Migrant workers seek fairer deal

Focus, Normal

The National – Tuesday, December 21, 2010

By Cindy Sui
ELMER Labrador works on a Taiwanese coral fishing boat.
Although he makes the minimum salary of New Taiwan $17,280 a month, the Filipino migrant worker’s take-home pay is only about a quarter of that.
“Our broker has so many deductions on our salary … our broker is no good,” Labrador, who has a family to support back home, said.
Taiwan is one of the main destinations for migrant workers, but many lose large chunks of their salary to employment agencies.
They 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.
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.
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 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,” Gina Martirez, who used to work at a hi-tech manufacturing factory, said.
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 coordinator 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,” the bureau of employment’s deputy director-general Liao Wei-ren said.
“We’ve already cut out the fees that should be paid by employers.”
Critics say the fees are excessive.
The key issue is whether Taiwan will truly improve conditions for migrants, which are considered in many cases worse than in other Asian countries. – BBC