Plush toys, two of which resemble puppies, hang above the bed where she lays her head at night. 

It is the lower bunk of one of six bunk beds in the room, along with a couple of children’s cribs. Every bunk’s occupant has put quite a bit of thought into making the space her own. Abundant draperies provide each with a measure of privacy. Together, the roommates maintain the cleanliness of their shared space.

A migrant worker in a shelter in Taiwan. Photo: Jimmy Beunardeau / Hans Lucas/HKFP.

Maria,* 51, is slight, bespectacled, and soft-spoken. From Nueva Ecija, a province famous for its rice fields stretching as far as the eye can see in central Luzon, the largest island in the Philippines, she came to Taiwan in search of employment opportunities in 2016.

Taiwanese salaries are simply that much higher than those she could earn back home. 

In the three decades since Taiwan began importing labour from poorer parts of Asia, migrant workers have become such essential cogs in the machinery of this society that it would grind to a screeching halt without them. 

Migrant workers man Taiwan’s fishing boats. Its factories employ hundreds of thousands of them. And, on a rapidly ageing island, domestic workers from Southeast Asia are depended on to care for grandpas and grandmas, the agong and ama.

There are almost 700,000 documented blue-collar migrant workers in Taiwan. Photo: Jimmy Beunardeau / Hans Lucas/HKFP.

Almost 700,000 blue-collar foreign workers are documented to reside in Taiwan. More than half of them are factory workers, who earn an average monthly wage of NT$30,541 (HK$8,404), while about 240,000 – almost exclusively women – work inside Taiwanese homes for NT$20,209 (HK$5,560) a month on average.

Disputes with employers

Maria came to Taiwan as one of the legions of domestic workers living with Taiwanese families and caring for their elderly.

Never did she expect to end up staying at a shelter for migrant workers a short distance outside Taipei, sharing a room with several other women and some of their children. At present, nearly 30 Filipino workers are living in this building, spread across several bedrooms filled with bunk beds like Maria’s.

“We take in migrant workers who have had some kind of dispute with their employers or brokers,” says Lennon Wong, a director at the NGO Serve the People Association, which runs the shelter. “We try not to advertise the exact location of this place,” he adds, “because if certain employers know where these workers are, there may be safety concerns.” 

A blue-collar migrant worker at a shelter. Photo: Jimmy Beunardeau / Hans Lucas/HKFP. Photographie de Jimmy Beunardeau / Hans Lucas.

Maria knows all about disputes with employers. And, although hardly luxurious, her bunk bed in this shelter may well be an improvement over her previous situations.

“I worked from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day,” she says, recalling the situation with the first family she worked for upon arriving in Taiwan. “Even during the night they expected me to wake up every hour to check on the grandma.” 

The family also confiscated her mobile phone until 11 p.m., when it was already too late for her to call her family back in the Philippines. She quit after a month.

As Taiwanese families rely on migrant domestic workers to care for their elderly and infirm, many of whom require assistance for even the most basic functions, the nature of the work can put caregivers like Maria in constant and close proximity with those they care for. 

“Many of them sleep in the same rooms,” explained Chunhuai Hsu, a spokesperson from the Taiwan International Workers’ Association (TIWA).

That was the case with Maria. With one family, she slept in a bed set up in the matriarch’s bedroom. Another family who employed her didn’t go to the trouble of providing her with a bed. Instead they simply placed a mattress on the floor next to the ama’s bed and required Maria to make do with that. 

Such working conditions can take a toll on workers’ mental health and lead to tragic consequences. As an example, Hsu recalls the case of the famed Taiwanese author Liu Hsia. 

Disabled since childhood, Liu depended on her Indonesian caregiver to get through each day. In 2003, when overwork led to hallucinations, the caregiver accidentally injured Liu, resulting in her death.

Discriminatory policies

Twice Maria managed to quit her job when the situation became unbearable. But she stayed with one family for four years. As is the case with most domestic workers, she left the position only when the person she cared for died. 

In cases of abuse, domestic workers often have to rely on their broker – agencies in both Taiwan and the workers’ home countries that facilitate their move – and the employers’ goodwill if they wish to leave. Limited knowledge of Mandarin and the law makes them particularly vulnerable to exploitation.

Protesters in Taipei march against Taiwan’s strict employment rules for #migrant workers on January 16, 2022. Photo: Jimmy Beunardeau / Hans Lucas/HKFP.

The 1955, a toll-free hotline operated by the Taiwanese government, is meant to help migrant workers in the face of difficulties. The hotline’s staff speak different Southeast Asian languages, but not all of them offer the best advice. They have been known to discourage migrant workers from filing complaints against abuse.

“The people working at the hotline are sometimes even sympathetic to the brokers,” says Wong, visibly troubled. Thus, it is mostly NGOs like his that provide concrete assistance.

One change that could greatly reduce the risk of exploitation, many migrant workers and advocates believe, would be giving them the freedom to switch jobs.

On January 16, about 400 migrant workers and volunteers from advocacy groups gathered before Taipei’s main train station. Waving banners, raising placards, and chanting slogans, they came to protest the provision in Taiwanese law that currently forbids migrant workers from doing exactly that.

“There is generally no way to change jobs because they have to pay a big sum to the brokers to break the contract,” Zihan Xu, a 21 years-old Taiwanese intern at TIWA who joined the protest, says. “It’s a big burden for them.” 

They key demand of protesters at the January march was the right for migrant workers to change jobs. Photo: Jimmy Beunardeau / Hans Lucas/HKFP.

Many would like to get rid of employment brokers altogether. Notably, white-collar foreign workers – such as the contingent of English language teachers from Western nations – do not have to go through them.

“We protest against this,” says Hsu from TIWA, which helped organise the demonstration. “Why is it that blue-collar foreign workers cannot freely change jobs? This is a discriminatory policy and we want to change it.” 

Back in the shelter, Gabriel, 31, sits down next to Maria. He previously worked in a factory making agricultural machinery. Seeking another job, he went to an interview. When his employer found out, he fired him. 

Gabriel now has to wait until the end of his contract to be able to work again, during which time he will stay at the shelter. For him, it will be a few months, but for some, it can be much longer. 

A corrupt fishing industry

Jose has been at the shelter for almost two years. A quiet man with a cross around his neck to testify to his faith, he shyly shares his harrowing experience working in the fishing industry.

He remembers when the captain of his boat locked him in a room in Kaohsiung. It was the beginning of the pandemic and he had a fever. “I begged them to let me go, to see a doctor,” he recalls.

He worked on the Da Wang, a vessel which became notorious for a human trafficking scandal. According to Greenpeace, an Indonesian worker and victim of forced labour died on the ship in 2020. 

Though Taiwanese, the Da Wang flies the flag of Vanuatu – a “flag of convenience.” Flags of convenience are common practice among Taiwanese fishing boats, allowing them to bypass local legal requirements. 

 “We think the regulation is too loose, but they think it’s too strict,” explains Wong. 

Whereas coastal fishing boats must comply with Taiwanese labour law, ocean-going long-distance vessels do not have to. Minimum wage for a migrant worker on a distant water fishing vessel is US$450 a month (HK$3,500), less than half the legal minimum wage in Taiwan. 

Many migrant workers are employed by Taiwan’s fishing vessels. Photo: Jimmy Beunardeau / Hans Lucas/HKFP.

And, after months at sea, migrant sailors sometimes reach the land only to find that their brokers have deducted or withheld their meagre earnings. 

“They will keep a part as the ‘guarantee money,’” Wong says. “If the person wants to go home before the end of the contract, they would use that money to buy their ticket. Even if according to international standards, the flight should be paid by the employer.”

Lack of migrant labour rights

“To be fair, I won’t say there are no changes at all,” says Wong. 

For example, the law used to require migrant workers to leave the island after each contract, even if they were due to begin a new employment contract with the same employer. It was a law meant to benefit brokers. But years of advocacy by activists like Wong have managed to effect change.

At 47, and after 15 years working in this organisation, Wong persists in his work with passion and seems determined to remain optimistic. He chose his English name, Lennon, as a reference to singer and activist John Lennon. In his idealism, he strives to ensure that all the people, even those far from home, get to live in peace.

The island now faces a shortage of both caregivers and labourers due to a variety of factors, including Covid-19. In response, both families and industry are calling for changes in legislation. 

See also: Caught between politics and the pandemic, a few kilometres from China, Taiwan’s Kinmen island rethinks its economy

But their demands often lead to more restrictions for the workers rather than liberalisation and better protections for their rights. 

“Every time we advocate for domestic workers, the families who employ them push out grandmas and grandpas on wheelchairs,” Hsu says. Their argument is that greater protection for the workers would mean worse care for the elderly and infirm. 

Although Hsu believes better conditions for workers will also benefit these families, he has had a hard time convincing them and winning over public opinion.

At the same time, even as migrant workers agitate for greater freedom to seek alternative employment, a recent rule promulgated by the Ministry of Labor forbids them from working in a different sector than the one for which they obtained their visa. 

On the other hand, the ministry is also planning to ease some immigration rules. For now, migrant workers are banned from seeking permanent residency. A new regulation, approved in February and coming into effect in April of this year, would let some migrant workers apply for residency after six years of working in Taiwan. But to be eligible to apply a worker must earn a certain level of income, a level far above that which the average migrant worker makes.

“Migrant workers don’t vote,” says Hsu with a sigh. Taiwanese politicians naturally lack motivation to legislate for their benefit. “No matter who’s in power, the two [main] parties follow a capitalistic logic and don’t really bother about labour rights.”

* All names of migrant workers have been changed to protect their safety.

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