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Taiwan wants to hire Indian workers. What’s skin color or religion got to do with it?

New Delhi/Hong Kong CNN  —  Taiwan has swung into damage control mode after its labor minister made controversial comments about the skin color, religion and diets of some Indians ahead of a potential drive to recruit migrant workers to the island. In an interview with Yahoo TV last week, Labor Minister Hsu Ming-chun said Taiwan may start recruiting migrant workers from India’s northeast region where people “have similar skin color and diets like us.” “Furthermore, most people in that region are Christians. Moreover, they are really good at sectors such as manufacturing, agriculture and construction,” Hsu said. Hsu was responding to a question about an agreement that India and Taiwan signed last month to bring workers from the South Asian nation to the island, which is facing a major labor shortage and rapidly ageing population. India, the world’s most populous country, is known for its diverse mixture of cultures, religions and ethnic backgrounds, which at times has led to conflict between groups. Indians from the country’s vast northeast region, which borders China, Bangladesh and Myanmar, may appear more east Asian than their compatriots elsewhere. Hsu’s remarks have been criticized by lawmakers from both the ruling and opposition parties in Taiwan. On Monday, the island’s foreign ministry expressed its “sincere apologies over this situation.” “Taiwan will welcome any Indian worker who meets conditions for recruitment and satisfies industry demand, regardless of their ethnic background,” the ministry said in a statement. In a separate apology, Taiwan’s labor ministry said Hsu implied “absolutely no discriminatory connotation when she mentioned ‘similar skin color’ in the interview. ” “Taiwan respects India’s diverse and rich culture and will use this as a basis in the future to promote labor cooperation between the two sides,” it added. CNN has reached out to India’s Ministry of External Affairs for comments. Hsu’s remarks come at a time when business ties between New Delhi and the democratically-governed island are warming up. Taiwan’s Foxconn, one of Apple’s largest suppliers, has been expanding its operations in India after suffering severe supply disruptions in China during Covid lockdowns. “India is a country with a large population,” Young Liu, the company’s chairman and CEO, said after visiting India last year. “My trip this week supported Foxconn’s efforts to deepen partnerships … and seek cooperation in new areas such as semiconductor development and electric vehicles.” Liu was awarded the Padma Bhushan, one of India’s highest civilian awards, earlier this year. In February, Taiwan said it will hire migrant workers from India to ease its labor shortage, but did not share any other details. Like its East Asian neighbors — including China, Hong Kong, Japan and South Korea — the island has a stubbornly low birth rate. Known for producing advanced semiconductors, Taiwan is projected to become a “super aged” society by 2025, with elderly people accounting for more than 20% of the total population, according to a forecast by its economic planning agency. By 2028, the working age population, defined as people between the ages of 15 and 64, will account for less than two thirds of the total population, the agency said. But hiring foreign workers in large numbers may not be easy. In November, Bloomberg reported that Taiwan could “hire as many as 100,000 Indians to work at factories, farms and hospitals.” That report, which cited unnamed sources, triggered heated online debate among Taiwanese, with some racist comments being shared. Taipei currently allows migrant workers from Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia and Philippines to work in the island, according to the labor ministry. Vedika Sud in New Delhi contributed to this report.