Serving their Home Away from Home: Southeast-Asian Volunteers in Taiwan

With crowds millions strong taking public transport over New Year’s Eve, foreign volunteers lend an enthusiastic hand. (photo by Lin Min-hsuan)

With crowds millions strong taking public transport over New Year’s Eve, foreign volunteers lend an enthusiastic hand. (photo by Lin Min-hsuan)

Being labeled a “migrant worker” can be like being branded a drifter, and for many, working in an unfamiliar land entails a life filled with monotonous toil. Through a fortunate chance, however, the Global Workers’ Organization, Taiwan, has been able to begin offering volunteer service opportunities that boost self-confidence and bring a sense of achievement.

From helping out at Eid al-Fitr celebrations to working with the Taipei Metro on New Year’s Eve, Southeast-Asian migrant workers have become valuable trained volunteers, not only serving their own compatriots but providing important assistance to public service organizations. Reaching out a hand to serve also helps them seamlessly integrate into Taiwanese society and find a welcoming home in this foreign land.


A sign of confidence

The clock on the wall ticks regularly on, never fast, never slow. But as the countdown to the New Year continues, with the pressure of a predicted 3 million passenger journeys, the Taipei Metro staff and the Southeast-Asian volunteers joining them all feel as though the seconds are ticking by faster and faster.

At the historic Taipei Main Station, dusk has not yet fully fallen on the final day of 2019, and the station’s colos­sal lobby is crowded with tourists from all over.

At the entrances to four Metro stations, temporary help desks have been set up. Volunteers recruited through the Global Workers’ Organization, Taiwan (GWO) stand watch at their positions as assigned in the pre-work briefing. They wear the same uniforms as the Metro staff, but with large, eye-catching flags of their respective home countries pinned to the fronts of their bright yellow vests. Carrying megaphones and holding up direction signs, they smile as they confidently call out in their native tongues to guide their compatriots on their way to witness the New Year’s fireworks firing off from Taipei 101.

This is the second year that GWO volunteers have worked with the Taipei Metro to help out on New Year’s Eve, and this year the operation is even bigger than the previous. Engineer Zhang Liwei, responsible for planning the New Year’s passenger management operation, was impressed by the volunteers’ outstanding performance during Eid al-Fitr celebrations and had the idea of bringing them in to help with New Year’s. After the briefing, the director of the Metro’s Tamsui‡Xinyi Line, Lin Jiye, led colleagues in taking the volunteers around the service locations in the four stations that would be subject to major crowd control measures that night, to help them get familiar with them. This was the after­noon of December 29. Now that everything was in place, all that remained was to wait....

Guidance, comfort, and a mission

“We have a selection process, and people can only get the job if they can speak Mandarin and some basic English,” says GWO deputy secretary Hesti Chou, who along with fellow deputy secretary Fanny Nguyen joined the volunteers at the briefing.

“The real test, though, comes at the moment every­one starts leaving,” says Zhang Liwei. The previous year, he recalls, having to deal with a sudden surge of more than 2 million people was absolutely nerve-­wracking, for even a little playful pushing could have led to terrible consequences. “We had to constantly be working to keep everyone calm and asking everyone to wait patiently, explaining that the controls were in place to ensure that everyone could get home safely.” At that time, a group of volunteer performers helped keep the atmosphere light. “The foreign volunteers also play a big role,” says Zhang. Their ability to explain things to their compatriots in their own languages is much more effective than any number of signs.

“Honestly, it’s a tough job. It starts getting busy around 5 p.m., and it’s not until after 2 a.m. that the crowd finally disperses.” Former GWO director Karen Hsu’s eyes, full of love and compassion, follow them through to the end of the working day. “Last year we had several volunteers from out of town who slept in the lobby at Taipei Main Station after the job was done and then headed home in the morning.” Asking for nothing in return, every one of these foreign volunteers is just proud to see the mission through.

With all the details planned out and a variety of stewarding and traffic management measures co­ordin­ated, the more than 2 million people packed into the area around Taipei 101 and City Hall to see in the New Year make their way home, and the mission is successful once again in 2020. Even Vietnamese state television channel VTC News gave rare approving reportage on this year’s efforts on the Taipei Metro, including scenes of the foreign volunteers, making the Vietnamese in the team particularly happy.

“Last year, an employer contacted us and asked when it would be over, so that they could come pick up their domestic helper.” From this, Hsu felt a sense of familial care, not just from said employer supporting their domestic helper going out and doing philanthropic work, but also from their being willing to take care of their transportation. Seeing service as an honor and doing it with a happy attitude, these foreign volunteers win respect with their dedication.

Turning lives around

“Getting involved with GWO has been a surprising experience,” says Hsu, a long-time participant in volun­teer services to foreign nationals, who has worked through GWO on everything from starting the Global Workers’ Upskill Center program to Chinese classes to soccer tournaments. “These migrant workers want to learn; they just need to be given a platform.”

“Taiwan, I think, is a society of learning.” Karen Hsu is devoted to winning people over to her cause and to making good use of all available resources, offering a range of practical courses at GWO that enable migrant workers to gain new knowledge and cultivate new skills in Taiwan’s driven environ­ment. Some students, after going back to their homelands, use their new skills to start their own businesses and turn their lives around.

The Global Workers’ Upskill Center is also a place for making social connections, somewhere that these workers who spend all day working in their employers’ homes can have a chance to meet up with people from the same backgrounds, learn together, and recharge their batteries. GWO is more than just somewhere that helps them grow; it is also a place to catch a breath. It offers a new environment that can be a balm for the soul and give an outlet for their tangled emotions. After the pressure has been vented, their minds are cleansed and they can return to work with renewed joy, able to perform better.

More blessed to give than to receive

Hsu has walked a long and rough road and faced numerous criticisms along the way, but ever a faithful believer in God, she has worn a smile throughout. “If we can look at things with empathy, there are many misunderstandings that simply won’t arise,” she says, advocating for kindness and compassion over using the law to apportion blame. “They don’t really want that much, just to be treated fairly.” If one takes a caring perspective, there are no enemies, only friends.

“For Eid al-Fitr, foreign volunteers are organized to cooperatively share the work.” At celebrations hosted by the Taipei City Government in Daan Park, foreign volunteers are responsible for guiding, maintaining order, taking photos, and shooting video. The venue may be an open one, but the crowd remains orderly. “They won the chance to be part of the New Year’s Metro work on the back of their performance last Eid al-Fitr,” says Hsu.

Although volunteers had been through a selection process, they still kept asking staff if they thought they were up to it, revealing a feeling of anticipation tinged with fear of getting hurt. “Those of you who took part last year, please come share your experiences with everyone.” Now their faces no longer show embarrassment, but rather enthusiasm, as they stand up with a positive attitude and give the new volunteers a shot of confidence.

“Please come and draw lots to see which site you’ll be assigned to.” As each volunteer steps forward to the applause of the crowd, they smile excitedly. “I was hoping I’d get 101 and I did!” This year’s four key stations—Taipei Main Station, Taipei City Hall Station, Taipei 101/World Trade Center Station, and Xiangshan Station—all had support from volunteers from Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines.

“They all really do love Taiwan.” Foreign volun­teers joining in the 2020 New Year’s Eve Metro steward­ing operation may come from different countries, but they all share a common belief in the value of serving Taiwan. When life is full of positive energy, it can light up the world. Seeing the efforts of these volunteers, Karen Hsu once again realizes the truth of Jesus’ words, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”