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The world of tea pickers is a place of its own complexity

The world of tea pickers is a place of its own complexity

Isabelle Cockel
University of Portsmouth

The following narrative was constructed by Isabelle Cockel, based on an interview that she conducted with Tri,[1] a Vietnamese tea picker in southern Taiwan.

As far as I know, very few Southeast Asian workers are recruited to do farm work in Taiwan. I do not think there are any Vietnamese workers in this industry. Most farm workers are Indonesian. However, what I meant by ‘very few Vietnamese are farm workers’ is that very few of them have been legally recruited for farm work since the Taiwanese government opened the agricultural labour market to Southeast Asian workers in 2019.[2] Actually, there are many Vietnamese farm workers, but they are ‘runaways.’ They are hired to pick tea leaves, passion fruit, betel nuts, and water bamboo, to name just a few.

Because of the severe shortage of labour for seasonal work in these labour-intensive sectors, there’s plenty of work! Compared to what they can earn on the farm, the wages offered at the factories are especially low. A factory worker’s statutory minimum wage is NT $24,000 a month before deductions, but a skilful tea picker may get NT $6,000–8,000 a day. In consequence, if they desire to earn more money, they will try to leave their contract behind and become a runaway.

It seems most Vietnamese workers in Taiwan already know someone here before emigrating. They have their own networks and circles. If someone complains about being abused or wishes to earn more money, people in their circle will tell them where to find employment. They rely on so-called ‘bullheads’ to find work. These ‘bullheads’ exist in the construction, agriculture, and forestry industries, acting as job brokers between employers and workers so that employers needn’t seek out workers by themselves. The amount of money a bullhead gets from an employer for commission is a deal made between these two parties. It may be ten per cent of the total amount of wages the employer pays to the group of workers. There is a strong sense of ‘turf’ amongst these bullheads and they tend to stay away from each other’s spheres of influence. Bullheads may be Taiwanese or Vietnamese. If the bullhead is Taiwanese, they are often gangsters who have ‘patrons’ behind them. If the bullhead is Vietnamese, the money workers pay to them is justified as covering their operational costs. Bullheads also exist in the sex industry. They run massage parlours, KTVs, or eateries. They can be men or women. If she is a woman, she most likely has a Taiwanese boyfriend who can ‘protect’ her.

If it is tea picking, then this bullhead may also be known as a ‘team leader’ (banzhang) and their workers as a ‘ tea picking team’ (caichaban). Some bullheads also pick tea leaves with the workers. I did this for two months. The men and women working there have their own complexity. There were fifteen of us altogether: six Taiwanese and nine Vietnamese, including spouses and ‘runaways.’ Some Chinese spouses also pick tea leaves, but they tend to be much older; they are about the same age as the elderly Taiwanese male or female tea pickers. Some of the elderly Taiwanese men and women have nothing to do at home so they come to kill time. They would not earn much. Others are abandoned by their children and cannot survive, so they go there to make a living.

Amongst Vietnamese tea pickers, those who are married to Taiwanese men are usually under 45 years old. Some of them have Taiwanese husbands who are low-paid construction workers with difficulties earning  money. Others are divorcees who need to survive. One of them needed money to pay for her parents’ medical bills in Vietnam. It seems to me that for those Vietnamese migrant spouses who are in difficult situations, there are three options to cope with the challenges: tea picking, sex work, and looking for a Taiwanese boyfriend who could financially support them. The last option is like making a deal. For them, life is an ocean of bitterness. If they do not get into tea picking, they may become sex workers at massage parlours or KTVs. Some of the Vietnamese sex workers are legally employed at the factory but they may want to earn more money so they also do sex work if their employers do not restrict their physical freedom too much, like sleeping in the dormitories. However, they will not work close to their dormitories, partly because the stigma is strong, so they try to avoid their sex work being found out. If their residence is in the south, they will work in the north. Their clients are Taiwanese so it is less likely to be known amongst the Vietnamese community. I know of such things via my Vietnamese friend, who has a family member who runs massage parlours and KTV. It is a life of more tears than laughter.

Tea picking is very physically demanding. Pricy tea leaves are those called ‘one heart, two leaves’, which is a tender bud (‘heart’) surrounded by two tender leaves. They have to be very carefully picked. There are three seasons when workers are hired for picking leaves: spring, summer, and winter. Tea leaves picked in spring are the priciest. Spring is the most productive season; from workers’ point of view, it is also the most manageable season: it is not too hot and not too rainy compared to the summer which is too hot, with no rain. In winter, it is too rainy and too cold. In spring, one gets paid NT $600 per 10 kilos but in winter the payment goes down to NT $500 because winter leaves are more moist than spring leaves. A new worker learns how to pick the first day on the job, and they can start working the next day. Tea plantation owners may recruit pickers together and divide them into pairs to work in different parts of the plantation. Some tracts are hillier than others, so pickers are reluctant to work there.

Some employers provide a dormitory and meals, free of charge. Workers may stay there for five days in a row. Plantation owners are willing to ‘raise’ (yang) workers by offering them free accommodation and meals because this ensures a reliable supply of workers. There are also people who commute daily. They rent flats in town in the valley and go to work in the mountain every day. Some team leaders give tea pickers a ride. But they only offer this to those whose employment is legal. They do not want to be liable for giving a ride to ‘runaways.’ ‘Runaways’ will have to manage their own transport, such as riding a scooter behind the leader. In this way, they are shown the way to work but they are not physically with the team leader. Obviously, staying in the dormitory costs less, because no time is wasted in commuting. Often it takes two hours one way to ride a scooter to their place of work, so they spend around four hours on their daily commute. Some ride to neighbouring counties for work and it takes six hours to go and come back from work, even though the work takes up only four hours. On top of transport costs, they also have to pay the bullhead or team leader for the latter’s petrol and general wear and tear.

Everyone wants to earn more money and enjoys more freedom. Those who run away certainly have more spatial and physical freedom. They do not need to stay in the accommodation assigned to them by their factory, so they do not need to clock in and clock out at their dormitory. But they are worried about police raids all the time. They may also encounter abusive bullheads or employers. In addition to police raids and potential abuse, they may also be turned in by their fellow workers, if they dislike them or become envious. Since their employment is illegal, they will not receive any legal protection. Their health will be an issue since they lose their National Health Insurance coverage. They have to hide themselves from the crowd. They live a reclusive life and they don’t reveal themselves to people outside of their social network. In other words, they are close to the people within their own circle, but they do not socialise with outside individuals which can be isolating.

I left Taiwan some time ago. Taiwan sits in the middle, on the semi-periphery, between the core and the periphery of global capitalism. Taiwanese people are friendly towards those from the core, such as Japanese or Koreans. They would open their arms to them and offer help. But when they meet people from the periphery, such as the Vietnamese, their attitudes change significantly. Once I helped a Vietnamese friend with flat hunting. We found a good place for him and were going to sign the lease. The landlord then asked where we were from. I told the landlord we were Vietnamese. Then the offer was withdrawn. The landlord said Vietnamese were not welcome. You see, we were excluded from the so-called ‘imagined community.’ We are not imagined as being part of the community.


[1] Pseudonym.


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