Visit the Vietnamese Migrant Workers & Brides Office in Bade City, Taoyuan County, on any day and you will see a score of sad faces, each with a heartbreaking story to tell.
Their hope is Reverend Peter Nguyen Van Hung, a 48-year-old Catholic priest who established the office two years ago under the auspices of the Hsinchu Catholic Diocese. Since then, staff and volunteers have aided thousands of labor and sex trafficking victims, winning millions of NT dollars in compensation for injuries or forced labor.
Earlier this year Hung was recognized by the US State Department in its annual report on human trafficking as one of the world's "heroes acting to end modern-day slavery." Hung had previously visited Washington, DC, met US diplomats and was instrumental in having Taiwan dumped to "Tier 2 Watch List" status on the State Department's report, shaming the country alongside notorious human-rights abusers like China and Cambodia.
"This year our office deliberately tied [the plight of migrant workers and foreign brides in Taiwan] to human trafficking because the two are so similar," Hung said Monday in an interview at the Vietnamese Migrant Workers & Brides Office. "The Taiwan government seems to take [abuses of migrants] very lightly," though "we and others have tried for many years to raise the issue."
Some 26 Vietnamese migrants are currently under his care. They came as brides, maids and factory workers, only to have their wages fleeced by ruthless bosses and labor brokers, or fall victim to labor exploitation and or sexual abuse. They can't work while the legal system processes their cases, so they live in one of three undisclosed shelters and spend their days at the Vietnamese Migrant Workers & Brides Office.
Here the migrants take self-improvement classes, study Mandarin and receive counseling. Each day at noon they gather on the office's sunlit second floor for a multi-course Vietnamese lunch. Hung sits among them, laughing at their jokes and praising their cooking.
Hung "is doing work the Vietnamese government is supposed to do," said Gi Estrada, a researcher for the Hong Kong-based Asia Pacific Mission for Migrants. Estrada noted that since 2001 — when clergy led demonstrations and subsequently received visits from police officers from Taipei to Kaohsiung — Hung has been one of the few priests to continue speaking out on behalf of the more than 700,000 migrant workers and foreign brides in Taiwan.
Hung — a scholarly-looking man capable of flashing a broad, toothy grin — is angry. Growing up he idolized St. Francis of Assisi and his famous prayer for peace. Now he grips both fists when talking about cases routinely seen by his office.
Cases like "Dao Mai" (her name has been changed), who signed up with a marriage broker and was picked by a 66-year-old Taiwanese man who paid the broker thousands of US dollars. Mai's family got US$133. Mai hoped to work in Taiwan and send money home, but her husband kept her locked in a room naked, starving and beating her until she gave in to his advances. Police claimed they did not have enough evidence to prosecute the husband and her case languished in court for months.
Corruption and poor law enforcement make it easy to turn migrant workers and foreign brides into slaves, Hung said, adding that Vietnamese brides tend to be the worst off.