Growing up in a small, homogeneous town near Geelong in the southeastern Australian state of Victoria, the red-headed Reverend Peter O’Neill never thought he would be fighting for the rights of migrant workers in Taiwan four decades later.
Sitting in the small, humble meeting room of the Hsinchu Catholic Diocese Migrants and New Immigrants Service Center, the tall clergyman, better known as Father Peter, dressed in polo shirt and khaki pants, spoke in a soft but passionate voice about the injustice of the labor broker system, a problem that he has tried to address for much of his 17 years in Taiwan.
“The broker system in Taiwan ... well, stinks,” he said. “It is completely unfair how much they are charging the people.”
For example, he said, while the Thai government only requires its workers to pay a NT$48,000 placement fee to brokers, workers are required by Thai brokers themselves to pay anywhere between NT$120,000 and NT$140,000.
Although the Philippine government sets the placement fee at NT$28,000, brokers are charging at least NT$90,000. The Vietnamese government does not have a set placement fee structure, but brokers there are asking for up to US$7,000.
“And that’s just the money to leave their countries. Once the workers get here, they also have to pay a monthly fee of NT$1,500 to the Taiwanese brokers as required by the Taiwanese government. After deducting room and board fees, labor and health insurance and other expenses, the workers are often left with very little money to save up.”
Some workers, before leaving their homelands, are asked to sign a contract stating that if they default on monthly payments or fail to clear debts within an agreed period, labor brokers have the right to take over their families’ houses and land, he said.
Worse still, he said, some workers face a double whammy when the Taiwanese employers coerce them into performing illegal jobs, refuse to pay for overtime or demand that the workers perform jobs in the “3D” category — dirty, dangerous and difficult — that are not part of their contract.
The situation at times escalates into physical, mental and even sexual abuse if workers do not comply with the employers’ demands, he said.
However, O’Neill acknowledged that the situation in Taiwan is not entirely bleak, because there are many good and fair employers who treat their workers in a dignified and humane manner.
“But nine out of 10 people who walk into the center [have] a genuine story of abuse or exploitation,” he said.
“Many people leave here with a broken ‘Taiwan Dream,’” O’Neill said, but pointed out that others capitalize on learning the value of saving and setting practical goals, and thus are able to forge a better life for themselves after returning home.
O’Neill recalled the story of Elsa Villiamore, a former caretaker-turned-entrepreneur and the general manager of a lucrative rice mill in the Philippine town of Matinao, Surigao del Norte Province.
The mill was opened by four Filipino migrant workers, two of whom worked in Taiwan and two in Korea. With the help of O’Neill and his fellow St. Colomban missionaries, the four pooled their assets, a total of 900,000 pesos to purchase the mill.
After 11 years, the mill is now a 5 million peso (US$108,000) enterprise and employs 50 former migrant workers, including 25 who returned from Taiwan. Villiamore is also a regular guest speaker on the international labor NGO circuit, where she inspires others with her rags-to-riches story.
While in Taiwan, Villiamore was one of the participants in the Migrant Savings for Alternative Investment program started by O’Neill and other migrant labor advocates.
“The goal [of the program] is to help the migrant workers to understand the difference between what they want versus what they need and how to use their money wisely. They need to ask themselves questions like: ‘Do I need a new cellphone or do I just want a new cellphone?’” O’Neill said. “We help them to set practical goals, especially help them to see what kind of life they want their families to have after they return to their countries.”
The center’s counselors, who speak Mandarin, Thai, Tagalog, English and Indonesian, help workers learn how to decipher their pay stubs, understand their rights as migrant workers and be savvy with their finances.
“We cannot fight the battle for the migrant workers. They need to know how to stand up for themselves. We are here to empower them with the skills they need,” said O’Neill, pointing at various Legal Aid Foundation and government brochures on the shelves behind him.
In addition to money management know-how, migrant workers are also welcome to visit the center to develop computer literacy in a course taught by a Filipino migrant professional, O’Neill said.
The day after speaking to the Taipei Times, O’Neill was to travel to Taipei to collect 50 computers donated to the center by the Taipei American School.
O’Neill said that because Taiwan is not in the UN, it is not constrained by UN protocols or the regulations of the International Labor Organization. The only international framework that can influence Taiwan, he said, is the US State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons report, to which he contributes each year in collaboration with the American Institute in Taiwan.
“The situation in Taiwan is improving, but it can definitely do better,” he said. “In my prayers at night, I ask God to grant me the patience and the compassion I need [to carry on the work] … and to remember it is not the Taiwanese people [who are at fault], it is just some of the Taiwanese employers that are mistreating the workers.”
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