Baby or a job? Stark choice for Taiwan's Filipino migrant workers

Nick Aspinwall, Thomson Reuters Foundation

Posted at Dec 17 2019 05:50 PM

TAIPEI - "You want a child or you want a job?"

As ultimatums go, it was stark - but migrant workers say such life-changing dilemmas are on the rise in Taiwan as thousands of domestic laborers are drawn to the country by the promise of work, at times with only a veil of rights.

"Far from fair, equal or just" - that's how Lennon Ying-dah Wong, of local NGO Serve the People Association (SPA), describes the lot of migrant workers in Taiwan.

He said workers regularly face discrimination, threats, financial exploitation and debt bondage, and that some were victims of human trafficking and forced labor.

The government says there is no ban on migrant workers becoming pregnant and that it runs a hotline so foreign workers can report any mistreatment.

Jasmine - not her real name - was half way through a contract as a caregiver when she learned she was pregnant.

If she wanted to keep the baby, her employer said Jasmine would have to quit her job, pay a termination fee and return to the Philippines.

After consulting her brokerage agency and a government labor bureau, Jasmine faced an ultimatum: an abortion or a pricey ticket home.

She regrets the choice she made.

TICKET HOME

Jasmine is one of the more than 700,000 workers, mostly from Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam, who come to Taiwan in pursuit of work. Advocates say some then fall prey to powerful job brokers who charge high fees to win them work yet often fail to inform the women they have rights under Taiwan law.

"They bought me a ticket, but I didn't want to go," she said. Her employer also demanded that she return a hongbao, a traditional Lunar New Year gift of cash in a red envelope.

Jasmine and her husband, who also worked in Taiwan, had borrowed money for the placement fees charged by a recruiter.

"I had to pay off credit," she said. "We had loans here. We had loans in the Philippines."

The pregnancy cost her dearly - Jasmine's broker said she had to pay a NT$17,000 ($562) contract termination fee and buy her own ticket home.

"They don't want you to stay here for this reason," the broker told Jasmine, gesturing at her belly, and telling the 32-year-old this predicament was entirely her fault.

Yet Taiwanese law prohibits employers from deporting migrant workers or terminating their contracts if they become pregnant. It also bans pregnancy testing by employers or recruiters and provides maternity benefits for pregnant migrant workers.

Enforcement, though, is inconsistent at best.

Foreigners who get pregnant often say they feel pressured to leave their jobs and are not made aware of their rights. Many flee, fearing retribution, thus becoming illegal migrants.

The government's Handbook for Foreign Workers in Taiwan says employers are prohibited from unilaterally terminating contracts due to a pregnancy, but might do so if workers cannot perform their job.

It also discourages workers from getting pregnant and urges workers to use contraceptives, saying “your body will undergo some changes and there are no family and friends to assist you.”

The labor ministry said in an email that the ministry “does not forbid migrant workers from becoming pregnant” and that workers were informed of a hotline to report any abuse.

Since 2016, 287 foreign workers have filed pregnancy discrimination complaints via the dedicated hotline, it said.

Nine foreign workers have opened formal cases against employers for violations of gender equality law, it added.

Jasmine said she was told by a labor official that her case did not violate Taiwan's gender equality laws. The labor ministry approved two months of financial assistance for her sheltering at Serve the People Association (SPA), a local NGO.

After that, she was on her own.

"The message was indirect but clear," said Wong, the shelter director. "You want a child or you want a job?"

VULNERABLE

Pregnant migrant workers are among the most vulnerable within Taiwan's third-party brokerage system.

Brokerage firms, which handle almost every aspect of a foreign worker’s life in Taiwan, are regularly accused of charging exorbitant fees, which the US Department of State said leaves workers "vulnerable to debt bondage."

Brokers generally align with employers in disputes, creating a power imbalance and leaving workers with nowhere to turn.

Analyn, a factory worker from the Philippines, discovered she was pregnant just weeks after being laid off from her job.

Analyn says she was asked repeatedly by the labor ministry to return to the Philippines and that she provided monthly doctor's certificates showing her pregnancy prevented travel.

The final certificate was requested after she was over eight months along. "Maybe I'll give birth in the airplane," she said.

Jasmine and Analyn say they were not made aware of their rights until they sought assistance from NGOs.

Very few migrant workers in Taiwan know their rights upon becoming pregnant, said Nicole Young of Harmony Home, a non-profit organization that helps about 10 foreign women deliver babies each month. Many more opt to run.

"If you're a runaway, you can transfer wherever you want," said Indonesian Putri, 23, who fled her latest employer as she was scared to reveal her pregnancy.

BROKERS WIELD POWER

Filipina workers Maria and Rianne said their broker locked them inside an apartment for three days after they opted to leave their jobs due to mistreatment.

The workers - all those interviewed are identified by pseudonyms due to a fear of retribution - were put in touch with the Thomson Reuters Foundation by SPA and Harmony Home.

They recounted sleeping on cardboard boxes and being given nothing more than a biscuit each day.

Maria and Rianne were rescued by authorities after calling Taiwan's hotline for migrant workers when their passports and alien residence certificates were taken.

Chuang Kuo-liang, of the labor ministry's cross-border workforce management division, said 242 brokers were fined and seven lost their licenses in 2018 for employment law violations.

Jasmine ultimately decided to have an abortion - which as a devout Catholic went against her beliefs.

"Every night I prayed," she said. "I always said 'sorry because I need to do this.' I had to pay all of that credit."

If she did it again, Jasmine said she would keep her baby.

"I always wanted to have a baby boy," she said. "I don't know if God cursed me."