Sun, Jun 04, 2006 - Page 17 News List

A new generation of slavery

A crackdown on undocumented workers has led to illegal detentions and stretched the resources of the police and welfare groups

By Ron Brownlow  /  STAFF REPORTER

Victoria Andres was in for a nasty surprise when she came to Taiwan. She had signed a contract in the Philippines to work as a caregiver for an elderly man in Ilan. But after arriving at Chiang Kai-shek International Airport she was driven to Banciao and put to work as a domestic helper, or maid, for a family of five. She never saw the old man.

There, according to Andres' boyfriend, the wife verbally abused her and the family's eight and nine year old children beat her. Not surprisingly, she ran away and found work cleaning houses part time. Her life on the run ended in April, when she was arrested near Fujen Catholic University (輔仁大學) in Taipei County.

"I ran away because my job was very hard," Andres, 39, said in an interview last month at a police station in Sinjuang (新莊), Taipei County, where she was awaiting deportation. Sitting on a couch inside the precinct's foreign affairs office, Andres measured her responses and spoke in hushed tones, nervously twisting a reporter's name card in her hands. Her boyfriend later explained she did not want to reveal much, because she had been jailed for more than a month and was scared of being kept longer.

Andres' predicament repeats itself in Taiwan thousands of times each year. The government has shown little inclination to address the root of the problem, which is that foreign workers are easily exploited and cannot change employers if their current one abuses them. Worse still is the broker system, where employers pay middlemen to sort through the complicated process of importing laborers.

Foreign workers sign contacts in their home countries that require them to pay their broker a finder's fee and a service charge of NT$1,500 or more a month. When they arrive in Taiwan nearly all are forced to sign side agreements, which are recognized by the legal system and authorize brokers and employers to deduct even more from their monthly salaries, usually in the form of what are euphemistically called "loans."

As of press time, the Executive Yuan's Council of Labor Affairs had not responded to e-mail and telephone requests for interviews.

"It's not like slavery, it is slavery," said Lennon Wong (汪英達), deputy director of international relations at the Chinese Federation of Labor (中華民國全國總工會), noting that many broker companies are owned by politicians, their relatives or people who boast openly of their ties to lawmakers. "The government has set the system up like this on purpose to drive business to the brokers."

But undocumented migrants create something of an image problem the government cannot ignore. Nearly 10,000 absconded in the first three months of this year, and polls suggest the public thinks politicians are not doing enough to protect jobs from cheap foreign labor. "Illegal foreign workers" (非法外勞), as officials call them, are also seen by the public as a sign of social decay, and on March 15 Premier Su Tseng-chang (蘇貞昌) vowed to resign if social order does not improve within six months.

As part of a crackdown announced this April, the government raised the penalty for employers who hire undocumented migrants to NT$750,000, from NT$150,000. Last month, it more than doubled the reward for turning them in, to NT$5,000. Undocumented migrants say the increased fines have made it harder to find work, and officials say more have been caught recently or are turning themselves in to police. "We usually see two cases a month of undocumented workers who want to go home," said Carlo Aquino, head of the Assistance to Nationals section of the Manila Economic and Cultural Office. "This month we've seen 33. That does not include those who don't have the money to go back yet."

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