Taiwan -- As fallout from the August Thai workers’ riot in Kaohsiung continues to settle, details of another case of abuse against migrant laborers working at a CTCI (中鼎工程股份有限公司) chemical factory in Mailiao, Yunlin County are starting to come to light. On Aug. 2, at least four Filipino laborers at the plant were severely beaten at a highway rest stop near Hsinchu. According to the workers, this was done to coerce them and 12 others into signing agreements nullifying their contracts and allowing for immediate repatriation to the Philippines. After the beatings, the workers were taken directly to the airport, where at least one, Gil Lebria, was carried through customs and onto the plane in a semi-conscious and in need of medical attention. A month earlier, these workers had been involved in a strike, protesting illegal side agreements and other highly questionable fees deducted from their pay. Protests in Taipei last weekend elicited a promise from Council of Labor Affairs Chairman Lee Ying-yuan to investigate the case. Officials at Formosa Plastics Group (to whom the workers were originally contracted), the Mailiao factory, and CTCI would not comment on the incident or would not return calls when contacted by POTS. The Asian Pacific Mission for Migrants claims that CTCI has not denied the beatings, in separate contradictory statements saying the workers fought amongst themselves or tried to escape. The question also remains as to how a severely beaten individual could be carried through Immigration and onto an airplane at Chiang Kai Shek International Airport. Here is Gil Lebria’s story:
It’s so hard to find a job in the Philippines because of the economic conditions, so I always work abroad. I grew up in the southern island of Mindanao and earned a bachelor of arts in political science from Mindanao University. At that time I was involved in left-wing organizations like League of Filipino Students. Later I actually served in the national army [He smiles with a finger to his mouth.]...shhh!
I worked in Manila for four years, followed by four years working in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia as a supervisor in logistics at a military hospital. I finished my contract in Saudi Arabia and then I found a job at San Miguel Beer, one of the biggest companies in the Philippines. My contract was only for six months and I had to renew. It wasn’t a stable job. At the end of my contract I found an ad for an overseas worker agency called Dynamic International Services Corp. through the Philippines Overseas Administration’s website. They were looking for workers at Formosa Plastic Corporation. The application process is very competitive because there are so many Filipinos after these kinds of jobs, especially in engineering projects. On April 23rd all of the applicants took the engineering exam and I scored first amongst our group. After I was accepted, I took out a loan from my neighbor to pay the 49,000-peso [US$958] placement fee. After that, all the accepted applicants had to go through the medical exam. Our documents went to the Taiwan Consulate to be approved for a migrant workers visa. Then we were notified that our flight would leave for Taiwan on Jun. 5. However, when we arrived at the airport, an hour before our flight, they gave us a folder of documents to sign, which we weren’t given time to read. I was shocked to see how many agreements that had never showed up before. There was supposed to be one agreement, the original one that was validated by the Taiwan Consulate and the Philippine authority. But besides that, there was this one folder. We weren’t allowed to read it or ask questions. So I pretended that I had to go to the restroom and quickly made copies of the agreements. In the loan agreement it said:
1) 124,000 pesos to be paid over 13 consecutive months to the agency (When we originally signed the voucher, the space above the signature was blank, so that any amount could have been filled in later).
2) The broker and the employer were given power of attorney.
3) The employer had the authority to withhold our passport, ARC and wages -- which after researching the Taiwan labor laws, I learned was totally illegal.
4) The employer would only give us an allowance of TW$4000 (US$122) per month; the rest would be withheld.
But we had no choice -- either we had to sign or we wouldn’t fly and we would lose the placement fee. When I first came to Taiwan, I felt it was so beautiful here, but I was mistaken because I belonged to the worst employer.
After we arrived in Kaoshiung, representatives from our main contractor, CTCI, met us at the airport. They brought us to the hospital for another physical, then to our camp at Mailiao in Yunlin County. That’s about the time I met our Taiwan broker from Yang Luck Agency, a Filipino-Taiwanese named Mr. Jerry Ong Tan. They gave him the confidential folder with our documents and he introduced himself as also the CTCI Filipino controller. The next day, on Jun. 6, we attended a CTCI orientation safety seminar. Actually the only legitimate contractor in my official contract was Formosa Plastics, but I had still never seen them. After orientation we reported to the job site, but not to CTCI -- we reported directly to a sub-contractor, Samsung Engineering. After a couple weeks we were moved to another sub-contractor, Hyunwoo Company. Then we were sent to Sungdo Engineering Company. In total, we were moved to four different Korean companies. I still have the time cards for my time at these jobs.
So I now ask Formosa Plastics, “Why was I moved through so many contractors?”
We became fed up with the practices inside Formosa. We wanted the company to follow the standard Taiwan labor laws and the original contract that we signed. Our list of major grievances was:
1) Follow the original, legitimate contract.
2) Annul the 124,000-peso (US$2425) placement fee deducted from our salary.
3) Terminate the blank voucher from the local agency, which allowed them to charge us whatever amount they wanted.
4) Give us a mess hall -- before we could only eat beside the road.
5) We also wanted to improve the quantity and quality of food. We felt like pigs eating at a trough. Also the amount of food we were getting wasn’t enough -- we were doing heavy work, but we still we were given little food.
6) Provide liability, because we didn’t know who was responsible in case of an accident.
7) Cut an unexplained NT$3,000 (US$92) monthly deduction.
So there should have been some kind of agreement between the contractor and the sub-contractors, but I never saw any agreements. So I asked the manager of Samsung, Mr. Eric Park and the manager of CTCI Mr. Chen, “Where are these agreements?”
But [Park’s] answer was, “You’ve only been working two months, so you are not qualified. So go back to work. We don’t like your questions. We don’t like any opportunists. I have no information to give to you because you are under CTCI.”
So I asked Mr. Chen why we were being moved around to so many subcontractors.
But Mr. Chen responded, “You’re supposed to work because you’re obligated to the broker.”
But we had four different brokers and they never showed up. Our brokers were Yang Luck, Eversun, ATB, and another one I forgot. Mr. Chen told me Yang Luck was our only legitimate broker, though Eversun was in charge of our pay-slips. ATB was supposed to remit our money to the Philippines.
After asking around to everyone, we never got any legitimate answers. So my main question was for Jerry Tan, but he said he was only an employee of FPG. But I think he was just afraid.
Combining the broker’s fees from the Philippines broker and the Taiwan broker [some of which were framed as loans], and the fees for health insurance, ARC, documentation, tax, the monthly deductions, and an unidentified deduction (later explained to him being for 11 sick days, though he only took two sick days) it all added up to TW$14,842 (US$455). Our monthly salary was TW$15,840 (US$486). So we had to work overtime to pull in any money at all. For the month of June you can see this pay-slip (He takes his pay slip out of his pocket.) -- I made a net of TW$3,462 (US$106). If you work overtime you can make an additional TW$5,000 (US$153) to TW$10,000 (US$307) a month. I worked everyday, seven days a week, except in July when I took a few Sundays off. You can see on this bank slip (He takes the ATB money transfer receipt out of his pocket.) from my money sent home, it is the same amount. [Laughing uproariously] I can make that much in the Philippines in two weeks! Why did they only list two hours overtime each day when I was working at least 14 to 16 hours a day [that is, six to eight overtime hours]? Now if you break down my months’ salary, I am supposed to pull in TW$87 (US$2.67) an hour with 133% for the first two overtime hours, then 166% for additional overtime hours. Where did that money go? We are working hard from the heavy work. We also have family in the Philippines who need daily financial assistance. No one could answer our questions -- not even the brokers, not even the employers, not even the sub-contractors.
So I discussed with the other workers our grievances and rights in this situation. On Jul. 13 we had a meeting. All 600 workers agreed that the following day we would have a voluntary absence and would not report for work. We called directly to MECO (Manila Economic Cultural Office) Taichung representatives Mr. Nestor Barayag and Mr. Hendry Parel. They promised to meet with us that afternoon to discuss our grievances. At the meeting, 600 of us, plus the MECO representatives, the four brokers and the Formosa management, attended. I spoke out at the meeting to represent the Filipino side.
The following two days we had a strike and Mr. Barayag notified us on the second day that they had reached an agreement. They would:
1) Follow the legal contract and the local labor laws.
2) Appoint CTCI as the legitimate contractor.
3) Reduce medical fees.
4) Nullify all debts -- NT$3,000 (US$92) local broker charge, NT$5,808 (US$178) deducted from my pay for incorrectly assessed sick days, NT$2,500 (US$77) legal charges, and 124,000 pesos (US$2425) deducted in installments as a loan from a broker, the Dynamic International Services Corp.
We were so happy! We were so happy we got our demands that we didn’t care whom our employer was, as long as we were clear on who exactly was our legitimate employer. At that time, I also heard that there were people in the company who did not like me, but we had no idea how much. On Aug. 2, others and I would be repatriated to the Philippines.
We had been working for a Korean company at that time, when one day our supervisor told 16 of us he had no time cards to give us. He instructed us to go to the office of the manager Mr. Eric Park at Samsung’s headquarters. He told us that maybe CTCI wanted to transfer us to another sub-contractor. Mr. Eric Park referred us to one of our brokers, Mr. A-Chung. A-Chung told us he was going to bring us to CTCI where we would be taken to our camp. He said we were supposed to report to Mr. Jerry Tan. Mr. Jerry Tan told us, “You pack your personal belongings because this is your last day. You are going to fly back to the Philippines tonight.”
We asked, “Why? What is the reason?”
He said, “They didn’t like you because you are the leaders. You are the strikers. You refused to work.”
When I kept asking why, he yelled “I don’t know! You just go! Hurry!” After five minutes, we had to grab everything, but I still left a lot of personal belongings behind because we didn’t have enough time. We were taken out behind the camp with the Formosa security guard and CTCI staff.
Mr. Chen, Mr. A-Chung, and Mr. Tan were all trying to get us to sign agreements (withdrawing complaints and terminating the contract), but we refused. I was the most vocal of all of us. I said, “I will never sign this agreement because it is not agreeable!” I called Mr. Barayag at MECO and asked him to come immediately to help us solve this problem. Mr. Barayag said, “Ah, but it is so far and there are also so many problems here in Taichung.”
But I said, “It is your obligation! You are a MECO official. We are taxpayers!”
After two hours, they began forcing us toward the bus. My friend Alverez speaks Taiwanese and he was arguing with the CTCI employee. Suddenly they began beating Alverez. Then they started shoving me. We asked, “Why are you physically assaulting us?” They said they were angry because we would not sign the agreement. We tried to call Mr. Barayag back, but he had turned off his cell phone. That is our big question: “Why did Mr. Barayag abandon us?”
After that they confiscated our cell phones and forced five of us onto the bus the others were put into five different cars. The head security guard, a big man -- six-footer, began beating me inside the bus. They hit my chest two times -- five other security guards were holding me. We called out to the other Filipinos inside the camp to help us, but Mr. Chen closed the back door and the front door so they could not assist me. I screamed for help, but Mr. A-Chung told me to get into the bus and sign the agreement. We were traveling to the airport when they stopped at a rest stop in Hsinchu. On the bus there was one security guard with an electric baton, the Filipino controller, and a driver. We did not want to fight because we were not in our own country, but at that time two security guards came on the bus and began beating me without asking any questions. They hit me eight consecutive, direct shots to my face, my head. My face immediately began bleeding. They kicked me in the chest, twisted my legs, my elbow -- they kicked me in the spine. I think there were 23 blows all together. I lost consciousness for three to five minutes. I was crying at that time and I was covered with blood, but then one of the security guards spit on my face. I couldn’t walk, but my two friends, Mr. Lopez and Mr. Murgia helped me to sit down, but the security guards hit them with the electric shocks for helping me. In the other cars they were also beating the other Filipinos. Afterwards, Mr. Fernandez vomited blood. At about 3pm, Mr. A-Chung came inside the bus and brought the documents and forced me to sign. But I couldn’t write in my condition so I used my thumb. I agreed, but it was not agreeable to myself!
Afterwards, they dragged me out to the other Filipinos and they the head security guard pointed at me and said, “Do you see him? He refused to sign the agreement.” So they signed!
On the way up to the airport we were all crying. We arrived at the airport at about 6:30pm, but we were not allowed to go inside the airport until five minutes before take-off. The security guards, the CTCI staff and Mr. A-Chung took us to check-in, but they were holding our passports. My friends carried me through check-in and immigration because I couldn’t walk, but no one asked any questions. Everyone saw me -- police, everyone. We took a Cathay Pacific flight and the stewardess was immediately alerted to my condition. She was also Filipina and she came from my hometown so she could ask me questions in our local dialect. She asked me what happened and she reported to Cathay Pacific staff. A doctor examined me. They told me I had to get off at our next stop in Hong Kong (on the way to Manila) because I was in critical condition and I needed medical attention immediately. They carried me on a stretcher from the plane to Saint Francis Margaret Hospital in Hong Kong. We had no money to pay the medical bill because only Mr. Alfredo was with me and the rest of the workers had already gone back to the Philippines. I was instructed to contact the Overseas Welfare Office of the Philippines. I was under observation in the intensive care unit for two days, getting scans, X-rays, and medical examinations. They immediately gave me medicine. I reported to the police, who reported to the Philippines Embassy in Hong Kong.
When Alfredo and I arrived back in Manila, there was a big problem because fourteen of my co-workers were being told to sign more quit/claim agreements. The Overseas Welfare Office in the Philippines was actually advising them to sign the agreement with the local Philippines broker, Dynamic Agency. The welfare officer, Authority Edward Pequero told us that because we were from Mindanao, we had no time to file a lawsuit before we went back home. The Overseas Welfare Office in Hong Kong referred me to the office of Migrante Sectoral Party Congressman Conie Regaldo, and he agreed to help us in our case. He says the agreements are not valid. The Migrant Party is a powerful party because it is the voice of the overseas Filipino. So our other question is “Why did the lawyers of the Overseas Welfare Office in Manila agree with a practice that is favorable to the Dynamic Agency?” Now the Migrant Party members are helping us to file a several cases in the Philippines, with our intended charges as follows:
1) Breach of contract by the Dynamic International Services Corp.
3) Overcharging by the agency
4) Compensation for the unexpired 22 months of the 24-month contract
Right now in Manila we are holding protests everyday in front of the Department of Foreign Affairs. So with the help of a legislator and sympathetic labor and human rights organizations, we are also about to file a civil case against the Council of Labor Affairs and a criminal case against CTCI for inhuman treatment in Taiwan.
Currently this case is a very big issue in the Philippines -- overseas workers are heroes in the Philippines. Now we are war heroes. Everybody in the Philippines is very concerned.
But recently we have been informed that Formosa Plastics Group has made new contracts, validated by MECO, for their workers, so all of the gains we made in those two months were lost. MECO has recently defended the company’s decision. It’s as if MECO is the new spokesman for Formosa Plastics! So this Sunday (Oct. 30) we will protest in Taipei at MECO Taipei. The Secretary of Labor is saying we were repatriated because we refused to work. I have met secretly with workers at Formosa Plastic since, and I learned that 50% have signed and 50% have refused to sign. But before there were 600 workers, and now there are 1,700 Filipinos working for Formosa Plastic. So we are also demanding a new contract in our lawsuit. When I first found out I was working for Formosa Plastics, I was excited because it was a big company. I would get good pay, solve my financial problems, and bring a future for my sister and brother. We live in a poor family and my mother is a retired teacher. I still have to pay off the 49,000 peso (US$958) loan from my neighbor. But living in Taiwan was an exciting experience -- I almost died! [laughing]
Although I am seeking money for physical damages, it is not about the price, it is about the dignity of the migrant worker. I know there are people here who don’t want me back in Taiwan, but I am not afraid. I am fighting for a principle. If you are a coward, you never win.
Andrew O'Brien is a writer and activist based in Taiwan. He plays in a punk rock band that has toured through much of South East Asia and has been writing about music and politics for local magazines.