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Never a dull moment

/ 09:38 PM December 13, 2011

TAIWAN—The two women pause at the doorway of the Assistance to Nationals (ATN) office of the Manila Economic and Cultural Office (Meco).

“Oh, are you the one who’s surrendering?” asks Alvin Lu, a welfare officer. “Then hands up!,” he orders, smiling. At this one of the women, who came in with reddened eyes and a downcast expression, tries a tentative smile.

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“What’s your screen name?” Lu inquires. Earlier, Lu’s boss, Sergio T. Eulogio who heads the ATN, told me that when undocumented Filipino workers wish to return to Taiwan after overstaying the nine-year limit on foreign employment in the country, they often go under an assumed name. But with biometrics now in wide use, it’s fairly easy for Taiwanese authorities to keep track of undocumented workers and once caught they are not only immediately deported but also charged with falsification of public documents and possibly sentenced to a jail term.

But there is a twist in the case of “Mariel,” the name the woman gives Lu. She claims to be pregnant.

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“Then you should get a certification from a doctor,” urges Lu, “and once you pay the fine (NT10,000 or about P30,000) for overstaying, then all you have to do is get a ticket and you can fly back home.” Lu and Eulogio explain that if an undocumented worker is pregnant, the Taiwanese government prefers to send her home rather than detain her.

Hearing this piece of news, Mariel’s face brightens, and her companion teases her, telling the Meco officials that “she was so scared to even enter the building.” Mariel is told to come back a few days later with her certification, after which a Meco staffer will accompany her to the immigration office, which will get in touch with her employers (she worked as a domestic but ran away) and request them to produce her passport. “If they give back your passport right away, you can leave the day after. As for your ticket, we can even help you find the cheapest ticket available,” says Lu.

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Lu, who used to work as a sports reporter for a Taiwanese newspaper before joining Meco five years ago, says he has “a thousand stories to tell” about his work assisting countryfolk in Taiwan.

Asked to describe their work at the ATN office, Eulogio remarks: “Never a dull moment!”

While documented workers’ concerns fall under the labor office, the ATN assists an estimated 3,000 undocumented Filipinos in Taiwan. But when OFWs get into conflict with the law as either perpetrator or victim, both the labor office and ATN get involved. When a case is filed against a Filipino in Taiwan, says Eulogio, they approach the public assistance office or secure the services of a lawyer from the Legal Aid Foundation—unless the family of the accused is willing to pay for the services of their own private lawyer.

The most common charge against Filipinos? “Theft,” says Eulogio, most often filed by employers for various motives and reasons. Right now there are seven Filipinos in detention after being convicted of homicide and drugs charges.

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As for nationals complaining of employer abuse, Eulogio says he has encountered “less than 10 cases” in the past year. Currently there are four cases being investigated or undergoing review.

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Compared to other countries, says Eulogio, “in Taiwan Filipino workers and nationals don’t have too many problems.” This is because Taiwan is “more liberal and protective of foreign workers. Basically Taiwanese are law-abiding.”

Then there is also the extraordinary scope of cooperation between Meco and Taiwanese officials. “We go out of our way to visit Filipinos in detention centers, unlike representatives of other countries who expect immigration officers to bring their citizens to their embassies.” Also, the Meco labor office and the Taiwanese Council of Labor Officials hold yearly meetings to thresh out issues related to  Filipino workers in Taiwan.

One reason the Taiwanese government goes out of its way to protect the rights of OFWs, Eulogio speculates, is that Taiwanese employers highly value the skilled workforce they source from the Philippines. “Our workers in electronics are a pampered lot,” he says, “because if a worker leaves, it is not so easy to find a replacement.”

In fact, points out the Meco officer, Acer and the sub-contractor who makes parts for Apple rely on a workforce that is predominantly Filipino. So while computer geeks may be working on machines made in Taiwan, they are in fact made by Filipino hands.

Eulogio, who came to Taiwan last year, also speaks highly (if a little enviously) of what he calls “the good state system of health” in this country. Every resident in Taiwan, even Filipino workers, can avail himself of health insurance at a reasonable cost. Under this scheme, every plan holder has to undergo a check-up once a month, and if hospitalization or medication is required, then it is provided free. “So for OFWs here, it’s a big loss and disadvantage for them to become illegals.”

Mariel made it just before closing time at Meco to talk with Lu and find reassurance that her dilemma is not all that impossible or frightening. But for the thousands of other Filipinos in Taiwan who find themselves in dire straits, the Meco ATN has a 24/7 hotline that is manned in shifts by staff. Never a dull moment, indeed.

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CLARIFICATION. In yesterday’s column, I wrote that the “Paskong Pinoy” celebration was sponsored mainly by Meco and PLDT-Smart. I have since been informed that in fact the major sponsor of the Christmas celebration for OFWs was Far Eastone Telecom, Smart’s business partner in Taiwan, and the Taiwanese government through the Council of Labor Affairs.

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