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Death, abuse, exploitation: Taiwan’s migrant worker shame

The Fu Tzu Chun set out from Yilan County, Taiwan, late last summer, bound for international waters. Aboard the fishing vessel with the captain and a Taiwanese subordinate were nine Indonesian crew members, only seven of whom would return to port alive.

Despite having lost two crew­men in suspicious circumstances, the ship and its captain are still going to sea and the man­power agency and Taiwanese broker that placed the men on the boat are still recruiting workers from Indonesia. For migrant workers in Taiwan, life is cheap, and can be signed away at the stroke of a pen.

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Like his fellow crew members, Supriyanto – in his mid-40s, the eldest of those aboard the Fu Tzu Chun – had signed a contract with a manpower agency in Indonesia. A translated copy provided to Post Magazine suggests such documents are vaguely worded. It states that a crewman can be fined an unspecified amount or fired for misbehaving or making a mistake – those terms left open to the captain’s interpretation – but one clause stands out; if for any reason the crewman should die at sea, the captain is within his rights to dump the body overboard. Supriyanto’s corpse, bloodied and emaciated, would make it back to Taiwan, but for another crewman, that clause would be used to full effect.

 

Mualip (like Supriyanto and many of his countrymen, he went by just one name) was not yet 30 and his crewman’s licence was due to expire early last November. The circum­stances surrounding his death have never been explained by the captain or crew – with no body to examine, it is very likely they will never be known – and it is not clear whether he died before or after Supriyanto, who, according to his autopsy report, perished at 11.10pm on August 25, 2015.

In a mobile-phone video taken by a crewman aboard the Fu Tzu Chun, a gaunt Supriyanto describes the beatings he has received at the hands of his captain and fellow crew. Cuts on his shaved head and across his body were made with fish hooks, he alleges. The video, says the tormented seaman, should be used as evidence in the event of his death.

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A few months earlier, Supriyanto had appeared the picture of health. All would-be Indonesian migrant workers must submit to a battery of medical tests in their home country and again once they reach Taiwan. Dated March 30, 2015 and signed by an attending physician, Supriyanto’s check-up shows he was in good health and tested negative across the board.

His autopsy would identify the cause of his death as septic shock due to infection but makes no mention of what could have precipitated the infection. A single sheet of paper filed with the Taiwan Pingtung District Court quietly put Supriyanto’s case to rest.

NUMBERING MORE THAN 600,000, migrant factory workers, domestic caregivers and helpers, and fishermen make up a substantial portion of the workforce in Taiwan, which has a population of 23.5 million. Yet these workers from Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand and the Philippines are not afforded the same level of protection under the law as their Taiwanese counterparts.

Migrant workers who are employed on fishing vessels operating in international waters, for example, and the hundreds of thousands of Filipino domestic helpers on the island are not covered by the Labour Standards Act – the laws governing employer and employee rights – and consequently do not benefit from Taiwan’s minimum-wage regulations or stipulations regarding overtime pay and regular days off. They are thus vulnerable to exploitation.

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As an employee of the counselling centre for migrant workers at the Taipei City Department of Labour, Allison Lee Li-hua witnessed their struggles first-hand for years before establishing the Yilan Migrant Fishermen Union. Given that local labour unions are still finding their feet and strikes are rare, getting such an organisation for Taiwanese off the ground would have been difficult enough; this one was for those without citizenship or voting rights.

“Every time they would reject our papers,” says Lee, who spent six months trying to register the union with the Yilan County Government. “The reasons were ridiculous. The ones who handled the case told me they had a lot of pressure from the local people, legislators or lawmakers, county councillors in the local government,” she says, in an interview near Zhongli Station, in Taoyuan, an area to the west of Taipei filled with shops and restaurants catering to migrant workers.

“They had some complaints: ‘Why do you want to allow them to form a union? [Migrant workers] have no rights.’”

Only a handful of lawmakers have voiced support for migrant workers. Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) legis­lator Lin Shu-fen said in a press conference in June that she had received death threats from brokers over her proposed amendments to Taiwan’s labour laws.

Almost every blue-collar migrant worker currently em­ploy­ed in Taiwan has had to pay for the privilege. Placement fees ranging from US$2,000 to more than US$3,000 are commonly paid to agencies in the Philippines, Indonesia and Vietnam. And the gouging does not stop there.

Deductions for room and board and monthly service fees for brokers who may or may not actually provide any services are commonplace, as is the overcharging of workers by as much as 200 per cent for services such as rides to and from the airport, to medical check-ups, and picking up of work documents.

Supriyanto’s take-home pay each month should have been US$350, for example. A copy of his pay sheet shows that after deductions taken by his broker, through whom his salary was paid, he was receiving US$100 to US$250 a month.

In the Philippines, placement fees have recently been declared illegal, and a direct hiring programme, by which employers can circumvent the manpower agencies, has been implemented. Nevertheless, most overseas Filipino workers (OFW) still pay a placement fee, and only a handful of migrant workers have been hired directly by Taiwanese employers. Lennon Wong Ying-dah, director of the Serve the People Association (SPA), a non-profit organisation that seeks to help migrant workers who have been exploited, explains why.

The manpower agencies control the training programmes migrant workers, particularly fishermen, are told (often falsely) they have to complete in their home country in order to secure work in Taiwan, he says. Once they have signed on for a training programme, workers usually have to take out a bank loan to pay for it.

Once the loan has been secured, the worker is essentially trapped within the brokerage system, says Wong. To leave the training programme would be to lose the job before it had even begun. To lose the job would be to default on a loan they would have to pay back regardless of whether they were employed or not.

Further ensnaring the migrant workers is the fact that the agencies that place them in Taiwan and the lending companies that provide them with the funds to pay their way there can be virtually one and the same.

A former employee of one of the largest companies specialising in loans to OFWs alleges that his old company and a Kaohsiung-based agency have the same owner. The ex-employee, who is preparing a legal case and wishes to remain anonymous, says the lending methods of his former employer and companies like it leave already indentured workers drowning in interest demands should they find themselves unable to make their monthly payments. And loan contracts are often presented to OFWs just days before they are due to fly to Taiwan. If they don’t sign, they can’t get on the plane.

“In many cases, if they want to check it carefully, they’re scolded: ‘Just sign! Don’t read it!’” says Wong, during an interview at the SPA’s migrant worker shelter in New Taipei City. “So they are not really sure if they signed something for the loan.”

Wong possesses copies of contracts demanding interest payments that go far beyond Taiwan’s legal limit of 20 per cent per year.

“It’s counted as daily interest,” he says. “So for one year it’s 60-plus per cent, more than three times the legal maximum here.”

The manpower agency, which is supposed to protect and serve OFWs and their employers in Taiwan, thus doubles as a kind of collection agency. This is not illegal in Taiwan because, on paper, the two companies are separate entities.

That does not stop lending companies and brokers using threats of violence as they go about their business. Among migrant worker communities, the names of certain brokers who work with manpower agencies in the Southeast Asian sending nations elicit reactions that range from visible shudders to tales told in hushed tones.

One “always threatens the workers, ‘I will kill you and kill your family’”, should they voice concerns about their treat­ment, says an NGO employee who has testified against the agent and wishes to remain anonymous. Other brokers are allegedly not above sending members of Taiwan’s orga­nised crime syndicates to union offices armed with steel pipes and other weapons in acts of intimidation.

FEMALE HELPERS WORKING in Taiwan’s private homes are particularly vulnerable to exploitation. Like their Hong Kong counterparts, they are legally required to live with their employer and are not supposed to work for anyone else (although many are directed to do so by their employer for no extra income). They are subject to a minimum wage of NT$17,000 (HK$4,200) – less than that for the general population – and, after each three-year contract, must leave Taiwan before beginning a new one.

In speaking to many domestic helpers since 2014, this reporter has encountered several common malpractices, including the holding of passports and Alien Resident Certi­ficates (ARC) by employers and brokers, thus hindering any attempt a client might make to get to safety should their work environment prove unsafe.

According to Taiwanese law, a migrant worker who absconds from their job can be declared a runaway after three days. Once these so-called runaways are caught by the authorities, they are subject to deportation. Their broker may then attempt to invoke penalty clauses in their contracts, illegal under Taiwanese law yet still widely included, based on their failure to complete a three-year term of service.

Brokers have been known to use their knowledge of a worker’s home address in the Philippines to make thinly veiled threats of retaliation against them or their family should the worker balk at paying.

Several caregivers and helpers have also spoken of a lack of privacy within their employer’s home, and the many extra­contractual responsibilities they have had to shoulder.

Of all the stories of hardship, few are more shocking than that of Annie. During her two years and five months working in Taiwan, Annie – 33 years old at the time of her interview in March and hailing from Manila, the helper wishes to be identified by a pseudonym – had five employers. All, she alleges, victimised her sexually.

She was able to transfer from the home of her first ward, who groped her, after he passed away. The son of her second employer crawled into bed with her one night and made unwanted advances, she says. She called the 1955 hotline for foreign workers and her broker was notified, but he left her waiting outside a 7-Eleven overnight and then called her a liar. She changed brokers.

Annie’s third employer, a retired high-ranking soldier, began by touching her private areas, doing so as he asked her to bathe him, despite him being able bodied and capable of washing himself. Later, she alleges, when his Taiwanese-Canadian wife was out of the house, he made a proposition: “For a kiss on the lips, I will give you NT$1,000. If you have sex with me once a month, I will give you NT$5,000. Twice a month, NT$10,000. If [my wife] goes back to Canada, we will live together as boyfriend and girlfriend. Then I will give you money for a house in the Philippines.”

In February 2015, Annie’s new broker arranged for her to leave that house. Deciding against filing criminal charges, she nevertheless received a cash settlement from the man, who, she says, wanted to buy her silence.

Annie’s next employer made a similar proposition – sex for cash. Again she was transferred, but the son of her fifth employer, a man in his early 40s, raped her on no fewer than three occasions, she says, in January and February of 2016.

“I experienced this so many times,” she says, breaking down sobbing. “Even this time I thought it’s still useless to complain. No one will help me.” But the SPA is helping, and a legal case against the alleged rapist is ongoing.

Several of the women staying in shelters that have been set up for migrant workers who have had to flee their jobs – in theory, they can remain in Taiwan while any legal action is pending and their ARC remains valid – say they have been inappropriately touched, propositioned or clandestinely filmed within their rooms or the bathroom, but the true extent of the sexual abuse of domestic helpers is difficult to ascertain.

The fishing industry has its own problems with data. While the number of migrant fishermen on ships operating in international waters (those in domestic waters are subject to different regulations, dictated by a different government body) is officially around 20,000, organisations such as Greenpeace say the number could be as high as 160,000.

“I have submitted 209 cases to [the Fisheries Agency],” says Lee. “They said 150 of them were not registered.”

The agency, says Lee, is concerned only with the hiring quotas given to private fishing companies. Where and how the quotas are filled, she says, are of little concern, and spot checks on ships are rare.

Even those employed legally may find themselves engaged in illegal activities. Renante Catalan, 36 and from the Philippines, sometimes found himself working 24 hours straight and soon learned the true nature of his work: smuggling goods to mainland Chinese vessels.

“The fishing was only a front,” he says, playing a video of him and his crew mates aboard a ship operating out of Magong City. “Our main business was selling diesel.”

BY THE YEAR 2025, according to the Ministry of Interior, Taiwan is expected to be a “super-ageing society” – one in which 20 per cent of the population is aged 65 or above. An ever-shrinking workforce coupled with the reticence of educated young people to take on labour-intensive, dirty or dangerous jobs points to a future in which Taiwan will be ever more reliant on migrant workers in its homes, its factories and on its fishing vessels.

In order to import larger numbers of migrant workers, Taipei may have to ensure fairer and more equitable treat­ment of those who are already employed there. Indonesia, Taiwan’s largest supplier of human capital, has threatened to stop sending workers as soon as 2017 should Taipei fail to raise the minimum wage offered to Indonesians.

There were expressions of hope earlier this year, with the election of DPP candidate Tsai Ing-wen as president, that the federal government would take a more progressive approach to migrant workers’ rights.

The government has recently announced that a law aimed at protecting the migrant crew members of fishing boats, as well as curbing overfishing, will come into effect on January 15. It remains to be seen how effectively the Distant Water Fisheries Act will be enforced, however.

Beyond that, Tsai’s much-heralded “Southern Facing Policy”, the stated goal of which is to reduce Taiwan’s econo­mic reliance on mainland China and shore up ties with Southeast Asian nations, has failed to offer much support to the island’s migrant workers.

“Already we can see the fake progressive face of the DPP,” says Wong. “Not only the president, they have the majority in the congress. They can pass any laws if they really want.

“Actually, what they are thinking about is to do business. Of course, they might say sometimes, ‘We need to introduce more culture from the Southeast Asian countries.’ And some­times they do say, ‘Yes, we need to be more friendly to the workers in Taiwan.’ But that’s only an appendix. Their focus is always money.”

And it’s money – or the lack of it – that reinforces stereo­types that are proving hard to shake.

Elisa Chang Jeng-yi, 23, works with the One-Forty Foundation in Taipei City, a small non-profit organisation that seeks to empower migrant workers and eliminate negative stereotypes.

“In my opinion,” says Chang, of the reasons why such stereotypes exist, “it’s because of the economic status of those countries. They are less wealthy compared to Taiwan. We would never look down on Singaporeans because they’re richer than Taiwanese. So why don’t we look down on Singaporeans but we do look down on Thais or Filipinos or Indonesians?”

For Wong and Lee, the key to better treatment for migrant workers lies in direct-hiring programmes and the gradual phasing out of the current brokerage system.

The unions are still small. The Yilan Migrant Fishermen Union has just 158 members. Lee hopes, though, that the modest monthly dues collected from its members (far less than the service fees they pay to brokers), will allow her organisation to hire permanent staff and perhaps even pay her a modest salary. For the time being, she lives off the generosity of friends.

Jasmin Ruas, a former chairwoman of Migranteng Kababaihan Sa Taiwan (MKT), a rights group run by young Filipino women working in Taiwan and which plans to formerly unionise this year, says education is their greatest weapon.

“[American abolitionist] Harriet Tubman said you can free thousands of slaves if they know that they are a slave, so that’s still the mission of MKT.”

THANKS TO A TIP-OFF from a friend working as a courthouse interpreter, Allison Lee found out about the closing of Supriyanto’s case late last year. She took up the investigation herself, travelling to Indonesia to collect documents and other evidence.

Lee took this evidence to the Control Yuan, the investigatory agency that oversees the other government branches. The Control Yuan in turn brought the evidence to the attention of the Judicial Yuan, which has indicated Supriyanto’s case will be reopened at an as yet unspecified date.