Tue, Feb 17, 2015 - Page 12 News List

Domestic slavery, Maid in Taiwan

Working long hours, physically and sexually abused, domestic workers have little recourse to legal protection in a system that favors brokers and their clients

By Joe Henley  /  Contributing reporter

One Taiwanese working to change this situation for the better is Lennon Wong (汪英達), international coordinator with the Serve the People Association (桃園縣群眾服務協會), an NGO that, among many labor-based initiatives, works to protect the rights of Southeast Asian migrant workers in Taiwan. It is he who has helped all of the aforementioned women seek refuge in the SPA shelter in Taoyuan. He doesn’t mince words when it comes to the current apparatus in place to protect this highly vulnerable population.

“The whole system is abusive and discriminatory,” he says emphatically. “I would say almost all employers of domestic helpers, they have [them do] some kind of illegal work.”

Proving that illegal work is taking place inside private homes is one of the most difficult parts of Wong’s job. Should a worker complain that they are being forced to do work outside that which is covered by their work permit, a representative from the local labor bureau will be sent to investigate. Their powers, though, are limited, Wong says.

“In reality, it’s very hard to find [evidence of an] illegal job inside the house, because you don’t have a warrant from the prosecutor, so the officer or even the police, they cannot just break in to check. They will knock on the door first. So the employer has time to prepare. It’s almost impossible,” Wong says.

So impotent are the powers of the officers in such cases that if the homeowner simply refuses to answer the door, law enforcement or labor bureau officials have no choice but to walk away.

Still, Wong and other members of various NGOs working around Taiwan have managed to get many workers free of exploitative circumstances to take them to one of about 15 shelters around the country. Once they are at the SPA shelter, the first thing Wong encourages Filipino workers to do is apply for a refund of the service fee they were illegally charged. But there are obstacles in doing this as well, he says.

HARASSMENT

Workers can apply for the refund at the Manila Economic and Cultural Office (MECO), the de facto embassy, but the documents required include an Alien Resident Certificate and passport, which are often held illegally by employers. What’s more, workers applying for a refund have to do so in person — difficult to accomplish if you’re still working and don’t get any days off. Even if they do manage to apply, MECO will contact the manpower agency in the Philippines, who in turn will contact the worker’s broker in Taiwan, opening up the worker to all manner of harassment, Wong says.

Though messages were left with several such brokers seeking comment for this story, including Tzoong-Tsai Manpower Consultant Co, Great Enterprise Manpower Co (格瑞特興業有限公司) and Cheng Ger International Co, all declined. When their counterparts at Filipino manpower agencies call regarding worker complaints, however, they seem far more inclined to speak, if only to level threats at their clients.

“They will say: ‘You’d better cancel this [complaint] or you’ll be put on the blacklist, and then you’ll never be able to go abroad to work,’” Wong says.

There are even problems with the 1955 hotline, Wong says. The hotline is actually outsourced by the government to a private company, and staffed by little-trained foreign spouses who at times discourage callers from registering a formal complaint rather than assist them in doing so.

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