Nemesia Santos (a fictitious name) is a 30-year-old Filipina who works
in Taipei as a caregiver for a Taiwanese family. She is one of the 1.06
million registered overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) who sent a total of
US$677 million in remittances last year to the Philippines.1 
Together with other Filipinos not classified as OFWs, total remittances
reached US$8 billion. To put this in perspective, the Philippines’
export earnings in 2004 was US$34 billion.

Nemesia is one of 92,000 Filipino workers in Taiwan where close to
300,000 foreign laborers work in manufacturing, construction and as
caregivers to children and the old. The biggest number comes from
Thailand, followed by Vietnam and the Philippines. The Filipinos work
in electronics companies and households, providing services that the
Taiwan government could not provide because of an acute labor shortage.

When she arrived in November 2002, she experienced the loneliness that
many of her “kabayans” (compatriots) feel in Taiwan where Mandarin
Chinese or Taiwanese is spoken. Back home, she could already be
celebrating the coming Christmas, listening to Christmas carols
broadcast over the radio and hearing the laughter of her family and
friends.

“The social cost is that they are separated from their families,” says
Reynaldo C. Gopez, Labor Representative of the Manila Economic and
Cultural Office. “This is the downside of overseas employment.”

Mr Gopez’s office is attached to the de facto Philippine embassy in
Taiwan. With overseas Filipino workers contributing so much to the
Philippine economy, the Philippine government endeavors to deal with
the problems these modern-day heroes run into in their host countries.

“The problems here are different,” says Mr Gopez, an experienced labor
attaché who has worked in other countries. “Compared to other places,
seldom do you encounter Taiwan employers who do not pay salaries;
neither are there problems with underpayment.” Taiwan tries to take
care of its foreign workers and allows them to change employers.
 
In Taiwan, a domestic caregiver like Nemesia could earn a minimum
monthly salary of US$482. In the Philippines, she would be lucky to get
a job and earn the required minimum daily salary of US$6 (US$120
monthly, working 20 days a month).

But for a young woman like Nemesia who comes from a small town south of
Manila, coming to Taiwan to work means seeking the services of an
employment agency. According to Mr Gopez, the problems start here.

Unscrupulous labour agents
The governments of Taiwan and the Philippines allow employment agencies
to collect from clients like Nemesia a service fee of US$55 a month for
their first year of employment in Taiwan, US$52 a month for the second
year, and US$46 a month for the third year. After deducting these fees
and other expenses, the average net income of a worker is US$302.

Moreover, both governments require Filipino workers coming to Taiwan to
go through an orientation during which the workers must declare their
salaries and the fees they had to pay to get the job—the cost of their
alien residence certificates, hospitalization insurance and medical
examinations, and if they had to take out a loan to pay the labor
agent.

“But some unscrupulous agents ask the worker for more than what is legally allowed,” says Mr. Gopez.

Some labor agencies in Manila charge total service fees of from
US$1,425 to US$2,135, bringing up the monthly service charge to an
average of US$212 a month.

“The problem is the worker agrees to such exorbitant fees,” says Gopez,
“and worse, does not report it to the Philippine Overseas Employment
Agency that grills them on the total amount they spend to obtain
employment in Taiwan.”

The difficult economic situation in the Philippines drives the workers
to “kapit sa patalim” (a Filipino idiom that literally means “to grab
the blade of a knife” to ward off a perceived greater danger). “They
end up in deep debt for the three-year period of their employment in
Taiwan,” says Mr. Gopez.

This is aggravated by the demand of many household employers that their
domestic helpers not have any day off. They work during the week and
they would like someone to watch over their houses. On weekends, they
naturally would like to rest and need their helpers around. Some
household employers demand that this clause be stipulated in the
contract that is sent by the Taiwan labor agent to his Philippine
counterpart who in turn gives it to the worker to sign.

Work contracts that typically require a day off for every seven days of
work are changed to comply with the wishes of the employer, some of
whom agree to have their worker have a day off only on the sixth month
or only after a year.

If the applying worker disagrees, the Philippine agent looks for another one who does.

“Of course for every Sunday they work, the workers get four days more
of their monthly salary,” says Mr. Gopez, “but the problem is that you
can’t stay in one place throughout the year without seeing the
sunlight; moreover, we Filipinos attend Mass on Sundays and see
friends.”

When she arrives here, the Filipino domestic helper who signed the
contract realizes that for two or three years, she will hardly have any
day off. So she writes to Mr. Gopez’s office and asks for help.

How many Filipinas agree to such a no-holiday arrangement even before
they depart the Philippines? “I would say half,” says Mr Gopez. “You
would see a lot more people at St Christopher’s Church on Sundays if
more of them refused such arrangements.”

Filling up the pews

St. Christopher’s Church in Taipei is considered the Filipino church.
In recent years, it has become the social center of the 12,000
Filipinos who work in the Taipei area. Last year in May, the Filipinos
held the annual Santacruzan procession for the sixth year.
Commemorating the finding of the true cross by St. Helena in the year
324, Filipinas dressed up in costumes of that era and walked under
handmade arches with their consorts. Last year, it was held for the
first time in a parish in Hsinchu, seventy kilometers from Taipei City.

Bishop Ramon C. Arguelles, who looks after migrant workers for the
Filipino Catholic bishops has written about an undocumented Filipina
factory worker in Taiwan.2  In the Philippines, her whole family
went to Mass only during Christmas, town fiestas and birthdays. Her
Catholic faith was limited to those infrequent traditional practices.

After she became an illegal worker in Taiwan, she found herself exposed
to a non-Christian milieu and felt extremely lonely. She sought refuge
in the fellowship of other Filipinos in Catholic Churches. Once her
Chinese employer asked: “Why do you have to go to Church every Sunday?
Why are you not like us? We go to the temple only when we are in need
of something!” The Filipina answered, “I must go to Mass; I must have
fellowship with my fellow Christians; because God loves us and we love
Him. We must encounter Him frequently.” Her witness led her to
influence, first, the children and, later, the parents to develop an
interest in Christianity.

Ten years ago, with increasing numbers of Filipinos seeking fellowship
in church communities, Catholic churches in Taipei began including one
Sunday Holy Mass celebrated in English. Even though statistics are
unavailable, it would be easy to project that if half of the total
number of Filipinos in Taiwan went to a church service on Sundays, they
would account for a 5.6 percent increase in the number of Christians
(300,000 Catholics and approx. 500,000 Protestants) in Taiwan.

On Sundays, those who manage to have a day off fill the churches with
their music; some Taipei streets and squares resonate with their lively
voices and laughter before they return to the monotony of household
chores.

“The only thing we ask of them is to be responsible for their actions
when they sign those agreements that deprive them of a day off,” says
Mr Gopez. “This is a difficult problem to solve.”

Leo R. Malikisi is MercatorNet’s correspondent in Taipei

Notes
(1) Data from the 2004 Survey on Overseas Filipinos.
(2) Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People.