Taiwan seeks fairer deal for migrant workers

By Cindy Sui
BBC News, Taipei

Image caption, Many migrant workers have to pay charges to brokers and employers

Elmer Labrador works on a Taiwanese coral fishing boat.

Although he makes the minimum salary of New Taiwan $17,280 (US$576, £363) per month, the Filipino migrant worker's take-home pay is only about a quarter of that.

"Our broker has so many deductions to our salary... Our broker is no good," said Mr Labrador, who has a family to support back home.

Taiwan is one of the main destinations for migrant workers, but many lose large chunks of their salary to employment agencies.

These charge about US$3,000 for each employment contract, so many migrants spend their first half year or year just paying the fees.

About 33,000 migrants have fled their first jobs and are working illegally to avoid paying, the government recently revealed. Six such migrants died in a construction accident in September.

This has spurred Taiwan's Council of Labour Affairs to announce recently that it will speed up plans to set up a system that would allow migrants to be directly hired by employers.

Once the system is set up next year, Taiwan will become one of the few countries to make using middlemen optional. Employers will be able to look in a database with the names and work experience of migrants.

But the problem may not be fixed so easily. Workers' advocates say the situation in Taiwan heavily favours employers over migrants, reflecting a global trend.

Fees and charges

In Taiwan, many migrants pay "service fees" to their Taiwanese broker or employer, as well as their own broker.

These range from US$50-60 a month - or up to 10% of their salary. That is on top of 6% taxes.

Image caption, Migrant workers are campaigning for a fair deal in Taiwan - which needs more workers

They also must pay a host of miscellaneous costs, including health examinations before arrival and every year thereafter. Many are also subjected to illegal deductions.

"Each month our highest salary is NT$9,000 (US$300, £189) because we have been deducted for our food and lodging, our broker fee, our forced savings. And the lowest is NT$2,000 if everything is deducted, for example our medical fee," said Gina Martirez, who used to work at a hi-tech manufacturing factory.

Taiwan's labour council argues the fees are reasonable because the migrants require a lot of help, unlike white collar workers.

They pay for translators to take them to the hospital when they are ill or to renew their residency permits. They also pay for a co-ordinator to keep an eye on the dormitories and deal with workers' issues.

"We cannot say just because you might not get sick while you're here, we don't charge this fee. If they get sick, we have to take them to the hospital," said the Bureau of Employment's deputy director general, Liao Wei-ren. "We've already cut out the fees that should be paid by employers."

Critics say the fees are excessive.

"At the moment, all the costs come out of the migrants' pockets. Many employers don't have to pay anything, so there's no incentive for the employers to use the direct hiring system, because the brokers do everything for them and charge the workers for it," said Wu Yong-yi, director of policy research at the Taiwan International Workers' Association.

'Not fair'

The key issue is whether Taiwan will truly improve conditions for migrants, which are considered in many cases worse than in other Asian countries.

Fees paid in Taiwan are considered high, compared to Japan and South Korea. Unlike migrants in Hong Kong, Taiwan's migrants cannot freely transfer jobs, but must get approval from their employer.

And after completing each three-year contract, they must go back home to reapply - meaning more fees. They are also not allowed to stay longer than nine years.

But migrants keep coming nonetheless, due to the higher wages compared to some countries and their need for work. About 372,000 South East Asian workers are in Taiwan, mostly in electronics factories and in homes as caretakers for the elderly or sick.

Mr Liao said policies toward migrants had improved significantly since Taiwan began admitting them in 1992. Fees have also come down.

"In the past, Taiwanese people were very afraid of migrant workers - allowing them to stay for at most two years. They were afraid they would bring diseases, but this has changed," he said. "Later they realised migrants don't commit crimes, kill or commit arson, so we expanded their stay."

He said workers were now informed about their rights and employers urged to treat them fairly. The government punished employers who violated the laws, he said.

Migrants' advocates, however, say the government should do much more.

"Lots of fishermen, they would be hit or locked up on the fishing boats. And verbal abuse is common toward fishermen. With domestic helpers, they face sexual harassment and even rape," Mr Wu said.

"The system is not fair to them - most of the time they cannot get enough evidence, so they're just sent back home and can't get their wages."

Shifting power

While the government has adopted some measures, such as setting up a complaints hotline, it has not touched the basic structure of the system, said Mr Wu.

"Employers have more political power - they can vote," he said. "None of the migrants can vote. The government is afraid of employers, lawmakers, but we only have a few NGOs to help the migrants, no political power."

At the heart of the issue is that Taiwan, like many countries, is uncomfortable with allowing migrants to stay because it fears changes to society.

Even though Taiwan's society is aging rapidly, Mr Liao said the government hoped to use more local workers instead.

"We don't want to keep relying on migrants," he said. "Some people are afraid. Taiwan's area is small, it can't accommodate so many people."

But unless Taiwan opens its doors to Chinese workers, which is politically unpopular, the need for migrants is expected to grow.

"Taiwan doesn't have a good welfare system. Migrant workers in domestic (jobs) are providing social services in a private way, taking care of elderly people and disabled people. That's a great contribution to us," Mr Wu said.

Reydeluz Conferido, the Philippines' labour affairs director in Taiwan, said as rich countries aged, the balance of power between employer and employee could shift.

"Look at your demographics, there will come a time when you will need migrant workers from other countries," Conferido said.

"So maybe yes, right now the current balance of the market is that the employers have greater leverage at this time, but that may not be forever."

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