Migrant Ministry

Peter O'Neill
June 21, 2011

Fr. Peter O'Neill (back row center) and team

William Wilberforce led a campaign against the British international slave trafficking business just a few hundred years ago. About 150 years ago, a vicious civil war was fought in the U.S. over a way of life that had institutionalized the slavery of Africans who had been trafficked like animals to many parts of the Americas since the 16th century. Over the centuries, national and international campaigns have done much to change attitudes regarding slavery. However, modern forms of the same evil continue to rear their heads in most countries, despite being rejected by our laws and the moral sensitivity of citizens. Working nationally and internationally to prevent human trafficking continues to be a major challenge to all who believe in the United Nations charter of human rights.
As the Hsinchu Diocese migrant and immigrant chaplain, I was invited to be a member of the Migrant Forum in Asia (MFA) delegation to the 99th International Labor Conference (ILC) and the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva in early June 2010. At the ILC we discussed the draft report on the U.N. Convention on Decent Work for Domestic Workers. We lobbied government members to support a clear and robust Convention. I had the task of lobbying the governments of Australia, New Zealand and the U.S. It was considered too
sensitive for me to lobby the Chinese government as I was a non-government organization
(NGO) delegate from Taiwan. The week-long process tried the patience and negotiating skills of the tripartite members of workers’ and employers’ organizations and governments as they battled it out on the conference floor debating each word in the draft report.
On day three of the ILC, the employer members requested a recorded vote to have recommendations only without a Convention. It is quite rare at the ILC to have a recorded
vote so early in proceedings. Of the 109 government members’ names called, 62 voted against the employers’ proposal (57%); 13 voted for the proposal (12%); 4 abstained (4%); and 30 were not present (27%). In response to this historic moment the worker members and NGO delegates erupted with applause. Asia was the only continent where the majority
of governments supported the employers’ position. The battle had just begun as we lobbied governments to make sure the Convention substantially protected the human rights of domestic workers.
We will return to Geneva in June 2011 for the 100th ILC and the final debate on the U.N. Convention for Domestic Workers. Following that meeting, we will start lobbying governments to ratify the Convention. We have a long road ahead of us.
December 18, 2010, the U.N. International Migrants Day, marked the 20th anniversary of
the U.N. Convention on the Protection of Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families. To date, only 43 governments have ratified this Convention, and sixteen governments are signatories to the Convention. No receiving government has signed
the Convention. We highlighted this anniversary and the U.N. Convention for Domestic Workers at a press conference in Taipei on International Human Rights Day, December 10, 2010.
Exorbitant Cost of Migrating
In 1989, Taiwan began to welcome documented migrant workers. Prior to that there were an estimated 100,000 to 200,000 undocumented migrants in the country. Today there are
approximately 370,700 migrant workers in Taiwan, who work as fishermen (1.9%), in domestic service (0.6%), as caregivers (48.7%), in construction (0.9%) and in the manufacturing industry (47.9%). The migrants come from the Philippines (76,725), Vietnam (78,858), Thailand (64,342) and Indonesia (150,767). The present system allows migrant workers to come on a two-year contract that is renewable for one additional year.
They can renew their contract for a maximum total of nine years after leaving the country for at least one day after each three year period. All migrants need to have a job arranged before arrival, and it is around that need that government bureaucrats and the private
sector weave a web of abuse and exploitation.
The sending country has placement agencies, and Taiwan has brokers. They coordinate with each other, and both charge the migrant worker a fee. Philippine migrants can pay up to U.S. $3,800; Thais up to U.S. $3,500; Indonesians up to U.S. $4,000; Vietnamese up to U.S. $9,000. In my view, the cause of this abuse is massive corruption at the high government level in both Taiwan and the countries of origin. With a system of government to government direct hiring, the cost to the migrant workers could be reduced to about U.S. $450 plus the cost of the airfare. The Taiwan government agreed to adopt this system for all Philippine migrant workers beginning January 2010. This advance towards fairness
has come as a result of constant campaigning and social pressure over a period of years.
The struggle is not over. Other sending governments continue to support exploitive migration systems. Also, caregivers and domestic workers generally cannot use this method the first time around as employers don’t know them, but they can use it for subsequent two-year work contracts, a practice which is allowed by the Indonesian
government.
Wage Discrimination
The Taiwan government allows factories to employ 30% migrant labor who are paid the legal minimum wage, which was raised 1% in 2007 after no rise for ten years. Taiwan workers are on a higher graduated wage scale with increases being determined by each company’s wage policy. This is clearly unjust and discriminatory. It seems that the local government does not want more factories moving their operation to other countries so collaborates in whatever way it can to keep company’s wage bills down. This, of course, only applies to blue-collar workers.
In 1986, the Columbans founded the Hope Workers Center (HWC) in the Hsinchu Diocese to assist local Taiwanese workers. Migrant workers began to frequent the center soon after. I went to work there in 1995 and worked as the center’s director for eight years.
In 2006, I became the Migrant and Immigrant Chaplain of the Hsinchu Diocese and at this time Sister Doris Zahra, originally from Malta, was director of HWC. In January 2009, in coordination with the local bishop, the Columbans decided to place HWC under the
auspices of the Diocese. There are also two other centers dedicated to working with migrant workers, which also function under the auspices of the Diocese.
These centers engage in the following activities in favor of migrant workers:

• Crisis management and counseling
• Lobbying and advocacy
• Proactive education
• Community enhancement
• Sheltering victims of trafficking and abused migrant workers
• Reintegration programs for their return home
• Religious services.
Worker’s and Caregiver’s Rights
Workers and caregivers suffer the most abuse and exploitation. They are not covered by any labor law, only by the terms of their contract. Even then, unless they know how to stand up for themselves and protest, they often end up without a day off despite the stipulations in their contract. This is frequently the case with the Indonesians and Vietnamese. However, the Filipinos are generally more confident and better educated, so they usually know how to stand up for their rights. The Thai government refused to
let Thais migrate as caregivers and domestic workers until they were covered by Taiwan labor law.
We will work untiringly towards ensuring that the U.N. Convention for Domestic Workers will be a firm basis for insisting on upholding the rights of migrants.