Dancing to Break the Chain: Taiwan’s Foreign Caregivers Protest Sexual Abuse, Labor Standards

Dancing to Break the Chain: Taiwan’s Foreign Caregivers Protest Sexual Abuse, Labor Standards
Credit: Nick Aspinwall
Why you need to know

Migrant domestic workers gathered in Taipei Main Station on Sunday afternoon to fight for recognition under the Labor Standards Act, the abolition of the brokerage system, and an end to sexual harassment

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A Filipina woman pulls her suitcase across the main concourse of Taipei Main Station and greets her employers, a husband and wife, with a bow. “Where’s your passport?” the wife asks. “Give it to me.” The woman starts washing the dishes, only to be chastised: “Why are you so bad and dirty? Clean it again!” She is pulled by her neck and shoved to the floor. Sobbing, she goes back to work – and is approached by the husband, who grabs her arm, forces her to the ground, takes off his shirt, ties her hands behind her back, and smothers her.

This powerful display of the grave problems faced by domestic workers in Taiwan kicked off an event yesterday, organized by the Taiwan chapter of Migrante International, a nongovernmental organization that campaigns for the rights of overseas Filipino workers, and the Association of Indonesian Migrant Workers, to call for awareness of sexual harassment, lack of coverage under Taiwan’s Labor Standards Act (LSA), and an end to the existing brokerage system. Through a colorful exuberance of chanting, performance, and dance, workers used a rare day off to draw the attention of dozens of curious passersby to their cause.

“This is a way to let them feel proud,” said event organizer Lennon Ying-Dah Wong of Taoyuan-based NGO Serve the People Association (STP). “It’s a way to let them feel, ‘We are human. We should have the same rights as others.’”

The event was planned in solidarity with the One Billion Rising movement, a global campaign to end rape and sexual violence against women. At 1 p.m., the group marched into the main concourse, chanting “Rise! Resist! Unite!” After several speeches by Wong and other organizers, participants broke out into dance to five songs, including the movement’s anthemic “Break the Chain.”

It was scheduled for yesterday – the Sunday after International Women’s Day – so that domestic workers could plan ahead and ask for the day off, said organizer Gilda Banugan of Migrante International. Home-based workers have very few days off – sometimes, less than five (including weekends) in a calendar year. “They practiced these dances for months,” said Banugan. “We sent them the links, so they could practice in their homes.”

Attendees came for a multitude of reasons. One Filipina caregiver said she was there to fight against the inequitable brokerage system, which requires migrant workers to pay monthly fees to agents. Aladin Gregorio, a factory worker from Manila, said he joined because “I have a daughter, a sister, a mother. I don’t want anyone to be abused.”

'A friendly touch' – problems with sexual harassment reporting

Most of Taiwan’s 375,321 women migrants (as of January 2018) work in home-based jobs, where they are left vulnerable to sexual abuse, said event organizers. Wong cited the notorious case of disgraced politician Elmer Fung (馮滬祥), who was convicted of raping his Filipina housekeeper in 2005 and served an 85-day sentence in 2016 after a long appeal process. Two participants at the event worked for Fung after his initial conviction and reported being sexually harassed, said Wong. Migrant workers, often unaware of available support networks, fear retribution and are afraid to speak up, he said.

When migrant workers arrive in Taiwan, they are given brochures listing available resources, such as the 1955 phone hotline. Run by the Ministry of Labor and staffed with translators in five languages, the hotline allows workers to register disputes with employers and get immediate help for emergency cases, such as physical or sexual abuse. The service can be effective, but organizers point to cases where it must be improved.

Sherry Macmod Wang of STP – a Filipina former domestic worker, and now Wong’s wife – said that in one case, a woman called the hotline to complain about being groped by her employer and was told that she was overreacting. “That’s a friendly touch,” the operator reportedly said.

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Credit: Nick Aspinwall
Filipino factory worker Aladin Gregorio raises his fist outside Taipei Main Station on Sunday, March 11. Gregorio joined other Filipino and Indonesian migrant workers to raise awareness of sexual abuse and poor working conditions.

Recent polls show that many Taiwanese women would laugh off workplace sexual harassment rather than filing a complaint. Domestic workers, contractually attached to their employers, fear that they can’t receive help unless they contact a NGO like STP or Migrantes, said Wong. Workers often don’t know about NGOs, as they aren’t listed in arrival brochures. Wang said that support services shouldn’t be left to overworked NGOs in the first place. “What’s the point of the government if you have to go to a NGO?” she said. “We don’t have proper sleep as it is.”

Caregivers demand Labor Act coverage

When Filipina caregiver Melody Albano Castro was killed in the Feb. 6 Hualien earthquake, Taiwan’s Ministry of Labor pledged NT$1.19 million (US$40,600) to her family, using an exception for workers not covered by the LSA. Not only has the aid not yet been delivered, Banugan said, but the case shows the precariousness of working while uninsured and uncovered by the act.

Domestic workers cannot claim labor insurance and only receive mandatory days off if they are included in individual contracts with employers, event organizers said. They are thus absent from standard LSA protections. “If their contracts are violated, they can’t be helped,” Wang said. Banugan still works as a caregiver, but her current employers (a Dutch couple) give her Sundays off and are supportive of her activism. Past employers would give her less than 10 days off in a calendar year.

Aside from unregulated periods of leave, caregivers are often asked to take on responsibilities not covered in their employment contracts, such as cleaning the homes of their agency sponsors.

Wong told me that a bill designed specifically to set working standards for caregivers died in the Legislative Yuan last year. Labor activists say that such a bill is not enough – they call for domestic workers to receive the full protections of the LSA. “We are also workers,” Wang told me. “They should treat us as workers.”

Calls to abolish the brokerage system

The overwhelming majority of migrant workers in Taiwan find work through agencies in their home countries and are managed by brokers once they arrive in Taiwan. They must pay monthly fees set at NT$1,800 in the first year of work, NT$1,700 in the second, and NT$1,500 in all following years. Event organizers are calling for this system to be abolished.

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Credit: Nick Aspinwall
Domestic workers and labor activists dance inside Taipei Main Station on Sunday, March 11. Migrant caregivers performed five dances to draw attention to sexual abuse and inadequate labor standards.

“We keep on paying the brokerage fee, but they don’t give us any services,” said Wang. “Only when we arrive in Taiwan, and if we have medical issues. But whenever there’s a problem, the broker is on the side of the employer.” Without LSA protections, brokers can become de facto mediators of disputes, which Wang said is problematic. “It’s very easy [for a broker] to replace a worker,” she said, “but not an employer.”

Migrant workers who file grievances are assigned a labor officer – often a temporary worker. “They have little power in government, but migrants depend heavily on them,” said Wong. “Brokers or employers can just talk to people in higher positions in government to sway the case.” Workers don’t have strong advocates in disputes unless they contact an NGO, he continued. “And we don't have the power. We can only shout at them. We can argue with them. We can monitor the case. If NGOs like us intervene, labor officers will be more cautious.”

The Ministry of Labor has launched a bilingual Direct Hiring Service Center, which allows workers to bypass brokers and find work with Taiwanese employers. This is a promising step, said Wang, but she would like to see direct hiring aggressively promoted. Ultimately, organizers want it to become standardized, eliminating brokers – and their associated fees – from the process. “You pay a lot of money,” said Wang, “just to have this kind of shit job.”

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Editor: David Green

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