Resisting Feminized Occupation?  Feminization of Migration and Occupational Choices and Status of Tibetan Women in Taiwan

Resisting Feminized Occupation? Feminization of Migration and Occupational Choices and Status of Tibetan Women in Taiwan

Article by Dolma Tsering

Abstract: This study examines the occupational choices and status of Tibetan women in Taiwan. The study followed the qualitative narrative analysis of one-to-one interviews and participant observation conducted with Tibetan women in Taiwan. Findings suggested that, in contrast to the existing pattern of occupational choices of migrant women in an international context, Tibetan women who had migrated and settled in Taiwan have bypassed the “feminized occupation” and instead chose to be employed in the sector that is traditionally dominated by men. Such unique experiences result from multiple factors including their status as refugees, illegal overstayers and desire to seek greater economic, social and political freedom. Furthermore, the study finds that Tibetan women choose different paths not to challenge the existing sexiest norms of the labour market but to seek greater social and economic freedom for themselves and their children.   

Keywords: Migration, Refugees, Women in Migration, Tibetans, Taiwan

Header image taken by author

Feminization of Migration: Occupational Status of Women in Migration

A major change in the global landscape of migration in recent periods is the rise of feminization. The feminization of migration is a multidimensional phenomenon and it is defined as a phenomenon where an increasing number of women migrate internationally and independently to take up jobs, rather than joining male families or as dependents (General Education Council Report, 2019, Piper, 2005, p.2, Carling, 2005). In analyzing the phenomenon, scholars have attempted to determine what are the factors pushing women to migrate, what are the characteristics of their labour participation, and what are the consequences. Considering that the focus of this paper is on the occupational choices and status of women in migration, this section will focus only on what kind of job migrant women are predominantly engaged in and why it is so.

One of the earliest studies conducted in the field was by Boyd (1984). Based on immigrant women in Europe and Canada (Boyd, 1984, p.1094) argues that most of the immigrant women hail from Southeast Asian nations and they are predominantly located in poorly paid informal service sectors such as domestic care and factory workers. Consequently, immigrant women have a much lower occupation status than native women and such stratification is contributed by the ‘double disadvantage” factor of being female and being foreign-born (Ibid, p.1106). However, immigrant women from the United States and the United Kingdom in Europe do not face such discrimination and disadvantage. This is because of familiarity with the language of host countries. Therefore, language plays a significant role in the determination of such stratification. A similar trend is also observed among women migrant labourers in Asia. According to Piper (2008, p. 1291-1296), women from Southeast Asia have been entering East Asia to work and the largest proportion are working in the job category traditionally assigned to women like live-in domestic care workers, entertainers, and sex workers. The majority of them entered through a legal temporary contract migration system. Therefore, women migrants in East Asia are also concentrated in jobs traditionally reserved for women and in lower occupational status. A very small number of migrant women are employed in skilled labour fields. The United Nations (2020) estimates that about 74 per cent of migrant women work in service-sector jobs, dominated by domestic care and healthcare jobs. There are also cases of migrant women participating in financial, scientific, government, and legal institutions but the number remains marginal. Therefore, one of the prime characteristics of the feminization of migration is the concentration of women labour in the “feminized occupation” which lacks protection and is vulnerable to exploitation (both physical and mental) and low wages (Lin and Oishi, 1996). Due to gender-selective hiring practices, women are increasingly favoured for jobs normally filled by women.

Research Method

The total number of Tibetan populations in Taiwan is 649. Among this number, the female population constitutes 229, about 34 per cent of the total population (Mongol and Tibet Culture Center, 2022). In 2016, the MTCC published population data that includes data on age and sex and the number of women comprised 124 versus 259 males (Ministry of Culture, Republic of China, 2016). The study employs a snowball sampling method to interview 24 Tibetan women who participated in this study and it involves both active and passive data. The one-to-one interview is used for active data collection. Participatory observation is used to collect passive data. Questions for the interview comprise both close-ended and open-ended to get some specific information about occupational choices and also to allow the interviewees to establish their narrative about job opportunities and the reason for choosing this particular job. Data are analyzed and interpreted using the qualitative narrative analysis method to provide a specific assessment of the occupational choice and status of Tibetan women in Taiwan.

Seeking Better Political, Social and Economic Prospects: Tibetan Women Migration to Taiwan

Tibetan women in Taiwan come from different backgrounds. Some of them were born as refugees in India and Nepal and some of them fled Tibet to India and Nepal after China increased political control in Tibet. Before arriving in Taiwan, the majority of them were refugees in India and Nepal. The migration of Tibetan women to Taiwan and Tibetans in general started only after the establishment of Kuomintang rule in Taiwan. The Kuomintang policy of Tibet as part of the Republic of China (ROC) played an instrumental role in the migration of Tibetans especially Tibetan refugees from India and Nepal to Taiwan. I have written about the relationship and policy in detail (Tsering, 2023). In an attempt to assert this policy, from 1959 to the late 1990s, the government recruited more than 700 Tibetans from India and Nepal to Taiwan for various political, military, and rehabilitation programs (Liu, 1996, p.192-194, Hsu, 2001, p.134-135, Tsering, 2023). In the late 1990s, a change in the political guard and system in Taiwan towards democratization resulted in a change in Taiwan’s policy towards Tibetan refugees in India and Nepal. Subsequently, the government in Taiwan stopped recruiting Tibetans from India and Nepal to be part of the Kuomintang agenda against the Chinese Communist Party. However, Tibetan refugee migration to Taiwan continues,without any involvement of any government agency. The majority of Tibetan women who were part of this study migrated to Taiwan in the late 1990s and in the 2000s. The reasons for migration include seeking better socio-economic prospects for themselves and their children and joining husbands who have become citizens of Taiwan after spending several years in Taiwan. The ultimate hope of these women is to liberate themselves from refugee status and become citizens of Taiwan. Among the 24 women, some of them entered Taiwan independently through tourist visas and some entered via husband dependency visas. There is no uniform situation of their paths towards citizenship rights in Taiwan. For instance, some women were able to acquire the resident permit because of their husbands’ status as citizens of Taiwan and some failed to do so even though their husbands were citizens of Taiwan. The reasons for such different treatments are directly related to Taiwan’s ambiguity in dealing with refugees and strict immigration laws. Therefore, in short, many of them remained in illegal overstay after the expiration of their visa, and for the majority of them, their rights for residential and citizenship were accepted along with hundreds of other Tibetans in 2004 and 2009(Chen, 2009, Yang, 2021).

Table 1: Migration Pattern and Occupational Choices and Status of Tibetan Women in Taiwan

S. No Name Year of Arrival in Taiwan Migration Pattern Reason of Migration Current Occupation Major Challenges
1 Rinzin Dolma 1980s Tibet-India-Nepal-Taiwan To seek better economic, political and social Prospects (TSBEPSP) Waitress Job/Language
2 Dolma Tsering 2000s Tibet-India-Taiwan (TSBEPSP) Employed in the Manufacturing sector (EMS) Lack of residential and work permit/Language (LRWP/L)
3 Dolma Tsum 2000s Nepal-Taiwan Family Reunification (EMS) (LRWP/L)
4 Dolma 2000s India-Taiwan (TSBEPSP) Restaurant Owner (LRWP/L)
5 Sonam 1990s Nepal-Taiwan (TSBEPSP) Hospitality (LRWP/L)
6 Choerang (name changed) 2000s Tibet-India-Taiwan Husband (Taiwanese) Working in Taiwan/ Citizen of Taiwan Caregiver at Daycare Family Issue
7 Tsamchoe 2000s Tibet-Nepal-Taiwan (TSBEPSP) (EMS) (LRWP/L)
8 NC 1980s Nepal-Taiwan (TSBEPSP) Self-Employed Family Separation
9 Sonam Palmu Buthia 1990s India-Taiwan (TSBEPSP) (EMS) (LRWP/L)
10 Yangdon 2000s India-Taiwan Husband (Tibetan) Working in Taiwan/ Citizen of Taiwan (HTWIT/CT) Housekeeping (LRWP/L) and separation from children
11 Dolma Tara 2000s Tibet-India-Taiwan (HTWIT/CT) Waitress (LRWP/L)
12 Namdol 2000s India-Taiwan (HTWIT/CT) (EMS) Language
13 Yangchen 2000s Nepal-Taiwan (HTWIT/CT) (EMS) (LRWP/L)
14 Dolkar 1990s Tibet-India-Taiwan (HTWIT/CT) Employed as a Construction worker(ECW) (LRWP/L)
15 Lhazom (name changed 2000s Tibet-India-Taiwan (HTWIT/CT) (ECW) (LRWP/L)
16 Tsering Dolma 2000s India-Taiwan (TSBEPSP) Part-Time (LRWP/L)
17 Pema 2000s India-Taiwan (HTWIT/CT) Domestic Care (LRWP/L)
18 Dawa 2000s Tibet-India-Taiwan (HTWIT/CT) (ECW) Job Residential
19 Tashi Tsering 2000s Tibet-India-Taiwan (HTWIT/CT) (ECW) (LRWP/L)
20 Sonam Chongzom 2000s Tibet-India-Taiwan (HTWIT/CT) (ECW) (LRWP/L)
21 Sherap Sangmo 2000s Tibet-India-Taiwan (HTWIT/CT) (ECW) (LRWP/L)
22 Dolkar Rigzin 2000s Tibet-India-Taiwan (HTWIT/CT) (ECW) (LRWP/L)
23 Yangchen 2000s Tibet-India-Taiwan (HTWIT/CT) (ECW) (LRWP/L)
24 Lhakey (name changed) 2000s India-Taiwan (HTWIT/CT) (ECW) (LRWP/L)

Occupational Choices and Status of Tibetan Women in Taiwan

According to the Ministry of Labour (2022), as of November 2023, Taiwan has 754,130 foreign workers and women workers comprise 371,751, which is nearly half of the total number. Among the three major sectors, women have the largest employment share in the social welfare sector including nursing and home maids with 232,292 of total employment share, followed by the manufacturing sector about 100,000, and the least number in the construction sector with less than 20,000. Hence, women workers are dominated in the social welfare sector followed by the manufacturing sector.  A study conducted by (Wu, 2021, p.994) concerning female immigrants in Taiwan highlighted that the manufacturing sector has the largest employment share with 32.9 per cent, followed by the accommodation and catering sector with 23.5 per cent, and 11.3 per cent in wholesale and retails. The difference between foreign women workers and immigrant women is the social welfare sector. Immigrant women’s participation in the social welfare sector is not as visible as it is in foreign women’s migrant labour case. 

In the Tibetan case, women’s employment is concentrated in the construction sector(9) followed by the manufacturing sector (6), the catering and hospitality sector (5), and others including the social welfare sector(4). In the construction sector, participants in the study reveal that the majority of Tibetan women are manual labourers, therefore sometimes it can be physically demanding. Regarding the manufacturing sector, the majority of them are engaged in textile and tile factories, where their jobs include stitching, assembling parts, moving things from one place to another etc. Furthermore, some of them had previously worked in the construction sector, but due to physical difficulties, they moved to the manufacturing sector which is physically more accommodating. Among 24 women who participated in this study, one lost her residential rights after divorcing with husband and now becomes an illegal overstayer(Personal Communication 2023/10/12). 

What distinguishes the occupational choice of Tibetan women in Taiwan from foreign women migrants and other immigrant women is that the largest number are employed in the construction sector followed by the manufacturing sector, which is traditionally reserved for men. In addition to their current occupation, to get a better understanding of their occupational choices, the author asked questions such as why choosing to work in the construction sector or manufacturing instead of being a domestic caregiver or helper. Based on the answers, using the narrative and thematic method of analysis, the study identified three popular reasons shared by participants: the lack of salary and freedom, the lack of Chinese language skills, and the lack of work and residential permit.

Tibetan Women in Taiwan celebrates Mother’s Day (photo taken by the author)

Reasons Contributing to Unique Circumstances

A. Lack of Chinese Language Skills 

The lack of Chinese language skill is one reason highlighted by many participants. A participant in this study explains that.

“Initially I wanted to work as a domestic caregiver because I do not have the opportunity to serve my parents. However, later I learned that to work as a caregiver, you should have basic reading and writing commands of the Chinese language and first aid skills including giving injections. There are many older people diagnosed with different kinds of illnesses, therefore, you should be able to read Chinese and recognize the medicine. Then I thought this job is not suitable for me” (Personal Communication, 2023/10/28).

Additionally, many respondents come up with this particular expression: 

“It is best to work in the factory and construction sector because we do not need to communicate with locals. Just do your work and go home. We don’t have the Chinese language command.”

B. Lack of Work and Resident Permit and Influences of Social Network

As discussed, many Tibetans enter Taiwan through tourist visas, and after the expiration of their visa, they continue to stay in Taiwan, thus becoming illegal overstayers. Moreover, during a tourist visa stay, one neither gets a work permit nor a resident permit. Therefore, the right to work does not arise. Due to the lack of required work and residential permits, employment options remain limited to them. As shared by other Tibetans (Yang, 2021), participants in this study also confirmed that they would borrow the work permits of others and seek employment. If the employer found out about the work permit, they would change to a new job. One of the participants shared that 

“The majority of Tibetans are located in Taoyuan City and they are either engaged in the construction sector or the manufacturing sector. There are two reasons: the first reason is the lack of work permits as many were illegal overstayers before obtaining residential and citizenship rights. These two sectors are the easiest to find a job using friends’ or other Tibetan work permits. The second reason is that the majority of Tibetans including women find jobs through their husbands, friends, and relatives. Since they are concentrated in these two sectors, we just followed them.  Domestic caregivers or helpers are mostly from Southeast Asian nations and are recruited through commercial brokers/recruitment agencies (Lan, 2016,p.260). They are contract-based labour and without a “proper document” it is difficult to get through. (Personal Communication, 2023/10/20).  

C. For Better Social and Economic Freedom

Another important reason highlighted by participants is the lack of economic and social freedom in the domestic care sector and greater freedom in the construction and manufacturing sectors. For instance, one of the participants shared that 

“The domestic caregiver and domestic helper are the most difficult jobs. It is not just physically but mentally very challenging. For instance, most domestic caregivers and helpers are live-in, which means you have to stay with the family. If the owner is good, then well and good, if the owner is bad, you are most likely to face discrimination and exploitation of overwork without pay. Furthermore, you are with the employer and under their surveillance for almost 24 hours. There is no freedom of what you want to do or eat, or where you want to go. Everything is dependent on the owner. Who will work in such circumstances? You know how domestic helpers are treated in India. So why would I involve myself in such a condition? You know how Tibetans are and we do not like to be under such a restricted and suffocated environment. In addition to these challenges, salaries are also lower than those working in the manufacturing and construction sectors. Working as a domestic helper and caregiver is a “double disadvantage”: less salary and more vulnerability to exploitation by the owner. If you work in the construction or manufacturing sector, at the end of the day, you will go back to your room and rest. You can cook and eat whatever you want. You only need to work for eight hours and if you work extra hours, you get paid for that. After working hours, you are the boss” (Personal Communication, 2023/Oct/20). 

One of the interviewees emphasized that domestic helpers or caregivers are paid about 20,000 to 26,000 NTD (800 USD) as a monthly salary, whereas in the manufacturing sector that is in her case, earns an about monthly salary of about 33,000 NTD (1055.3 USD) working eight hours per-day and if there is an extra hour, they would earn more. Construction workers earn the highest even though there is no job security and one has to bear the monthly health insurance and labour insurance by themselves. Construction labour would earn between 1800 NTD to 2500NTD per day and many would work six days a week, this means weekly they would earn an average of 12,000 NTD (384USD) and monthly about 48,000 to 50,000 NTD (1598 USD). This amount is based on 8 8-hour-per-day day shifts. If they take extra hours, they earn more. Therefore, on average, monthly they would earn about 60,000 NTD (1918.4 USD) (Personal Communication 2023/Oct/12). In contrast to the construction sector, those employed in the manufacturing sector are salaried labour and subjected to paid days off like every other employee in the formal sector, but their salary is lesser. Those employed in the construction sector are the wage labour.  

D. Family Concern

One of the women mentioned family as the one reason why Tibetan women are concentrated in the construction sector and the manufacturing sector and not in the domestic care sector. For instance, Tashi shared that 

“Why do most Tibetan women work in the construction and manufacturing sectors and not in the domestic care, I think one big reason is family. The majority of Tibetan women in Taoyuan are married and live with their families. The domestic helper job is the live-in job, which means you have to stay with the family(employer) and you do not get to take care of your family or spend time with them except on weekends. Of course, there is the salary issue, which is very low, but for me, I think family is one of the key reasons”( Personal Communication, 2023/11/7). 

This also explains why the number of immigrant women engaging in domestic care is not significant as compared with foreign women migrants as discussed in the second section.

Tibetan Women in Taiwan celebrates Mother’s Day (photo taken by the author)

Discussion: Resisting Feminized Occupation? 

The study adopts the qualitative narrative analysis method to assess the occupational choices and status of Tibetan women in Taiwan. Based on collected data, the study finds that in contrast to foreign women migrant labour and immigrant women, the participation rate of Tibetan women in Taiwan in “feminized occupations”including domestic caregivers and helpers is inconsequential. Uniquely, women’s labour participation rate in the construction sector, which is traditionally perceived as a men’s job, is the highest. Furthermore, Tibetan women employed in the construction and manufacturing sectors are unskilled and manual labour, therefore even though their income is relatively higher than that of immigrants and foreign women, the overall occupational status of Tibetan women in Taiwan remains the same as theirs,remaining low. What drives Tibetan women in Taiwan to follow different paths than existing patterns discussed in the feminization of women includes multiple factors. As the Tibetan immigrant women could not obtain work and residential permits because of their status as illegal overstayers, they tend to follow the path of Tibetan fellows, therefore the social network in searching for jobs in the new host country is influential. Moreover, they do not possess the Chinese language skills to work in domestic care and service sectors, even though some of them have graduate degrees from India. inally the desire to seek greater economic and social freedom also plays a crucial role in their occupational choice. Tibetan women in Taiwan are resisting the “feminized occupation”, not because they are trying to challenge the gender norms or sexualized nature of the labour market, but because of their legal status and the desire to seek greater economic and social freedom for themselves and their family. 

The research undertaken in this article is supported by the National Science and Technology Council (Taiwan) with Project No. NSTC 112-2811-H-A49-500


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