Christian Freymeyer, Harrison Siegel, Li Xiu Chen, and Liz Skokan are 2nd-year IDEV students who traveled to Taiwan this January in order to to gain a better understanding of forced labor issues facing foreign migrant workers in the country's manufacturing industry. The team is working with New Balance Athletics, Inc., a Boston-headquartered footwear and apparel brand. 

The IDEV Practicum allows students to work directly with public, private and non-governmental organizations as a capstone to their graduate studies. The IDEV Practicum Blog is a six-part series that chronicles the travels of IDEV students who take on client projects over winter break.

After a grueling 14-hour flight across the Pacific, we arrived in Taipei, Taiwan – jet lag intact. The bustling city is not quite as chaotic as some of its neighboring Asian cities like Bangkok, Beijing, or Manila, but it still took some getting used to.

While the field visit for our Practicum client, New Balance Athletics, Inc., started in Taipei, it would lead us into manufacturing zones far from the city center, and eventually take us throughout the entire country.

Taiwan, long a manufacturing hub for many textile and clothing companies, has recently struggled to employ local laborers; as the country further develops, more local youths are opting for jobs in technology, business or other high-paying sectors. Thus, there has been a significant rise in the recruitment of foreign migrant workers to fill factory floors.

However, this reality is challenged by a global emphasis on securing the rights of foreign migrant workers who are often susceptible to forced labor conditions, unacceptably low wages, and in some cases, even forms of modern-day slavery.

The task of tackling these issues – now on the international agenda, per the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals – is predominantly how we ended up in Taiwan in the first place.

As New Balance aims to bolster its Responsible Leadership initiative, the company is working to curb a practice that is all too common in migrant work — the existence of job recruitment fees. In order to secure a job as a migrant worker abroad, an individual must pay a “recruitment fee” (usually equivalent to several thousands of USD) to labor brokers and intermediate agents. But as many of these workers come from poor, rural villages throughout Southeast Asia, they often must take out loans or go into substantial debt in order to finance this cost.

New Balance is hoping to change this dynamic.

In a major step, the company pledged a Commitment to Responsible Recruitment along with over 100 footwear and apparel companies. On the back of this commitment, New Balance partnered with our Practicum team to perform a Gap Assessment – an analysis of their Tier 2 suppliers in Taiwan to identify the level of awareness and perception of the recruitment fee issue. This will serve as a key document in the development of a broader, no-fees implementation plan.

Because of the sensitive nature of the issue, we weren’t sure how local factory management would receive our interview questions. But once on the ground, we found that management teams were open in discussion, allowing us to collect vital and candid qualitative data that would buttress our desk research back in DC. The qualitative interviews focused on the process factories use to recruit workers, their level of awareness of the ‘no-fees’ movement, and the economics behind their decision to use labor brokers rather than direct hiring of employees.

Walking through the labyrinth of weaving machines, fabric dyeing facilities, and wastewater treatment areas, we were all struck by the sheer level of capital – both physical and human – that goes into creating the products we so easily purchase in retail stores.

As we take our work with New Balance forward in the coming months, we are excited to use the data collected in Taiwan to ensure that migrant workers’ rights are realized in an increasingly globalized economy.