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

The office instructs those most down on their luck to continue working until they can afford the NT$10,000 fine for running away and the plane ticket home. But Aquino says the crackdown and fines are resented by local officials tasked with enforcing them and will not be pursued with enthusiasm for long. "It's not so easy for them because they have to send back a lot of foreign workers," he said, noting that one precinct station had 50 migrants crammed in its cells. "Where will the precinct get that money?"

Migrants and their advocates say that despite the crackdown, life as an "illegal foreign laborer" is still much better than life as a "legal" one. At a stroke, you eliminate the broker's onerous fees, can compete for work on the open market, rent your own apartment, eat what you want and generally be your own master. "It's better to be undocumented because you're free and you can do whatever you want," said "Gloria," 41, a Filipina who has been undocumented for a year and a half and asked that the Taipei Times not print her real name. "Of course, there's always the fear that one day you might be caught," she said. "But it can be a little bit exciting."

No word better describes the escape her friend made three years ago. "Alexandra," 27, hails from an indigenous region in the northern Philippines and taught herself to speak Mandarin and Taiwanese. She has lived here for more than seven years and is a repeat fugitive. The first time she was ratted out by a neighbor and sent back. She obtained a passport under a different name and returned two months later. "It's very easy," she said.

Back home, she would be earning roughly NT$100 per day toiling in a rice mill or vegetable garden, if she found work at all. Her first legal job here paid her NT$20,000 a month, with little time off. Undocumented, she works about nine hours a day and earns more than NT$25,000 a month. "If you're documented you cannot refuse to do illegal work," she said.

For her second stint, she signed a contract to work outside Taipei. Shortly after her arrival an earthquake struck and knocked tiles off the wall in the house where she was working. The wife asked her to stick the tiles back on, but refused to buy glue. Alexandra used tape to fix the tiles. "The next day the tiles fell down again," she said.

The boss scolded her, then went into her room and made a phone call. When she returned she told Alexandra to pack her all belongings. She was to go to Taipei for a month to work for her brother.

Alexandra sensed something was wrong. Why would her boss ask her to pack everything if she was only to be gone for a month? When they arrived at the station her fears were confirmed. The broker, not the boss' brother, was waiting at the other end of the parking lot.

Alexandra, who stands less than 150cm tall and was dragging a suitcase nearly as big as she was, let her boss walk in front. Her heart was pounding. They passed a corridor to her left. She saw a train at the other end.

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