The 15 horror stories in Migrant Workers’ Storybook of Employment Agents are somewhat repetitive — but that’s the point. The abuse and exploitation that migrant workers face in Taiwan at the hands of unscrupulous brokers and inhumane employers are not isolated incidents, and only rarely make the news.
The book’s introduction sums up its purpose: “If these stories have become common memories of migrant workers in Taiwan across generations, then the ‘management of the private broker system’ that the Taiwan government has been ‘developing,’ is not only a thoroughly failed policy, but also a conniving structural design that facilitates the brokers and agencies in their continued exploitation of international migrant workers.”
Although the circumstances of the migrant workers vary and each deals with the problem differently, they go through almost the same issues with no resolution because of the enormous fees they owe and the loved ones they support back home.
Some end up in worse situations than others, and some do meet good people. But as a whole, this is a problem that has subsisted for decades and is undoubtedly a blight on Taiwan’s human rights record and its claim to be among the world’s “friendliest countries.”
Like most people in the book, Wenlong from Vietnam was shocked to see how meager his first paycheck was after all sorts of deductions he wasn’t informed of. Things only got worse when he suffered severe burns in an accident and his broker didn’t bother translating the doctor’s instructions for rehab and treating the wounds.
“I looked at all the different-sized scars and my crooked hand, and I deeply resented the broker … He did not do anything besides take my money,” Wenlong writes.
South Korea has gone without private brokers since 2004, while one migrant worker who spent time in Japan comments: “the environment and working conditions [in Taiwan] were far worse than what I had expected. I can only say, whatever ease I enjoyed while working in Japan, I encountered just as much difficulty while working in Taiwan.”
Another writes that his living quarters were far worse than his countryside village and called the brokers “blood-sucking animals.” It is shameful that Taiwan has left such an impression on so many foreigners who only desire a better life.
According to the introduction, all the narratives in the book are first hand accounts by the migrant workers — many discussing their harrowing experiences for the first time. It makes the accounts much more personal than, for example, reading a news report, as they include the sights, sounds and smells of the conditions they were subjected to as well as the physical descriptions of the brokers and other people they encounter.
The intimate tone gives life to these stories, which makes the book enjoyable despite the similarity of what is depicted. By the end of the 15 testimonials, it’s chilling how these situations are happening in the same safe and progressive society we purportedly live in.
The Migrants Empowerment Network in Taiwan (MENT), a coalition of a dozen related organizations, published the book in December last year. During a protest to abolish the private broker system that month, the network handed the book to government representatives, who have avoided directly addressing the problem by stating that the employers get to decide how they hire in a free market.
There’s been some half-hearted attempt at government-to-government hiring schemes, but they are mostly ineffectual as the broker system is far more convenient for an employer. There’s essentially no other way for these workers, who describe in detail their poverty-stricken homelands as a reason for coming to Taiwan, to work in Taiwan than by knowingly getting ripped off these brokers and the employers that contract out the migrants.
It’s crucial that this book is translated into English, as it is a serious problem that needs more international attention. More importantly, the translations are done extremely well at a near-native speaker level with no spelling errors or grammar mistakes.
The book is also available in Thai, Indonesian, Tagalog and Thai — languages that the vast majority of migrant workers speak— further highlighting the professionalism of the organization.
The cover is also well-designed, with intricate illustrations that resemble scenes from hell and other horror genres. In a few of them, the brokers are depicted as greedy ghosts, sucking the life out of the workers who wear bandanas or hold anti-slavery signs. One minor gripe is that the chapters that divide the stories don’t really correspond to its contents — but “Hooked,” “Duped,” “Dumped” and “Silenced” do represent the general experience of these workers overall.
Given the government’s stance as expressed late last year, it isn’t clear how big of a difference this book will make. But those who care should definitely pick it up as it provides a whole new layer to what you’ve been reading in the news and watching at the protests.
Migrant Workers’ Storybook of Employment Agents
Edited by Migrant Empowerment Network in Taiwan
Migrant Empowerment Network
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