectivity, he said.

Lai Shih-zhe (right) with event staff at the second workshop on Oct. 1 (Photo courtesy of the Department of Labor, Taoyuan City Government)

The Participatory Budgeting for Migrant Workers in Taoyuan project was one of the key initiatives by the local government to turn things around. To this end, the department initially held two information sessions for potential participants, targeting both migrant workers and Taoyuan residents. The sessions were followed by a pair of workshops in which more than 120 participants took part.

The first workshop, held on Sept. 17, called on participants to make various proposal on how to spend municipal funds for leisure activities for migrant workers. In all, 21 proposals from more than 70 migrant workers were collected. The proposals were then discussed during a second workshop on Oct. 1, in which 47 representatives of different nationalities divided into six groups decided which ones were the most appealing.

The atmosphere during the discussions was encouraging and lively. “It is true that our implementation of participatory budgeting might not be perfect, but for this event, I would say the emphasis and the gains lie in participation,” Lai said.

The second workshop on Oct. 1 at the Yuyuan Plaza near Taoyuan Train Station

Norie Rosales, a liberal domestic caregiver from the Philippines who took part in the exercise, proposed a beauty pageant — a Filipino obsession — for members of the LGBTQI community.

Asked what motivated her to make such a proposal, she said the idea was in line with the free social environment enjoyed by her country. “In Philippines we have freedom to express our feelings about our gender. We don’t want discrimination,” she said.

Those efforts are what participatory democracy seeks to achieve: the exchange of values and the exchange of cultures, with participants thrashing out compromises to accommodate different, culturally imbued sports competitions, art exhibitions, culture tours, beauty pageants, cultural carnivals, and so on.

The 13 proposals that made the cut from the initial 21 will be put to a vote between Oct. 26 and early November. The voters will comprise residents of Taoyuan as well as migrant workers from around the nation, regardless of their place of work. They will be able to vote online or at ballot boxes set up at locations where migrant workers congregate during holidays, such as train stations, as well as in certain large factories in Taoyuan.

The three proposals that receive the highest number of votes will then each be allocated NT$500,000 (US$16,500) from the municipal budget for their implementation.

Building trust

But cultural exchanges should not — and are not — limited to those between migrant workers.

“The proposals have also highlighted the need and wish to make exchanges with the local Taiwanese people and culture,” Taoyuan Department of Labor Senior Executive Officer Lai Shih-che said.

“And what the [participatory budgeting] event has shown to the Taiwanese is that through transparency, mutual understanding, communication and participation, migrant workers — who have been ignored, to say the least, by the local people — can also create a common good,” he added.

Mutual trust can be built through exchanges, but also by making good on promises.

“Misgivings were expressed about the trustworthiness of the department which proclaimed that the migrant workers’ proposals would be carried out in accordance with their wishes,” Lai said. “But we’ve assured them that they will be invited to take part in the following preparatory meetings with the officials and the contractors for the events.”

Understandably, migrant workers were not the only ones who had concerns over the government’s role in funding the events.

“There were indeed doubts from local politicians about engaging non-citizens in deciding how to use public funds,” Lai acknowledged. “But I pointed out to them that the number of migrant workers in the city, which is 108,000, amounts to one-twentieth of the city’s dwellers and one-tenth of the city’s workforce, not to mention that they are also taxpayers.”

A role for NGOs

The Taoyuan participatory budgeting project was co-hosted by the Serve the People Association, Taoyuan with assistance from other NGOs across the nation, such as the SEA Migrant Inspired, which helped out on different fronts, from the provision of interpreting services to outreach among the local migrant worker population.

The Taiwan Reach-Out Association for Democracy (T-ROAD) and 1095 Studio are two Taichung-based organizations that played a critical role in the Taoyuan labor department’s project. (The number in the group’s name designates the days a migrant worker has to sign up for under a working visa contract, or the equivalent of three years. The story of the name does not stop there, as the official name is in fact “1095,” with a comma attached, which signifies that migrant workers would go on with their life journey after a short stint in Taiwan.)

At 1095 Studio, 1095, co-founder Annie Kuan (left) and T-ROAD member Hung Shih-yu

Composed of members who have worked closely with the Taichung City Government on the city’s participatory budgeting initiatives, T-ROAD was established on the understanding that PB-related training and assistance for government officials and citizen-proposers should be widely available.

“More often than not the proposers would find themselves at loss after tabling a proposal or having a proposal actually accepted — this is where we come in,” said Hong Shih-yu, a member of T-ROAD.

In Taoyuan’s case, the association trained those who were professionally equipped with Southeast Asian languages or familiar with Southeast Asian affairs, but had limited knowledge about PB, to be discussion facilitators.

1095 Studio was one of those that signed up for the task. Since its founding in 2015, the group has dedicated its efforts to “building a bridge between diverse cultures,” and has launched various proposals in Taichung, among them a weekly “mobile library” at the Taichung Railway Station that offers books in different Southeast Asian languages which migrant workers can borrow from (the mobile library is modeled on the Brilliant Time’s initiative at Taipei Main Station. More information is available here); cross-culture cuisine events; guided tours around what has come to be known was “ASEAN Square” (or “piramid” in Bahasa Indonesia); and outdoor movie screenings. The most recent ones are a legal counseling service and a ASEAN Square revitalization project. (In 2015 Taichung Mayor Lin Chia-lung said he believed that the rechristening would reposition the commercial square near the station as a driving force promoting exchanges with Southeast Asian cultures and people.)

The ASEAN Square, or the “piramid” for migrant workers in Taichung

1095 Studio member Chen Han-tang, who was also one of the participants in the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy’s 2017 Asian Young Leaders for Democracy program, volunteered as a discussion facilitator in the Taoyuan PB project.

“Too many times we saw local authorities presented measures and projects to hitch the wagon to the central government’s New Southbound Policy but achieved little due to perfunctory implementation, lack of understanding or implicit discrimination,” he lamented. “But the Taoyuan PB team and its project overcame those barriers, and their effort and enthusiasm should definitely be taken as an example for future migrant worker policy planners.”

1095 Studio co-founder Annie Kuan said that while Taiwan can lead as a vibrant and functioning democracy in the region, “we also see what we as Taiwanese lack when we work with people from Southeast Asia.”

“We rely on the government to make decisions, and comment on or criticize them later. Our Southeast Asian friends, however, are used to being actively involved in group discussion about local issues,” she said. “Their sense of identity of being part of a local community is stronger.”

“In a sense there is this ‘mutual admiration.’ We praise their willingness to participate, they find our ‘big government’ taking care of various aspects of our life great,” Kuan added.

And that is precisely the point of the exchanges, she stressed, “which is to learn from each other.”