Tue, Jun 02, 2015 - Page 12 News List

Voices of the exploited

Often abused and lacking legal protection, migrant workers in Taiwan share their stories with the help of various groups fighting for their rights

By Joe Henley  /  Contributing reporter

A 32-year-old Indonesian man, nicknamed A-li, tries to tie a rope to a fishing boat. Migrant workers often engage in this kind of dangerous work but are not covered by the Labor Standards Act.

Photo: Wu Cheng-feng, TT

Starving, dehydrated and sleep deprived due to the constant pangs of hunger, Gil L looked around the cramped deck of the small Taiwan-registered fishing vessel he had been bonded to. He wondered how much more he could take before the slave-like conditions of his job, or the captain of the vessel himself, did him in.

A native of Iloilo Province in the southeastern region of Panay Island, Philippines, Gil, whose real name has been concealed to protect his identity, had been in Taiwan only a few weeks. What was to have been a life-changing opportunity for his family, dealt a triple blow of natural disaster, sickness and poverty, was quickly turning into a deadly nightmare.

SEEKING A BETTER LIFE

With his father sick and aging and his small family farm destroyed by Typhoon Yolanda, Gil sought employment abroad. After taking out a loan to pay a placement fee of around US$2,000 to a manpower agency in the Philippines, a hefty percentage of which then went to a brokerage firm in Taiwan, he was placed as a crewman aboard a fishing vessel operating off the coast of the main island of Penghu County.

Starting work at sunrise each day, Gil and his three crew mates were only allowed one small meal when work ended no less than 12 hours later, after their catch had been brought in, taken to port and sold. The captain, Gil recounts, was a tyrant. When he or any of the workers under the captain’s command would request a moment to drink water to stave off dizzy spells or a bit of food, a savage blow to the back of the head was often his only response.

For putting his life in jeopardy, the fisherman’s recompense, after deductions taken out by his broker and manpower agency to repay his loan, was not more than a few thousand New Taiwan dollars per month. It was far less than the already humble sum listed in the contract he was only allowed to see once, and never given a copy of.

After a month of enduring these inhumane conditions, Gil had enough and asked his Taiwanese broker for permission to transfer to another vessel. He received only an angry response. When posed with the same request, his captain not only refused, but threatened to murder Gil. He then stated flatly that he has connections in the Philippines who could, on his orders, dispatch Gil’s entire family.

Fortunately, one of Gil’s crew mates was able to get in touch with Ruby Comida, a member of Migranteng Kababaihan sa Taiwan (MKT, Migrant Women in Taiwan), a non-governmental organization (NGO) which advocates for the rights of migrant laborers, fishermen and caregivers. Comida, also a Philippine native, and a two-time survivor of sexual abuse while working in Taiwan, put Gil in contact with the Serve the People Association (SPA, 桃園縣群眾服務協會), another NGO fighting for the rights of migrant workers. With the help of the SPA, Gil and two of his countrymen were able to safely leave Penghu and arrive at the SPA shelter in Taoyuan. Their Indonesian crew mate, however, perhaps fearing he would fare little better elsewhere, remained behind.

Just one week removed from his ordeal, Gil still has nightmares about his time in Penghu.

“I am afraid because I know that this is his country,” Gil said of his former captain. “He can do anything he wants. Who am I to refuse him, to disobey his orders?”

UNFAIR SYSTEM

The main problem for migrant workers in Taiwan such as Gil is that they are purposely kept in the dark about Taiwan’s labor regulations by those who purport to serve and protect their rights, only learning of them after they have been exploited. Furthermore, already facing grave economic hardship, many workers are ill-equipped, and ill-advised, to fight back.

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