Reverend Peter Nguyen Van Hung sits in a breezy second-floor office, above a small chapel, on the outskirts of Taoyuan. Since 2004, Hung and the shelter he founded has helped more than 15,000 people, mostly Vietnamese migrant workers and brides, deal with abuse and exploitation in Taiwan.

This week he is looking into two new cases: Vietnamese workers who paid brokers US$7,000 (NT$23,000) and US$6,300 each just to land a job at a Taiwan’s fishery company.

“They do not have enough time to rest, they are overworked, they have been transferred from one place to another, [they have] not had enough food to eat, and now they are here in my shelter,” Hung says. “They came here asking for help.”

Their experience, Hung believes, is yet another sign that migrant workers still face widespread exploitation in Taiwan.

“Looking at the numbers, you can see that the trend is increasing,” he says. “It is not decreasing.”

Seeking justice

According to government statistics, in 2014 Taiwanese law enforcement uncovered 138 cases of human trafficking — 51 involved labor exploitation and 87 sexual exploitation. The total number of cases was down from 166 in 2013, but still more than the 126 cases in 2011. Cases involving sexual exploitation have doubled from 42 in 2009. Authorities have also been ramping up efforts to clamp down on undocumented workers in Taiwan — from 2010 to 2014, more than 60,000 people classified as “undocumented alien workers” have been found within the nation.

Fighting for justice in human trafficking cases remains difficult. Hung says that victims understandably are not often “professional” in gathering evidence of abuse and perpetrators can be “very smart.”

According to a 2016 U.S. State Department report on human rights in Taiwan, NGOs have also said that foreign workers are often unwilling to report employer abuses “for fear the employer would terminate the contract and deport them, leaving them unable to reimburse debt accrued to brokers or others.”

Hung believes fault also lies with a toothless judicial system. Despite the introduction of the 2009 Human Trafficking Prevention and Control Act (HTPCA), prosecutors have a tendency to avoid using existing anti-trafficking laws. He cites a recent case where an employer allegedly physically and sexually abused workers, but authorities used the civil law, not relevant human trafficking laws, to indict the accused.

Hung’s views seem to be in-line with the U.S. State Department. While ranking Taiwan as a “Tier One” country – meaning the government complies with the U.S. Trafficking Victims Protection Act’s (TVPA) minimum standards – a State Department report published last July suggested the Taiwanese judiciary could do more on the issue.

“Prosecutors and judges continued to demonstrate limited understanding of trafficking crimes by not appropriately recognizing or exhibiting limited awareness of trafficking crimes,” the report said. It also noted that from April 1, 2014 to March 31, 2015, “no arrests or convictions for trafficking violations on Taiwan fishing vessels.”

In 2014, a total of 184 individuals were indicted in 102 trafficking cases — the lowest in the past eight years. Comparatively, in 2008, 601 people were indicted in 165 trafficking cases.

Last November, the government penned a 23-page response to the State Department’s criticism, which it said was not “an accurate reflection." Among a range of “concrete measures” it says it has taken, the government pointed to professional training and a “special guidebook” given to judges for handling human trafficking cases. It has also worked to “have judges incorporate public opinion into sentencing and issue appropriate rulings.”

Breaking the brokers

The State Department described Taiwan’s principal human rights problem last year as “labor exploitation of migrant workers by fishing companies, exploitation of domestic workers by brokerage agencies, and official corruption."

While human trafficking in the fishing industry is well known, Hung worries about how nursing institutions in Taiwan are also emerging as a major source of migrant worker exploitation. He says many workers in nursing homes face long working hours with no overtime pay, no freedom of movement outside of work, and “excessive psychological pressure” due to poor working conditions, low pay and the burden of overhanging debt.

Stamping out crooked brokers in both source and destination countries has long been held as key to winning the war against trafficking.

Based on his conversations with brokers, Hung believes two-thirds of the money paid to brokers in Vietnam ends up with companies in Taiwan.

“The broker in Vietnam told me that because of the demand of the broker [in Taiwan], they have to ask for higher broker fees from the workers in Vietnam,” he says. Some brokers continue to make illegal automatic deductions from workers’ salary long after their services have stopped.

Terminating the broker system is central to the advocacy work at Hung’s Vietnamese Migrant Workers & Brides Office.

In its response to the State Department, the Taiwanese government noted that it had set up a direct hiring service center at the end of 2007 “to provide employers with a wider variety of channels to hire foreign workers and to reduce the financial burden placed on foreign workers.” More recently it has created an online system and a mobile app, and holds meetings with employers to boost direct hiring.

The government says that because the brokerage fees paid by workers before they come to Taiwan differ by country, it has advised source countries “these fees should be no more than the equivalent of one month’s minimum wage in Taiwan.”

However, Hung wants to see Taiwan create a direct “government-to-government” channel for processing migrant workers.

“If they open that channel, the broker system would lose its power,” he says.

He is hopeful the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which now governs Taiwan with a significant majority, will “do something” about the brokerage issue. However, given the DPP’s “really bad” track record on migrant worker rights last time it was in power, he doesn’t have high expectations.