What you need to know
The films on migrant workers at the Taipei International Labor Film Festival represent progress. But their unrealized artistic and political potential makes their flaws all the more disappointing.
The Taipei International Labor Film Festival (TILFF) wrapped up on October 15 with minimal fanfare. Thanks to Covid – which saw proceedings switched to an online format – and a rather underwhelming publicity drive, this 15th installment of the two-week event slipped under the radar.
This was a shame and a missed opportunity. For the first time, several films about migrant workers in Taiwan were spotlighted in a section featuring some of last year’s prize winners. With increased public scrutiny of the inequities faced by a mainly Southeast Asian workforce, these are films that need as wide an audience as possible.
Ivy Chiang (江郁華), the programmer for this year’s TILFF admits there is room for improvement, particularly in the English-language promotion of the event. “Only Taiwan media really knows about this event,” says Chiang, who freelances for the Taipei Film and Drama Union, the programming contractor to Taipei City Government for the festival’s past couple of years. “We’re definitely going to suggest that next year is more bilingual, so that more foreigners can know about this festival.”
The festival’s own data suggests it was not just Taiwan’s foreign residents who remained largely oblivious. With each registrant permitted access to three films, only 2,469 individual views were logged, including complimentary tickets.
The contributions focusing on migrant workers varied in quality, with a feature-length documentary by award-winning director Tseng Wen-chen (曾文珍). “The Lucky Woman,” (逃跑的人), which won the award for best picture at the 2020 festival, received a second screening this year.
The film is a moving account of Vietnamese migrant Pham Thao Van (范草雲) and her 11 years as a “runaway worker” – to use the literal translation of the Chinese title. Reflecting on her decision to jump ship when the contract for her first position as a caregiver was not renewed, Pham explains that her earnings over three years barely covered the US$8,000 brokerage fee owed to Vietnamese agents and hospital bills for her sick brother back home.
Distraught at the thought of returning to her family empty handed, Pham becomes one of an estimated 50,000 runaway workers. While their reasons for absconding vary, the desperation born of having to return home empty-handed is a recurring theme.
“The agent takes so much money. Our wages are low – not enough to live,” Pham tells us at one point in the film, while introducing a group of her compatriots who have taken similar gambles. “We need to pay back bank loans. If we don’t earn enough money, we’ll surely run away.”
Elsewhere, maltreatment, wretched working and living conditions, and withholding of wages are motivations to flee. “They don’t see us as people,” says Nguyen Cong Hanh (阮功幸), speaking of the bosses he has encountered. “They treat us like dogs. They bully us. They ask ‘Who are you? Why did you come here?’ Once, I rowed with the boss. I shouted, “We may be foreigners, Vietnamese, but we have thoughts and feelings, too.”
At great personal risk, given her illegal status, Pham became a prominent figure in the Vietnamese migrant worker community, assisting people who had suffered abuses and horrific injuries in the workplace. She raised funds to stage 128 funerals for Vietnamese in Taiwan and brought 30 individual urns of ashes to the airport for repatriation.
Despite the hardships and suffering she has encountered, Pham shows no bitterness and her recollections of the Taiwanese she worked with are invariably fond. Her affection for Hsiu-yun (秀雲), a terminally ill Taiwanese woman for whom she cares, is particularly poignant. Having claimed that she attained residency through marriage to a Taiwanese, Pham finally comes clean about her illegal status just before Hsiu-yun dies. She tearfully expresses hope that her friend could forgive this deceit.
A similarly tender relationship is depicted between Tran Duy Hung (陳維興), another runaway, and his elderly Taiwanese landlord Chen Chung-fu (陳春富). After more than five years of undocumented status, Tran pays an emotional last visit to Chen before turning himself into the police – a necessity for runaway workers wanting to return to their home countries.
Holding an orange that Chen has given him, Tran expresses certainty that it will taste good. “Even if it’s sour, it’ll taste sweet,” says Chen. “It’s good because someone gave it to you.”
One reason why the depictions of these relationships work so well is because Tseng focuses not on the Taiwanese participants but on the basic desire of the migrants for affection, kindness, and dignity. The bonds they form help reassert their worth and place in a society where they are outcasts; the relationships also serve as a reminder of those they have left behind.
“My dad has been ill for a long time,” Pham says while massaging Hsiu-yun’s swollen legs as she lies in a hospital bed. “I cannot look after him.”
While the film largely foregrounds its subjects, the same is not entirely true of “Moored in Port,” a 22-minute offering from student filmmaker Amber Wu (吳冠穎).
The documentary’s poster features the image of a topless man with a tattoo on his arm of a ship’s wheel above an anchor. On one side of him is the film’s Chinese name, which translates roughly as “away from home” (鄉外之地); on the other is the word “Pelabuhan,” which means “port” or “harbor” in both Tagalog and Indonesian.
The presentation is stylish and eye-catching, but it’s quickly apparent that it flatters to deceive. Unfortunately, this is a far-too-superficial look at Taiwan’s fishing industry, which has justifiably garnered a raft of negative press coverage in recent years. Much of the film scratches the skin of a diseased system, seemingly afraid to apply the surgeon’s scalpel for fear of exposing the rotting innards.
Instead, the laudable but limited efforts of the Presbyterian Church in Taiwan Seamen’s and Fisherman’s Service Center (PCTSFSC) in Cianjhen, Kaohsiung are given prominence, with insights into the hardships the fishermen face limited to platitudes about long hours and their occasionally irascible captain.
“The Taiwanese on my ship get angry easily,” says an Indonesian crew member named Yonatan. “They make a big fuss over nothing. It’s baffling,” he adds, before offering an expletive-laden impersonation of the person in question.
This hint, albeit jovial, at something more sinister is pushed no further, and this is the problem. “Human trafficking, violence and abuse are rife” in Taiwan’s huge distant-water fishing fleet, according to research by the UK-based Environmental Justice Foundation between 2018 to 2019. Indonesian crew members from almost a quarter of the 62 vessels surveyed reported “violent physical abuse” while on board, with 94% of respondents reporting that they had had wages withheld.
Rather than pursuing this uncomfortable line, Wu diverts the discussion with a bland non sequitur about Yonatan’s feelings at being separated from his family. Almost all the short interviews with the fishermen involve questions aimed at tracing empathetic portraits but elide the crucial facts of their exploitation.
“Actually, the workers usually just said they argued with the captains about getting less salary and not getting their money,” says Wu, adding that there is public misconception surrounding the issue of maltreatment. “Sometimes, it’s not as bad as outsiders portray it,” she says. “The captain needs to treat them very strictly because of ship safety. If you’re not good at your job or joke around, there might be problems. And sometimes the captain might be afraid that the crew will gather around to beat him, so he has to be strict.”
As for what might provoke such mutinous behavior – far from unheard of over the years – Wu cites mental illness and a lack of training. Recounting a trip with PCTSFSC social worker Lin Shih-jhe (林士哲), who features prominently in the film, to visit migrant fishermen who had ended up in prison, Wu says that more efforts must be made “to evaluate whether they are suitable for work on a boat.”
Regarding the focus on family ties and homesickness, Wu stresses that this was in keeping with one of her aims in making the film. “One of the main issues I talk about in the documentary is ‘Where is our hometown?’” Wu says. “When we go to another country for work, study, or to get married, is our hometown the old place where we grew up or the new one where we live now?”
Yet, under current immigration restrictions, few migrant workers will ever be able to make Taiwan their permanent home. Caregivers are limited to a maximum of 14 years in the country and industrial workers, which includes fishermen, to 12. All workers must renew their contracts every three years or transfer to a different job – the latter being prohibitively difficult (hence the tendency to abscond.)
In response, Wu says she is intending to communicate her theme with “Taiwanese people, not migrant workers.” She cites her own relocation from Taichung to Kaohsiung for university as an example. “But migrant workers can help to show this issue,” she adds.
This begs the question. Once again, how can the ambiguity of “home” be evoked by depicting the lives of people for whom the line between here and there is clearly demarcated?
A more fundamental problem with the film is the lack of attention to the systemic inequality that allows abuses to continue unchecked.
“There have been films like this before,” says Allison Lee, cofounder and secretary general of the Yilan Migrant Fishermen Union (YMFU). “They show the social workers talking about their pity and sympathy for the fishermen, but sympathy can’t change their working conditions. This organization can do more to support them – not only give them food and internet.”
Lee points to a segment in Wu’s film where she reveals that Yonatan is returning to Indonesia because Taiwan’s medical fees are too high for him to seek treatment for health issues.
“If they’re working on Taiwanese vessels, under Taiwanese law, why do they have no health insurance card?” she asks.
The reality, says Lee, is that these inequalities are embedded in a system that allows fishing boat operators to take advantage of notoriously lax regulations on the use of Flags of Convenience. By paying to register under flags of other countries, vessel owners can circumvent Taiwan Fisheries Agency (FA) laws that cover Taiwanese crew but essentially leave many of their migrant counterparts unprotected.
Furthermore, there are vested interests standing in the way of change. “Many city councilors are fishing boat owners or officials in fishery associations,” says Lee. “So, they’re all connected.”
Lee has not been deterred by a series of spurious lawsuits designed to silence her and stymy her advocacy for migrant workers. “Because the [YMFU] documents are in Chinese, they say I wrote and signed them and forced the workers to join the union, so it’s illegal.”
Lee also sees a conflict of interest in the PCTSFSC’s work. “This organization used to be part of our alliance but now they are too close to the ship owners,” she says. “They have a big space from the [fisheries] agency and a large budget from the government. That’s why they can’t do anything against them”
Forest Li (李奇儒), a former FA employee, who served as one of the producers on “Moored in Port” accepts that these criticisms are not without merit. “About the PCT [Presbyterian Church in Taiwan] being close to the government – I think that’s true,” he says. “But it’s not totally like Ms. Lee says. They really do things for the fishermen and want to work from the bottom to top, not top to bottom.”
The PCTSFSC approach, says Li, is to address the immediate needs of the fishermen. “Ms. Lee is focused on the law, but we’ll need maybe 10 years to finish the whole legal process,” he says. “But the fishermen just want money to send home to give them a better life quality. One is a long-term goal, the other is something that needs to be fulfilled as soon as possible. The two sides’ focus is different, but neither is wrong.”
For Wu, the PCTSFSC way of doing things is commendable. “They use more time to solve the real problems and don’t just loudly accuse people on the news or social media, pointing at people and asking ’Why didn’t you do so many things?’”
However, she accepts that a combination of strategies might be needed. Acknowledging that her film is an incomplete effort that started as a university project and suffered from a lack of funding, Wu hopes eventually to turn it into a longer, more comprehensive work. She calls the feedback she has received “a great encouragement for young video creators to know that what we are doing is correct and valuable.”
Flaws aside, that such films are being made and screened represents progress of sorts. In her role as programmer, Ivy Chiang emphasizes the push by the organizer, Taipei City’s Department of Labor Affairs, to encourage submissions from younger filmmakers.
For her part, Lee sees some value in films such as “Moored in Port,” though not in the way the filmmaker might have hoped.
“It’s good because in the future, when I go to give speeches on these issues or have dialogue with the government, I can show them this,” says Lee, who is hopeful that a bill preventing FOC abuses will soon be passed. “I’ll point it out as an example of the problems with such films.”
TNL Editor: Bryan Chou, Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)
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