Sun, Dec 24, 2017 - Page 3 News List

PROFILE: A life dedicated to helping migrant workers

By Chien Hui-ju and Jake Chung  /  Staff reporter, with staff writer

Labor rights campaigner Allison Lee, left, talks to a fisherman in Yilan County on Dec. 12.

Photo: Chien Hui-ju, Taipei Times

It was 1999 when Allison Lee (李麗華), then 35 years old and working at the Taipei Department of Labor, first came into contact with migrant workers.

After a brief stint at the department, Lee discovered that bureaucracy was hindering her efforts to help them and decided that working for a civilian organization would be more practical.

Now 53, Lee continues to work to uphold the rights of migrant workers, despite having experienced verbal threats from ship owners and their intermediaries.

“My only hope is that one day migrant workers will no longer be exploited,” she said.

When asked why she dedicated her life to helping migrant workers, Lee said it might have stemmed from her experiences working in a factory in then-Taoyuan County after she graduated from vocational high school.

At 27, she joined the Chingjen Labor Security and Sanitation Service Center of the Congregation of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, a Catholic religious order, and spoke out against the illnesses that miners contract.

Lee eventually made a name for herself in the migrant worker community.

She was once contacted about a migrant worker who lost his arm while working on a boat registered to Nanfangao Fishing Port (南方澳漁港) in Yilan County’s Suao Township (蘇澳). She later discovered, after poring over the Labor Union Act (工會法), that migrant workers were permitted to form unions.

Lee was instrumental in efforts to launch the Yilan Migrant Fishermen Union in 2013.

“At first it was difficult to rally the workers to my cause,” Lee said, adding that despite her reputation, many migrant workers at the docks were initially suspicious of her.

The intermediary agencies that dispatched workers for different jobs openly told the workers that she was lying, Lee said, adding that she was left with only one option: to prove her sincerity with action.

“I was not afraid for myself. I was only concerned that the workers would suffer more,” Lee said.

The agencies often came up with reasons to dock the workers’ pay. The migrants, who were earning between NT$10,000 and NT$20,000 per month, would have difficulty being self-sufficient when their pay was halved or worse, she said.

Lee poured her entire savings into the union and even sold her car.

“One time I wished to attend a rally in Taipei and found myself penniless, but I did not hesitate for even a second to spend the money in my husband’s account,” Lee said, adding that her husband only had NT$5,000 at the time.

Gradually the workers came to believe in the union as more boat owners were punished for assaulting migrant workers or docking their salaries, Lee said.

“I was moved to tears when those workers told me that their hearts and minds would never abandon the union,” she said.

If she did not try to do as much as she could, she would regret it in her old age, she said.

“It has always been my ultimate goal to be out of a job and see migrant workers stand up for themselves,” Lee said.

When the union first started, she had to translate or explain laws to the growing number of members, which reached 300 at its peak, but she is proud to say that she is almost no longer needed.

There was one case she regretted in September 2015, when an Indonesian man in his 40s, known only as Supriyanto, died from abuse by a fishing boat owner.

While visiting Supriyanto’s family in Indonesia, Lee said she was saddened when Supriyanto’s eldest son said he would never become a fisher out of fear he would be beaten to death like his father.

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