What you need to know
Laws surrounding migrant workers have changed, but there is still much to be done before Taiwan's migrant laborers can live with dignity.
A decade ago, the Rev. Peter Nguyen Van Hung was advocating the rights of Vietnamese women who were brought to Taiwan as brides. In the past decade, though, he has shifted his scope to protecting migrant laborers in Taiwan, both household help and workers on farms and factories.
Hung left Vietnam for Australia and became a Catholic priest before finally settling in Taiwan, where he has been instrumental in setting up organizations to protect migrant workers and raise awareness of their plight. He currently coordinates the Vietnamese Migrant Workers and Brides Office in Taoyuan.
A spry man in his late 50s, unafraid to pause for a full minute to collect his thoughts, Hung has a lot to say about the situation of Vietnamese living in Taiwan and what can be done to lift them out of a cycle of exploitation.
More than a decade ago, he was instrumental in downgrading Taiwan’s status in the U.S. State department’s Trafficking in Person’s Report rankings in 2004, and has been recognized by the U.S. as a hero in combating slavery. He says he still receives threats and harassment for his work, which was a big blow to Taiwan’s image as a regional beacon of human rights. Taiwan was restored to a tier one country in 2010 after the passage of the Human Trafficking Prevention Act. But, says Hung, there is still much to be done to end slavery in Taiwan.
The News Lens: What work have you been involved in the past decade?
Peter Nguyen Van Hung: In my areas of interest, the common issues are justice and peace. I started with homeless people and handicapped children and worked on issues with migrant workers. In 2004, I dealt with a big sexual assault case involving more than 100 Vietnamese women and started an anti-trafficking campaign.
After Taiwan's human trafficking law passed, we used that law to help a lot of people. From then until now, I have been involved in several areas: pollution, judicial translation, mental health and the rights of migrant workers.
TNL: Do you think things have improved for migrant workers in Taiwan?
PNVH: With the Taiwan government, we have to talk about different parts of government that create policies and those which deal with policies that cause injustice.
The government of Taiwan has dealt with the issue of human trafficking by working with NGOs and recently the Legislative Yuan [Taiwan's parliament] passed Article 52 of the Employment Service Act. On the level of the law, things are better.
But on the level of implementation, I haven’t seen any improvement. When talking about human trafficking, there is always a problem of enforcement.
When we use the law to deal with problems, it doesn’t do anything when it comes to labor exploitation. We can see from experience that the problem in Taiwan has to do with the broker system.
According to the UN definition of slavery, labor exploitation is when people are in bondage; when they can’t get out. When they migrate here to work, they have paid lots of money to brokers [to be placed in companies], so when they come here, they have no freedom; they are controlled by brokers and employers.
TNL: How have recent legal changes affected migrant workers?
PNVH: Taiwan is talking about changing its labor laws, but many Vietnamese workers have to pay broker fees, so they work 14, 16 or even 18 hours per day. They call me and ask for my help, and I say, “If you want the help I will help, but if this issue is exposed and the company stops giving you overtime, what will you do?”
Under Article 52 [of the Employment Service Act], they don’t have to leave the country after three years [to renew their contracts], but in reality, very few are able to renew work contracts with their employer. Why? Because brokers collaborate with employers and can force the employees to pay another round of broker fees.
So changing the law is an improvement. NGOs worked very hard for this, we demonstrated and held press conferences, but we say that things change in the sky, but not on the ground.
TNL: What problems do workers face before coming here?
PNVH: In Vietnam, they have to borrow money or deposit their house or land, sometimes they have to borrow relatives' land [likely as collateral] to go overseas.
Most of the people who come to my office asking for help tell me that they were told [in Vietnam] that they will earn three to five hours overtime every day, and it’s a big temptation.
It’s a big decision for them, they have to take many risks to come. But when they come to Taiwan, they say they want to leave because they get no overtime. They don’t really get that much money; people are being lied to [about Taiwan] in their own country.
They don’t really get that much money; people are being lied to [about Taiwan] in their own country.
The worst is that these people are not properly trained. According to government regulations, they have to learn the language, about the law, a little about Taiwan’s culture. But they really just pay money, go home and wait. They come here with no language skills, especially those who work in homes.
TNL: What is your opinion of the migrant workers' referendum? (移工公投, an unofficial referendum held in November 2017 calling for greater rights for migrant workers)
PNVH: As a member of the planning committee, we want to challenge the system and look at the whole society, even non-citizens. Is that why they don’t have the right to live [with dignity]? When we talk about the referendum, we are talking about a hard issue.
The goal is to provoke a reaction from Taiwanese citizens as well as the government. [There are] about a million people, including foreign brides and migrant workers here in this country. It’s a big number of people, but we aren’t Taiwanese so we don’t have any rights in this country.
So would this affect policy? In the short term, I don’t think so. In the long term, I hope it becomes a topic that people talk about, especially young people or researchers. When we are talking about the referendum, we talk about three things: political, economic and social rights.
At the present, we are only working on economic rights and political rights. Social rights are harder and less immediate; they are the right to live in a secure environment when we get old. If these workers work for 12 years, they pay labor insurance. But when they leave, they never get the right to use that. We simply can’t get there right now.
TNL: What can be done to support Vietnamese brides in Taiwan?
PNVH: Previously, I did some work with Vietnamese brides to set up an association called the Vietnamese Women’s Association in Taoyuan. I worked with them and help them, but eventually we couldn’t do anything.
We had about 300 members in the beginning, but the numbers dropped and dropped. Vietnamese brides had different needs, to make money and support their families in Taiwan and in Vietnam. The goal of setting up the association is to look into Taiwan’s areas where they had been unjustly treated under the law in order to improve [the situation] and protect their rights. But this wasn’t in line with their needs, and we couldn’t gather momentum.
In the last two years, the Vietnam Economic and Culture Office (the de facto embassy in Taipei) started tracking any Vietnamese brides who worked with this association and said: “If you work with this group we will not allow you to go back and see your families in Vietnam.” It scared them and they stopped coming. I tried with my own efforts, but did not succeed.
The government has put a lot of money into the migrant bride issue and encouraged different social organizations to do something for the Vietnamese brides, but it’s on the surface only, it’s only a way to say, “I am showing my concern for you.”
[Other] people need money, so they set up groups to help Vietnamese brides deal with issues of documentation and rights, but it's only on the surface only.
[Vietnamese brides] themselves have to stand up and fight for their rights. The Vietnamese community is very strong in the U.S. because they live together, stay together, and have the same background and have common goals, but here it’s very different; everybody comes and goes and they are inclined to turn themselves towards the material world.
Vietnamese brides have to be aware of their own rights and have the courage to stand up. There are many people willing to help, but the majority of them are coming from low-education backgrounds and are very realistic in approaching their needs in life. They like singing, dancing, eating, drinking, but sitting together and talking about the future isn’t easy.
TNL: What else is holding migrant communities back?
PNVH: Drugs are becoming a big problem among the Vietnamese community; lots of amphetamines, heroin and other pills. It’s very popular, and a growing business. Those in the construction industry and companies that have a lot of overtime use drugs to keep awake and maintain their strength.
[Drugs are] a way of escaping reality. After a week of hard labor, they have a lot of psychological problems from all the pressure. It’s a way of releasing tension. The environment affects people’s behavior.
In my church community we say, “You have to think about your routine and change your behavior.” I tell them to only have parties on special occasions.
TNL: What do people invest in when they return home?
PNVH: People tend to invest in land and build houses, or try to buy and sell property. Vietnam is a very corrupt country. Whatever business you start, police will come and ask for money. If they invest in land, nobody can come and ask for payment.
Many of them go back but don’t want to live in Vietnam; they want to come back here. I have a few migrant workers who were arrested and sent home. They go home and say they feel sad. The say, “How come young people are sitting along the street and drinking every evening?”
There are so many social problems there, so there are a lot of Vietnamese in prison.
I have encountered so many Vietnamese who came to Taiwan because their parents thought that if their children stayed in Vietnam they would have problems, and thought that the change in environment would help them, but it doesn’t work like that.
TNL: How can the environment for migrant workers be improved?
PNVH: I think one of the areas that prolongs the suffering of migrant workers is the broker system. Is Taiwan’s government seriously confronting the problems caused by the broker system in this country? Why is this still a problem?
Since they began importing foreign workers, we haven’t see any law that deals with the broker system in this country. The brokers make money from people, but they create a lot of problems in Taiwan’s society. People run away and women are abused, these problems are caused by brokers.
I think this is not fair. I really want to challenge Taiwan to look at the broker system issue. Secondly, if Taiwan’s government seriously wants to deal with the broker system, it has to find ways not to let the broker system control workers. They need the freedom to change employers.
It doesn’t matter what laws you change, they use different ways to deal with the new law. For them, profit is a priority. They can use all kinds of tactics to raise revenue.
Brokers and their translators are the only resource for migrant workers when they have problems. They always turn to brokers when they need help, but the brokers stand on the side of employers because they want to keep the business going.
It’s a very unjust system, an evil system.
TNL Editor: David Green