Fri, Jan 14, 2005 - Page 4 News List

`Runaway' workers needing protection

CAUGHT IN A NET Isolated, under pressure to pay exorbitant broker fees and faced with harrassment, it is no surprise that some foreign workers want to quit

By Cody Yiu  /  STAFF REPORTER

The Council of Labor Affairs (CLA) has been considering a sanction on Vietnamese migrant workers if the high runaway rate is not reduced.

Instead of looking at these escalating figures and shaking one's head, there is a need to look at the reasons why these Vietnamese workers are running away from their jobs and to solve the problem at its source.

During his visit to Taiwan last month, Nguyen Luong Trao, the deputy chief of the Vietnamese labor department, said with confidence that by the end of the month the government would locate 2,000 Vietnamese runaway workers as a gesture of good faith -- ?to crack down on runaways.

"By the end of December, only approximately 800 runaways have been reported, a figure that falls far below expectations. However, the CLA believes in the sincere efforts the Vietnamese government has made so far to solve the issue," said Liao Wei-jen (廖為仁), a section chief in charge of foreign labor affairs at the CLA.

At present the CLA has yet to make a definitive decision on whether to ban the importation of Vietnamese migrant workers.

At the end of last year, some 8,000 Vietnamese runaway workers, most of whom were domestic caregivers, were recorded. There are a total of over 80,000 Vietnamese workers in Taiwan.

Once in Taiwan, a new Vietnamese migrant worker is picked up by a manpower broker at the airport and taken directly to the house or factory of employment.

"The house is like a castle to a foreign migrant worker. Running away is difficult as most workers are not aware of helpful resources available to them," said Jimmy Chao (趙俊明), a labor relations specialist at the Rerum Novarum Center.

For domestic workers, their workplace and living quarters are the same, so good labor relations make happy workers and vice versa.

Unfortunately, foreign workers who work in homes are not protected by the Employment Standards Act (勞動基準法). Many workers are confined to the home by their employers. Many manpower brokers teach employers how to manage their foreign workers.

The instructions impose restrictions upon workers: Many are on standby for domestic services around the clock; some are forced to sign agreements never to purchase a mobile phone or make friends with their fellow citizens.

"The bottom line is to cut off all contact with the outside world as employers believe that outside influences will lead their workers astray," Chao said.

The inability to switch employers, said Wu Jing-ru (吳靜如), the chairperson of Taiwan International Workers' Association, also contributes to the high runaway rate.

"In cases of sexual assault, which are rather common among foreign workers, sometimes a worker is not even sure of the name of the person who committed the offense," Wu said.

Although incredible, some domestic workers are not sure who their legal employers or care receivers are until an incident takes place. According to Wu, not all foreign workers have access to their employment contracts. It is common practice that a domestic worker works in different households and perform tasks that are not within their job descriptions.

When facing unpleasant encounters such as sexual harassment, a worker is not usually able to correctly pinpoint the name of the offender.

The high demand for domestic helpers and the exorbitant under-the-table brokerage fees charged to Vietnamese workers also serve as chief reasons for the high escape rate. Manpower agencies in Taiwan and Vietnam, many of whom may seem unrelated on the surface, form strategic partnerships to exploit Vietnamese workers financially and split the profits.

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