Promise of riches often amounts to hardship for Taiwan's foreign labor

By Ching-Ching NI, Los Angeles Times, Saturday 1 July 2000

CHUNGLI, Taiwan—They toil in Taiwan's dirtiest and most difficult and dangerous jobs. Unlike migrants in many other parts of the world, foreign workers here are legal. But language barriers and the low social status imposed by their short-term contracts leave them vulnerable to job brokers and employers in a system that labor advocates say is rife with abuse.

Openly regarded as a source of cheap labor that provides a powerful incentive for local businesses to stay home rather than stray overseas, the foreign migrant work force grew out of Taiwan's boom years in the 1980s.

As the island transformed itself into one of the world's most dynamic export-oriented economies, local industries found it increasingly difficult to fill low-paying jobs. That triggered a wave of production shifts to Southeast Asia and mainland China. To reverse this trend, the Taiwanese government in 1992 began granting labor contracts good for a maximum of three years.

Foreign workers poured onto the island's construction sites and factory floors. More recently, they have begun taking up the least desirable slots in the island's growing technology sector. But their dreams of getting rich often are mostly just that—dreams.

Although large in number, foreign workers remain largely invisible to the general public because they work long hours and are confined to factory dormitories by strict curfews. The fees they pay to job brokers make it hard for them to come out ahead.

Before I came here, Taiwan was a place full of promises, but the promises are not true, said Jose Orpiano, 27, one of the island's nearly 300,000 foreign contract laborers, who come mostly from Thailand and the Philippines. The electrical engineering graduate from a Philippine university has been working a year and a half at a textile factory making rugs and material that goes into stuffed animals. My family paid [$4,500] to get me this job. But I still have no money to send home.

A booming industry of employment agencies helps feed the illusion among would-be contract workers that they will strike it rich in Taiwan.

The only difference between the snakeheads and employment agencies is one is illegal and one is not, said Santos Lin, a social worker at Hope Workers' Center, a church-based organization in Chungli that helps thousands of migrants. Snakeheads is the term for the gangs that smuggle immigrants from China, who are forced to work as indentured servants to repay their debts.

As Much as a Year's Pay to Land a Job

Licensed job brokers in Taiwan are known to charge each worker as much as $6,000—which also is the approximate minimum wage for a year's work. It typically takes 18 months to two years to clear the debt through regular salary deductions, leaving the worker only a year to make a profit.

Many Thai workers use high-interest loans to pay the entire fee upfront in their home countries. Some are forced to put up homes and land as collateral.

This amounts to debt bondage, and it's legal, said Lary Brown, a researcher at Verite, a Massachusetts-based nonprofit agency that monitors fair labor practices. U.S. companies purchasing goods from Taiwanese factories probably are not aware of this system, Brown said, which could only get worse if Taiwan joins the World Trade Organization and demand for its exports increase.

The benefit to Taiwan of using foreign labor is clear. Job brokers say the workers also benefit.

High-tech companies need people to work three shifts a day, but local employees don't want to work the late-night shift, said Cheng Chih-yu, a labor professor at the National Chengchi University in Taipei, the capital. If you don't solve this problem, they might want to move to mainland China or other places. The Taiwan government worries that their departures would negatively impact the Taiwanese economy.

Brokers argue that the services they provide—which include job placement, medical exams, plane tickets home, translation and conflict resolution with employers—justify the fees they charge.

There's mutual interest, said Alice Chuang, a broker in Taipei. We need to make money, and the government does not have the manpower to provide these services.

But workers such as Sum Yot Simatan receive little help from the agencies. He paid his fees directly to brokers in Thailand, who in turn share the profits with their Taiwanese counterparts. He said he doesn't even know who his Taiwanese employment agent is.

Instead of looking to their brokers for help, Sawai Phosai, 22, and Jiraporn Muangsoon, 21, turned to a church group for help. They took jobs at a plant making computer frames but have not been getting the steady work promised. But their boss regularly collects from them about $100 a month, which is supposed to go into a savings account to be returned to them later. This is a common practice designed to prevent workers from running away before their contracts are completed.

I made a mistake—I should have never come here, said Sawai, a former car mechanic who says he was duped into thinking that he could make more money in Taiwan. I've been here a year, and I've never been paid on time. Sometimes they say, ‘Today there's no work, and I will not pay you.’ Sometimes they say, ‘I'll take you to another factory to work.’

Employers Hold All the Cards

Despite their dissatisfaction, Sawai and Jiraporn cannot quit and find new jobs. Although their employers can fire them at will, the law says foreign workers may switch employers only if the employer goes bankrupt, moves to another country, can't make payroll for four consecutive months or commits provable sexual crimes against the workers, said Father Peter O'Neil at the Hope Worker's Center.

Workers also are subject to mandatory biannual physical exams, including pregnancy testing. The penalty for testing positive is instant repatriation.

According to an official at the Taipei Labor Council, a city agency, the medical tests are justified because the employers are paying for an able-bodied employee, not one who is sick or pregnant. Workers shouldn't complain, said the official, who identified himself only by the surname Liao, because most of these conditions are in the contract the workers sign.

Workers counter that employment agencies that recruit in Thai villages and Philippine newspapers often exaggerate the benefits of a job in Taiwan and keep details blurry.

While many Filipino workers are high school or college graduates who speak English, most Thai workers come from peasant backgrounds and don't fully understand the terms of their employment, which also could change by the time they arrive in Taiwan.

Pramuan Lertsiri, 39, is a welder from Thailand. He said that, the first two months on the job, he did not get paid at all and was forced to sleep in the stuffy and shabby basement of a construction site rather than in a dormitory, as he was promised.

The workers are seen as second-class citizens, said Dado Lopega, a social worker at the Migrant Workers Concerns Desk, another church-financed group in Taipei. The workers are always on the losing end. If they complain, they'll be sent back.

But with the help of local labor groups, some do fight back and win.

Maribel Recuenco, 32, is a Filipina who works the night shift on a semiconductor assembly line in Taoyuan. She was fined and confined to her dormitory for one month after she came home half an hour past a midday curfew. That was considered a warning. Company policy states that three-time violators will be repatriated.

We are treated like slaves and criminals here, said Recuenco, who took her employer to court and had the punitive policy changed. But a nightly curfew remains. It's not fair that we have to pay a lot of money just to come here and suffer a lot of hardship.

The Filipino workers' willingness to fight their employers have earned them a reputation of being difficult to manage. The Taiwanese government last month placed a three-month ban on them and are considering a permanent freeze on migrants from the Philippines. A growing number of companies now prefer instead to hire Thais and Vietnamese. They are considered more compliant because of their inability to speak English or Chinese and their limited access to church-based labor organizations.

Despite unfavorable attitudes and uncertain conditions, workers admit, Taiwan remains one of the few places in the world that offers low-skilled migrants a wide range of legal opportunities to earn a living.

They tell you, if you don't want to be here, you don't have to be here, said Pramuan, the welder. He took 16 months to repay his broker's fee, which he borrowed from his father, who is a farmer. It's not fair, but I feel fine. I got some experience here.