Will Taiwan reform its system of labour brokerage to better protect migrant workers?

Will Taiwan reform its system of labour brokerage to better protect migrant workers?

PJ, a Filipino migrant worker who came to Taiwan because he wanted to work abroad, but who has faced exploitation as a factory worker, watches a video on his phone at a shelter for Filipino migrant workers in Yingge District, New Taipei City on 6 February 2020.

(Ying-Yu Alicia Chen)

“Male, Vietnamese!” At the employment centre in Taiwan’s Taoyuan district, a broker shouts her requests for a foreign worker into a room of about 30 people.

Taiwan’s 710,000-odd migrant workforce is recruited through a maze of agencies in their home countries – places like Indonesia, Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam – and they have little choice over the industry or employer they’re placed with, although most vacancies are either in the care economy or industrial jobs like factory work and construction work.

Once in Taiwan, only in exceptional cases are migrant workers allowed to change jobs, but before they can, they have to wait to meet a broker who is looking for a worker with their specific set of skills and characteristics.

Junengsih, a 30-year-old from Indonesia, spoke to Equal Times while waiting at an employment centre prior to a scheduled mediation meeting with her former employer. She was given permission to change jobs after her boss of a circuit board factory forced her to work at her home in addition to a full shift on the factory floor.

“I can’t bear it anymore. It’s too tiring. She [the employer] sometimes scolds me. I feel nervous all the time while working,” says Junengsih. Even if she can successfully find another job, she is concerned that she might have to pay a broker tens of thousands of Taiwanese dollars to secure it.

Taiwan’s president Tsai Ing-wen was re-elected to power following elections in January with promises to improve conditions for Taiwan’s migrant workforce. Advocates say that migrant workers were shafted in the president’s first term by reforms of the Labor Standards Act which prioritised the needs of business at the expense of the rights of workers.

Even though the Tsai administration made substantial changes to the work week and simplified the process for signing new contracts, many migrant workers are still forced to work long hours and pay high fees as industries try to cut costs.

Taiwan first opened itself to foreign workers in the 1990s. As birth rates and wage levels declined, migrant workers began to fill jobs in factories, private homes and nursing homes, and fishing boats, which pay lower wages compared to the service sector yet pay better wages than migrants receive in their home countries. The numbers of migrant workers have doubled in the last decade and the government is likely to try to recruit even more workers through its regional economic plan, the New Southbound Policy, which sets to increase the nation’s economic and diplomatic relations with south-east Asia, south Asia, Australia and New Zealand.

Some improvements were made to the condition of migrant workers in 2016, with the removal of the requirement for migrant workers to leave Taiwan for at least one day after a three-year contract and the introduction of punishment for brokers who retain workers’ identification or charge exorbitant fees.

But the enforcement of these laws remains a challenge in a complicated, transboundary recruitment and placement system. The 2018 US Country Report on Human Rights Practices for Taiwan said foreign workers remain vulnerable to “exploitation” and “significant debt burdens”.

Traps awaiting migrant workers

After the law was amended to allow workers to stay in Taiwan while they look for new employment, brokers started charging migrant workers who were already in Taiwan but wanted to extend their contract or change employers anywhere between 20,000 New Taiwanese dollars and NT$80,000 (U$665 to US$2660) to do so without going through recruitment agencies in their home countries, according to a report from Taiwan’s legislature.

“These fees are illegal, but workers can barely complain as they would be deported within 60 days if they don’t find a new job,” says Roger Hsu, general manager of the employment agency May-God Human, which has recruited over 5,000 workers into factories and caregiving jobs in the past eight years, noting that he tries to follow the regulations.

The brokers get away with charging high placement, housing and meal fees partially because of the cross-border nature of migrant recruitment. Migrants Empowerment Network in Taiwan ran a campaign last year to highlight the complex, unstandardised private broker system that exists across multiple countries.

It is true that brokers bear much of the responsibility and upfront costs for bringing workers into Taiwan, however they frequently manipulate the fees they charge in order to make a profit, explains Lennon Wong, director of the Serve the People Association, which shelters migrant workers who are in dispute with employers or need emergency support in Taiwan. For instance, when the Philippines’ Overseas Worker Welfare Administration cracked down on high broker fees for housing and supplies about five years ago, many brokers reduced their housing fees but increased fees for training workers, without adding additional education programmes, Wong explains.

“Sometimes it’s a little bit ambiguous to argue whether [brokers provide] a service or not, because maybe the brokers will say ‘I called you or visited your employer at that time,’ but many of the workers don’t really feel there are enough services from the brokers, especially when they really need it,” Wong says.

Maria, a 40-year-old carer, says she was paying NT$1,700 (US$56.50) a month to a broker that she had never even met. He ignored her complaints about her employer, who was not providing food, until she went to his office to confront him, and he released her from their contract. After accepting her request to transfer to a new broker, he marked her as a ‘runaway migrant’, which she didn’t realise until she was rejected by three potential brokers and detained at the Immigration Office.
“I kept crying as I didn’t know what I did,” she says. “I was so traumatised.”

Apart from caring for two children in the Philippines, Maria still has two loans to pay off, NT$54,000 (US$1795.50) in total, but she is too afraid of breaking the conditions of her visa to take on any part-time work. Wong says that many migrant workers, like Maria, already have two or three loans in their home country and take out more to cover the costs of working abroad. Workers have also reported being compelled to take out loans from the bank that appear to be paid, in part or in full, to brokers.

According to Wong, the workers who come to the shelter often find themselves deceived by Taiwan’s complex working hours system, which allows shifts to be calculated on many schedules in order to accommodate the hours of operation in different industries.

Reforms to the Labor Standards Act in 2017 swapped the standard Sunday off for a flexible day off, and changed the way employers count working hours, allowing unscrupulous employers to divide a long stretch of working hours over a long period to evade overtime pay. Foreign domestic workers are currently not included in the Labor Act because employers often require more working time than the law currently allows.

“They [the government] made it intentionally complex so that no one can understand it. That way [employers] can just pay whatever they want,” Wong explains.

The recent global outbreak of the Coronavirus has raised new issues surrounding migrant workers’ access to healthcare.

The government tried to provide disease prevention resources in south-east Asian languages and has asked employers to provide medical masks to foreign caregivers, but worker advocates say that an estimated 50,000 undocumented migrant workers are likely to be excluded from access to medical check-ups and masks because they lack a health insurance card and fear deportation if they report to a health centre.

After an undocumented worker tested positive for the virus last month, the government initially tried to enforce the inspection of all migrant worker documentation, using the virus as an excuse to crack down upon workers outside of legal contracts, but it later retracted this initiative in order to encourage workers to get check-ups without fear of punishment.

Reforming labour standards

Kuo-Liang Chuang, senior executive officer of the Labor Ministry’s Cross-Border Workforce Management Division, admitted that some brokers do charge illegal fees. He says the government is trying to strengthen its current inspection system, but that they also expect workers to report the problems they’re experiencing.

From her view as a Taiwan-based worker and advocate with Migrante Internacional, an organisation that assists overseas Filipino workers, Gilda Banugan says the government could do more to reach migrant workers directly. In addition to having few translators in labour offices, she says that Taiwan’s labour inspectors regularly inform brokers and employers before they visit, which allows employers to make working conditions appear better than they generally are.

Some migrant worker advocates, including the Taiwan International Workers’ Association (TIWA), have been calling for the abolition of the broker system for decades, in order to make the system more transparent and free workers from having to pay extortionate fees.

However, Chuang says it would be difficult for the Labour Ministry to dismantle the broker system because the labour market is so reliant on the expertise of employment agents who understand the needs of the market and are also able to handle language barriers. He also says that the public sector would have to invest a lot of state money to replace brokers’ services, though advocates dismiss this as a common excuse for inaction.

Taiwan’s Labour Office has provided a direct employment system since 2007 where employers seeking factory workers or caregivers can recruit migrant workers without using brokers, though Chuang says it is mostly used to hire domestic and nursing help.

Worker organisations like the Taipei-based One-Forty Foundation also step in to offer Chinese lessons and other educational tools to equip workers with rights and skills. However, co-founder Kevin Chen notes that worker assistance programmes like One-Forty cannot fix the fundamental issues in Taiwan’s employment system without action from the government.

“We should not demonise brokers and employers, but [the government] needs to improve the current examination mechanism and let good actors grow,” Chen tells Equal Times. “Some of the top-rated brokers on the Labour Office’s website still have problems.”

For now, workers that are in the midst of disputes with their bosses or brokers say they have to stand up for themselves.

PJ, a 24-year-old from the Philippines, says he left his hometown in General Santos City to work in Taiwan because he wanted to see more of the world. After a year-and-a-half at a factory making wood-plastic composite, he realised that he was paying for housing, even though he was told it would be free, plus he was not being compensated for as much as five hours of overtime per day. It was not the lesson he expected to learn from Taiwan, he says.

“It’s like a gamble here. I thought it would be fair…but everything is a mess.”