Sun, Aug 27, 2006 - Page 17 News List

Between a rock and a hard place

Foreign workers from the Philippines, Vietnam, and other Southeast Asian countries are regularly coerced into signing away their rights when they come to Taiwan

By Ron Brownlow  /  STAFF REPORTER

Gil Lebria, who formerly worked for Formosa Plastics, stages a protest on Dec. 7, 2005, over his brutal treatment prior to his deportation. He stands beneath the Chinese character for slave.

PHOTO: CHANG CHIA-MING, TAIPEI TIMES

For a migrant worker, Taiwan can be like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're going to get. If you're “Mary,” a 30-year-old Filipina, you might even consider yourself fortunate.

She signed a contract in the Philippines to care for an elderly woman in Taipei. Before leaving, her labor broker in the Philippines told her she had to sign a document in which she agreed to forfeit her day off. Otherwise, the broker said, she couldn't go.

Shortly after arriving here, her Taiwanese broker coerced her into signing a form stating that she owed money in the form of a loan. If she didn't sign she would be sent back.

Mary signed the form, which authorized deductions from her salary to the tune of NT$5,000 per month to pay back the “loan.” This was in addition to the standard broker's fee, which is NT$1,800 per month for the first year and decreases to NT$1,500 for the final year of a standard three-year contract.

Luckily for Mary, who was interviewed on Wednesday and asked that the Taipei Times not print her real name, the family that employs her and the Council of Labor Affairs (CLA) helped her take legal action against the broker. She was successful, and after one year the deductions stopped and the broker was forced to refund her money.

Out of gratitude for the family's help, Mary insisted, she has not complained to the authorities about being tricked into signing away her days off. But she isn't exactly happy with the way her employers treat her. In addition to caring for an 80-year-old grandmother, she's also been put to work as a full-time maid, a violation of her work permit. And the family keeps a tight watch on her movements.

“The brokers told me the side agreements were just a ‘formality,'” she said.

Mary's case is typical, said Liou Yen-chuan (劉彥詮), an attorney for the Legal Aid Foundation in Taipei. Liou said 90 percent of the migrant workers his office sees have been forced or tricked into signing side agreements. “There are three problems with her case, all of which are quite common. First, she's being forced to do illegal work. She was hired as a caretaker for the elderly but is also working as a maid. Second, her broker was overcharging her in the disguise of a loan. Third, she's not getting a day off,” Liou said.

He's currently helping a Vietnamese worker whose employer was deducting NT$8,000 a month from her salary in the form of a “loan.” (Foreign workers typically earn between NT$16,000 and NT$20,000 a month.) The employer has agreed to stop making the deductions, but argues he can't refund the money because he's already sent it to Vietnam.

Liou is confident he will get the money back. Courts generally do not uphold side agreements for “loans.” This is not the case with other side agreements, he said, especially when it comes to maids and domestic caretakers who have signed away their days off. This is because household workers are no longer protected by the Labor Standards Law, which guarantees things like maximum working hours and time off.

“It all depends on the side agreement,” Liou said.

Even though factory workers are protected under the Labor Standards Law, they too are often cajoled into forfeiting their rights by signing side agreements. When a worker signs a contract, he or she is understood as having signed onto the company's rules.

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