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

This was her chance. "There's a wall there so my employer ... cannot see me, and then I escape," she said. Summoning all her strength to drag her oversized suitcase, she made for the train. "Then it so happened that the train will leave the station," she continued. "I immediately get on. The conductor asked, `where's you ticket?' I said `Lai bu ji. (I didn't have time)' She let me get on."

Victoria Andres wasn't so lucky. On the afternoon of April 9 she was in a karaoke bar with friends. She had the microphone and was singing Take Me to Your Heart by pop act Michael Learns to Rock when plain-clothes police officers busted in and started checking IDs. "I was shaking and got nervous and was crying," she said. "If felt sad and lonely at that time and I didn't have any money."

She spent the next 38 days at the Shinjhuang police precinct in Taipei County. The length of her stay was technically illegal because police are only authorized to detain a suspect for 30 days.

"We kept calling her employer (in Banciao) and asking her to give us Victoria's passport so she could go home," said Alan Chang (鄭嘉裕), the officer in charge of the case. "The employer kept saying she was looking for it." Chang could not put Victoria on a flight to the Philippines without a passport and he could not help her apply for a new passport until her old employer declared the old one lost.

Everyone with knowledge of the case believes the woman in Banciao was stalling to punish Andres for running away. "Some employers, because of this resentment, they're angry. So some of them delay the return of the passport," said MECO's Carlo Aquino. He added that it was unusual for a migrant to be detained for so long, because his staff routinely visit precinct houses to check on detainees. But the government's crackdown has given them too much work and they rarely have time to leave the office.

A Catholic pastoral worker at Fujen Catholic University finally discovered Andres on a routine visit to the police station in late April. He was her first and only contact with the outside world for several weeks. Officers had previously refused to allow visits or even gifts of food from Victoria's friends, although this changed after his visit.

The pastoral worker called Aquino, who called the precinct. The next day, the police notified MECO that the employer had decided that Andres' passport was lost. Officer Chang booked a seat for Andres on the earliest possible flight out, on May 17.

The CFA's Wong said the length of Andres' detention was "illegal" and "ridiculous," but it's hard to see what options the police had. More detainees mean more work for Chang and his fellow officers, who often buy their charges food and medicine, and the precinct looked particularly busy last month.

Wong and other advocates said the crackdown might flush out a few illegals, but in the end it amounts to mere window-dressing. The real problem is that there are more than 300,000 maids, construction workers, caregivers and other foreign workers from five Southeast Asian nations and Mongolia in Taiwan, and being undocumented, despite the risks, is often their best option.

"There are so many problems the government does not want to face," Wong said. "It just want to use migrants as cheap workers and send them home."

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