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Traditional Taiwanese fishing boats are seen at low tide in Bali district, New Taipei City, on March 3, 2019. (Photo by Sam Yeh / AFP)

How greedy brokers force thousands of Vietnamese workers to seek illegal work in Taiwan

  • Thousands of Vietnamese migrant workers are being lured to Taiwan by unscrupulous brokers peddling false promises of high wages and good living conditions.
  • Many go missing, preferring a life in the shadows to one in bondage
In 2011, Mai took out a loan of US$6,300 – more than 10 times her annual salary at a factory producing chips for Samsung phones in northern Vietnam. For that money, a broker found her a job at an electronics factory in Taichung in central Taiwan.

She left behind her two sons and husband, a farmer nearly blind in one eye, because the broker told her that with overtime she could earn US$1,000 per month.

But no one told her about all the fees, taxes and living costs she would face; that she would be doing night shifts from 5pm to 8am the next day; and that errors due to fatigue would be taken out of her pay. Her actual monthly earnings were just US$500.

Vietnamese domestic worker Mai. Photo: Andy Ip

When her employer threatened to lay off 45 Vietnamese workers who had protested against the illegal bond imposed on them to stop them running away, 20 were defiant and ran off anyway to seek illegal work. Mai was among them.

“I couldn’t go home. I was already over 30 years old then, it would be difficult for me to come back,” she said. “I had to run away, at least I’d have the chance to earn some money.”

An estimated 25,000 Vietnamese workers have gone missing in Taiwan. Like Mai many came to the island to work legally, but broke their contracts to join the black market. They account for nearly half of all missing foreign workers; Indonesians account for most of the rest.

“There are many reasons why workers run away, overstay their visas or arrive through unofficial channels,” said Nguyen Thi Mai Thuy, national programme coordinator for the International Labour Organisation in Vietnam.

“High costs incurred by workers [to secure the job] that lead to mounting debts is one of the main reasons.”

Taiwan opened its labour market to low-skilled immigrants in 1992, in response to a rapidly ageing population and a growing reticence among its young people to work in factories, on fishing boats, or in old people’s homes.

Traditional Taiwanese fishing boats. The island’s young people have lost interest in working in the industry, meaning migrant workers are needed to fill the gap. Photo: AFP
Since then, the self-ruled island has experienced an influx of workers wishing to turn their lives around, mostly from Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines. Vietnam, a relative newcomer, has become a major source of labour for Taiwan since 2001 and now accounts for one-third of the more than 700,000 workers in productive industries and social welfare, just behind Indonesia.

The only legal way for low-skilled Vietnamese workers to obtain a job in Taiwan is through a local broker, and given the often excessive fees, some have sought other routes to find work, becoming susceptible to human trafficking in the process. Last Christmas, a record 152 Vietnamese tourists disappeared soon after arriving on the island.

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As of February 21, 61 of them were still missing and some who had surrendered or been caught by police admitted that they hoped to work in Taiwan illegally after paying unlicensed brokers up to US$3,000. Police have charged two Taiwanese and two Vietnamese in relation to the incident.

According to Migrant Forum in Asia, even legal brokers can charge Vietnamese workers as much as US$7,000 to secure a three-year factory job. That is 1.3 times the amount paid by Indonesians and double to triple what workers from the Philippines and Thailand pay.

Migrant workers protest against unjust broker fees and working conditions in Taipei. Photo: Andy Ip

Along with the higher fees, workers from Vietnam are more likely to go missing. In 2018, 4.38 per cent of Vietnamese blue-collar workers went missing, compared to just 2.88 per cent of Indonesians, 0.5 per cent of Thais and 0.41 per cent of Filipinos.

Abusive recruiters and employers are often the final straw. “These brokers just care about sending off as many workers as possible, without proper training or language lessons; as if they just want to push people away as fast as possible,” said Pham Thao Van, a workers’ rights activist. Then, “disappointments with low pay and working conditions – unlike what was advertised by the brokers – further jeopardise their performance at work, increasing the risk of being sent home”.

Private recruitment agencies in Taiwan, which charge workers a monthly fee of US$50-US$60, are supposed to help migrants with language barriers, administrative matters and act as a mediator whenever conflict with an employer arises. In reality, they often present an additional layer of abuse.

Mai and her Vietnamese colleagues had to appeal to the labour ministry after their complaints about the illegal security bond, overcrowded accommodation and “meals that tasted worse than dog food” went unresolved. Their employer eventually returned the security bond, but also cut the contracts of all Vietnamese workers to two years, and threatened to replace them with Thais.

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“The Thais don’t complain. They didn’t have to pay as much as we did,” Mai said. After fours years in exile, working odd jobs and sometimes going without pay for up to a month, Mai returned “with hardly any savings”. But it was time to go home: her children had grown up and she wanted to spend time with her father, whose cancer meant he had not long to live.

With few other avenues of support, Vietnamese workers who find themselves in trouble often turn to Pham.

Pham Thao Van in her hometown in Northern Thai Binh province, after years in exile. Photo: Andy Ip

“There’s no week that goes by without any incident,” said Pham. “Each day I get perhaps hundreds of calls and messages from workers asking for advice on changing employers or complaining about [Taiwanese] agents being difficult and threatening to send them back home.”

That’s the reality of a woman nearing her 50s who spent the past nine years heading Trai Tim Yeu Thuong (Loving Heart), a voluntary organisation that dealt with the deaths of more than 200 Vietnamese migrants in Taiwan from 2014 to 2018, most of whom were undocumented.

“I personally delivered 30 funerary urns to the victims’ families,” said Pham, recalling nights spent in hospitals, morgues and Taiwan’s remote mountains searching for missing workers. Most deaths result from workers having no access to affordable health care or working or living in unsafe conditions, like the six workers who died in a factory fire in December 2017.

The funeral for six people who died in a factory fire in December 2017. Photo: Andy Ip

Though Pham moved back to Vietnam last year, desperate migrants continue to seek her help over Facebook because “they don’t know where else to turn”. Pham finds it hard to say no, because she herself had been an illegal worker before turning herself in to police in 2018.

She was 35 when she arrived in Taiwan in 2004, having left behind a 13-year-old son and a promising journalism career in Vietnam’s northern Thai Binh province to become a domestic worker. Despite being an award-winning journalist, as a single mother Pham had struggled to support her son on a freelancer’s irregular and low pay, which averaged between US$40 to US$86 per month. Friends had assured her that by working as a maid in Taiwan, she’d be able to save money for her son’s future.

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Things didn’t work out that way though. After paying US$1,200 to her broker she was paid just US$116 per month and worked in shocking conditions.

“It was very hard. I had to look after one old lady in a family of seven, including a 10-month-old baby. I wasn’t allowed to go out and could eat only once everyone else had.”

Working conditions for domestic workers are not covered by Taiwan’s Labour Standard Act, so there is no minimum wage, or obligatory days off or limits on working hours.

A combination of low wages and rampant abuse led to huge numbers of Vietnamese domestic workers absconding in the early 2000s, which prompted Taiwan to stop accepting them between 2005 and 2015.

So when Pham’s contract ended in 2007, she had no way to renew it. Still heavily indebted back home, she packed her things, contacted an “illegal” Vietnamese friend and escaped.

“To me, all brokers and agents are despicable, they are like mosquitoes,” Pham wrote in her diary Escape , published in 2007 by Bao Bon Phuong (Four Directions), a newspaper made by and for Vietnamese in Taiwan. Pham’s agent told her if she wanted a new contract, she would have to pay US$2,100 – more than her annual salary. Fees to renew contracts were made illegal by the Taiwan government in 2016, but enforcing the law has proved challenging. Just last December, hundreds of migrant workers protested in front of Taiwan’s Ministry of Labour against the fees, which range from US$1,300 to US$2,300.

Other government efforts to limit costs incurred by Vietnamese migrant workers have had similar problems. Vietnamese law stipulates that total pre-departure costs payable to brokers should not exceed US$4,000 for industrial workers. But brokers continue to charge in excess of that, while filing receipts that state otherwise.

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Pham and Nguyen of the ILO say the US$4,000 cap is “too high” given the monthly minimum wage in Taiwan was just US$712 last year. But Vietnamese brokers say there is little they can do to lower the fees.

“Even if the cap was set at US$5,000, brokers have told me they would still have to charge US$6,000-US$6,500 to stay profitable because Taiwanese recruitment agencies already charge them a lot of money,” Nguyen said.

Migrant workers protest against unjust broker fees and poor working conditions in Taipei. Photo: Andy Ip

Employers, to spare themselves the administrative complexities required to hire foreign labour, usually outsource the job to Taiwanese recruitment agencies. These agencies, to stay competitive, pass the recruitment costs on to brokers in workers’ countries of origin to keep their fees to employers low. Brokers in turn pass another layer of recruitment costs onto workers to stay competitive.

A price list sent from a Taiwanese recruitment agency to its Vietnamese partner obtained by This Week In Asia shows that a placement with a factory can cost from US$3,500 to US$4,000 per worker. So after factoring in recruitment costs incurred locally, there’s no way a local broker can be profitable if it adheres to the government cap.

Work in Taiwan is less attractive to workers from other countries
Nguyen Quyet, broker

Vietnamese broker Nguyen Quyet said placements for Vietnamese workers were more expensive because of their relatively low bargaining power. “Work in Taiwan is less attractive to workers from other countries because of the lower wage gap than for Vietnamese.”

In January 2018, Vietnam’s labour ministry launched a state-run hiring scheme, which only charges workers US$565, but it managed to send just 33 workers to Taiwan all year.

Other major sending countries have set a much lower ceiling on placement costs than Vietnam and have had more success in negotiations with Taiwan to safeguard their workers. The Philippines signed up to a direct hiring scheme with Taiwan in 1999, while Indonesia has made progress in working towards a zero fee policy for its workers by shifting all the burden onto employers.

A worker at a factory in Taiwan. Photo: Reuters

NGOs and rights groups have for years campaigned to eliminate the middlemen to cut placement fees. But Nguyen Quyet, the broker, doubts that the labour export industry can be nationalised because with 223,300 Vietnamese workers in Taiwan alone, it’s too big for the government to manage. Instead the broker, himself a former migrant worker, hopes Taiwan will connect Vietnamese brokers directly with employers.

“Vietnam shouldn’t compete by imposing higher costs on workers; it should compete based on workers’ quality,” said Nguyen Thi Mai Thuy of the ILO.

She said this could be improved by making sure workers were trained and well informed about work abroad so they were mentally prepared.

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In an effort to reduce broker fees and ensure better rights for workers, Vietnam has been negotiating a direct hiring scheme with Taiwan since 2016 and is revising the law on migrant workers.

Whether the Vietnamese government is successful in negotiating better terms for its workers boils down to supply and demand, said Nguyen of the ILO. And given Taiwan’s rapidly ageing population and Vietnam’s impressive growth that is creating more jobs domestically, Vietnam’s bargaining power is improving.

Meanwhile, people like Pham and Nguyen Quyet have plans of their own to lower the risks faced by Vietnamese workers. They are planning to start a broker firm that will operate in the interest of workers, instead of employers.