Major reforms in foreign labor policy are necessary and long overdue, says migrant advocate
2005-07-03 / Taiwan News, Staff Reporter / By Marie Feliciano

By all accounts, Wu Jing-ru has one of the worst jobs in the world. Her paycheck is scandalously low; her workload is dreadfully heavy; and her emotionally-taxing job requires her to do a lot of "ambulance" work for distressed strangers.

Despite all that, the Wu who greeted us at last Friday's interview looked content and happy.

"In all honesty, I can't come up with a reason that will justify my leaving this line of work," she says. "I am pursuing my ideals. I want to live in a society where justice and equality reign. In my own little way, I think I am making that possible."

Born and educated in Taiwan, Wu has found her calling in non-governmental work over a decade ago. She is currently the executive director of the Taipei-based Taiwan International Workers Association and a program coordinator at the Vietnamese Migrant Workers Office in Taoyuan City. Both appointments require her to provide aid to migrants who are either involved in employment disputes or are victims of abuse.

Operating like a 7-ELEVEN outlet, Wu commutes between Taipei and Taoyuan every other day, dealing with one case file after another. She also tells us that she is busiest on Sundays - the day when several migrants - and other "normal" people - take a break from the daily grind.

"Of course I get frustrated from time to time," she says. "The Vietnamese Migrant Workers Office, headed by Father Peter Hong, is swamped with cases. The same thing is happening at TIWA. What is so disheartening is the fact that most of the problems are not new: Excessive fees, unpaid wages, illegal employment, no days off, blatant exploitation. They were already there when I started doing migrant advocacy work 10 years ago, and they are still there. I don't think they will disappear anytime soon."

Wu however does not let this bog her down.

"When you are confronted with those injustices, you cannot just sit back and do nothing. That's why I am doing what I am doing," she continues. "Sometimes, a worker will come to us and thank us for helping her recover her salary or overtime pay. That is a gratifying experience. Personally, I think I am not really providing a service. I am only trying to realize my ideals."

These are trying times for small NGOs like TIWA and activists like Wu. The organization, for one, was forced to scramble for funding following the closure of the House of Migrant Empowerment in Taipei - a social and cultural hub for migrants. TIWA has since found another home - albeit a smaller one - near St. Christopher's Church.

Wu and her TIWA colleagues, Susan and Molly, are used to tightening their belts. Most of their office furniture, personal computers, and even airconditioning units were donated by other NGOs and friends like the Central Broadcasting System and Radio Taiwan International.

"Some migrants even donate packs of tissue paper to TIWA since they know that we are operating on a shoestring budget," Wu laughs. "It's difficult but we are still able to manage. I lead a very simple life so I am not missing anything really. In fact, I am luckier than most people."

Globalization, she says, prompted her to pour her energy into migrant organizations. Initially, she worked as a volunteer at local labor groups.

"In Taiwan, we often hear people talk about globalization or internationalization. I thought, 'Taiwan is already internationalized.' We have thousands of foreign workers in our country and yet we pretend that they are invisible," she says.

It takes more than economic might for a country to be called a "developing nation," Wu continues.

"If a society is unwilling to embrace diversity and multiculturalism, it remains 'undeveloped.' If certain groups are marginalized and exploited in a country, you cannot say that true democracy rules there."

Foreign workers have made significant economic contributions to Taiwan, she adds.

"You will often find them doing difficult work - building bridges, skyscrapers, and tunnels, and caring for the sick and the elderly. Some of them even risk life and limb to do their jobs," says Wu. "So how can they be invisible?"

To address the longstanding problems facing foreign workers in Taiwan, TIWA and other migrant NGOs are calling for policy changes. One of those initiatives is the proposed Household Services Act which aims to safeguard the rights and welfare of home managers and caregivers. Penned by a group called the Promotion Alliance for the Household Services Act, the proposed bill is pushing for "grassroots legislating action" that will secure the legal guarantees for the basic human rights and benefits of domestic workers in Taiwan.

"You cannot expect a caregiver to work 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and still provide good service. That's impossible," says the activist.

Other initiatives are currently in the pipeline, Wu adds.

"That's the only way. We would like to talk about prevention rather than protection. 'Protection' is something that NGOs like us do everyday," she says.

The social worker admits that those changes will not take place overnight.

"We still have a long way to go although little by little, I think we are making some 'baby' steps," says Wu.

"Some organizations, particularly those advocating the rights of the elderly and the physically-challenged, have raised some issues concerning the Household Services Act. We will however be communicating with them this month so that we could better explain the proposed bill to them."

In the meantime, Wu is putting together a number of programs including a photography workshop at TIWA. The training program will kickstart on July 10.

"Images, unlike words, are a more universal medium," Wu says.

"We hope that our migrant friends will be able to voice their thoughts through photos."

TIWA's address is 3F, No.53-6, Chungshan North Road, Section 3, Taipei City 104. For inquiries, call (02) 2595-6858.