Labor rights activists yesterday urged the government to crack down on employment agencies that illegally force foreign workers to borrow large sums of money before coming to Taiwan.
“When I was still in the Philippines, the employment agency told me that I need to sign promissory notes to come to Taiwan to work, and, though the agency promised me that they would not deduct any money from my first month’s salary in Taiwan, I only got NT$2,000,” a Philippine worker who wished to be known as Alan, told a news conference at the Legislative Yuan in Taipei through an interpreter.
“I had no money to wire back to my family in the Philippines, so I had to borrow NT$10,000 from the employment agency. I’m now in a vicious circle and my debts are accumulating,” he said.
Alan’s story is not an isolated case, Taiwan International Workers’ Association president Wu Ching-ju (吳靜如) said, adding that foreign workers coming to Taiwan are required by employment agencies to borrow money to give to the agencies, and then repay the loans from their salaries.
“Before, foreign workers had to pay a large placement fee to employment agencies, but as the Philippine government has banned placement fees in certain industries and Taiwan has put a cap of NT$1,000 per month on placement fees, employment agencies have found loopholes to extract money from workers,” Wu said.
Taking the example of Alan, Wu said that, before coming to Taiwan, the employment agency asked him to borrow 80,000 Philippine pesos (US$1,830) from loan firm Cash for U and to sign two promissory notes.
“The workers did not get a chance to put the money in their pockets, instead, they had to give the money to the employment agency,” Wu said. “Once they are in Taiwan, money would be deducted from their salaries to repay the loan to a debt collection firm called Afavor in Taiwan — and if they are unable to pay, Afavor could apply to the court for a repayment order with the promissory notes they signed.”
Although the de facto placement fee is illegal, and could be considered as tantamount to human trafficking under Taiwan’s laws, a Council of Labor Affairs official in charge of foreign worker affairs, Anliko Jaw (趙文徽), who also attended the press conference, said that it is not easy to stop since it was done under the disguise of loans, and the foreign workers sign legally binding promissory notes.
“Of course it’s our job to protect workers’ rights, whether they are domestic or foreign workers, but it is really difficult for us to intervene since the debtors possess promissory notes signed by these foreign workers,” Jaw said. “When these problems are referred to the judiciary, it’s not possible for us to intervene.”
However, as Wu and Democratic Progressive Party Legislator Lin Shu-fen (林淑芬) repeated a demand that the council act, Jaw finally agreed to notify the court of the situation within 10 days.
“What we can do now is notify the courts within 10 days, asking them that, if they encounter cases in which debtors with promissory notes are asking the court to issue repayment orders to foreign workers, they should be very careful, and should conduct a full investigation before issuing repayment orders, as such cases may involve cross-national human trafficking,” Jaw told the news conference.
Lin and Wu asked the council to conduct a survey of all foreign workers in the country to see if they face similar problems.
“If these were just isolated cases, it would probably not be a big problem, but if 90 percent of foreign workers in the country are in this situation, then the council needs to do something about it,” Wu said.