Thai farmer Sarot Kaeja, 37, had trouble making ends meet, so when a labor recruiter in his hometown of Sukothai spoke of the riches to be made working in Taiwan, he jumped at the opportunity. He mortgaged everything to pay the $2,500 broker fee, equal to several years’ salary, in hopes of a better life. The recruiter even showed pictures of the swimming pool, running track and fancy accommodations he would enjoy.
But Kaeja and 1,700 other Thai men were in for a rude awakening when they arrived in Taiwan to help build Kaohsiung’s gleaming $6-billion municipal subway system.
In interviews, several of the men said they received paltry wages even as they labored under dark, hot and dangerous conditions. Worse was their environment after they left work. The men were jammed into giant industrial sheds, they said, often two to a bed. Supervisors beat them, fined them for the slightest infraction and forced them to buy food at a company store at inflated prices, dimming their hopes of repaying their huge debts, they added. And they were forbidden to eat Thai food, drink beer, use cellphones or leave the compound other than for work. Some claim they were shocked with electric prods.
“We were treated like animals,” said one worker, who asked not to be identified, fearful his supervisors might retaliate. “It was like being in prison.”
Finally, after months of seething anger, the men erupted Aug. 21, yelling, jeering and burning down the office of the labor contractor, Huapan Manpower Consultant & Management Co. Few of them could have imagined how far their cries would carry.
The ensuing scandal has rocked Taiwan, forcing the island to take a closer look at the underclass that does its dirty work. Huapan has been fired from the job, its owners are in jail, the prosecutor’s office has launched a criminal investigation, and Taiwan’s premier two weeks ago named a new labor minister, Lee Ying-yuan, and Kaohsiung’s first female mayor, Yeh Chu-lan, after their predecessors resigned.
Huapan officials were not available for comment. But a Labor Ministry report released Aug. 31 detailed human rights violations at the site, dangerous working conditions and dorms “unfit for living.” Wu Hao-jen, the president of the Taiwan Assn. of Human Rights and a member of the labor committee that issued the report, said in an interview that although the beatings didn’t leave permanent scars or other tangible evidence, the committee saw no reason to doubt the men’s allegations of abuse.
The outcry has sparked calls to overhaul the island’s labor laws amid suspicion that high-level Taiwanese officials used their influence to import the workers, despite regulations giving preference to local labor. It has also focused attention on the tangle of subcontractors that allowed the government to avoid taking responsibility for working conditions on its project.
“The case is really a warning,” said Ku Yu-ling, secretarygeneral of the Taiwan International Workers’ Assn. “In the past, lots of workers were just shipped back home if they made trouble, with some even committing suicide. Foreign workers have borne a heavy burden and contributed a great deal, but society all but ignored them.”
Labor activists say the size of the subway project and the scope of the abuses make this the largest foreign-worker scandal in Taiwan since the island lifted a ban on overseas laborers in 1992.
Most of the approximately 300,000 foreign workers in Taiwan have to work for as long as two years to repay steep broker fees before they can start sending money home. Furthermore, given rules that prevent them from switching employers, striking, negotiating or organizing into groups, they’re often left powerless against exploitative bosses, say labor experts.
“The government policy shares a lot of blame for the discrimination,” said Ku of the workers association. “The policy allows bad Taiwanese to abuse other individuals and squeeze the last ounce from them.”
Although problems at the high-profile construction site have attracted attention, labor leaders say there are tens of thousands of other foreigners working for small companies or as maids who have little or no protection.
Taiwan’s increasingly affluent population is aging, spurring demand for lower-wage foreign labor willing to work as domestic workers or in construction. At the same time, labor experts and activists say, Taiwan’s relatively closed society has tended to discriminate against outsiders from developing countries.
This attitude is often reinforced by media coverage depicting foreign workers as dangerous and intent on committing crimes, stereotypes that ultimately make it easier for unethical brokers to exploit foreign workers, observers say.
“The media often makes you think these guys are hurting Taiwan,” said Wu Yi-hsien, 35, a graphic designer from Taipei, the capital. “I’m afraid this case has seriously damaged Taiwan’s international image.”
Some, however, welcome the wake-up call.
“Most Taiwanese never think about who’s doing this work for them,” said Lin Yi-chun, a social worker with the Kaohsiung Labor Concern Center, which has been assisting Thai workers. “I hope this incident will open people’s eyes and give people more empathy.”
The intense media scrutiny has also forced the project contractors and supervisors to clean up their act. The company overseeing the living quarters has added dormitories to ease the crowding, and workers have more freedom to move about.
On a recent evening, several vendors were selling Thai food in the compound as the men walked around and used cellphones to call their families. The inside of the dorm still resembles the living quarters of an old-style submarine, with beds, clothes, luggage and wet towels covering every available space, but the men say that at least they all have their own beds.
“It’s much better,” said one worker, 51, who asked not to be identified. “But this has been an unpleasant experience. They told us we could make a fortune, but it’s not true. As soon as I can afford it, I’m leaving Taiwan and not coming back.”