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New Taiwan law gives some Filipino Catholics a voice

Newly formed fishermen's union points way for other migrants

New Taiwan law gives some Filipino Catholics a voice

Filipino fishermen at their new trade union office in Nanfang'ao, Taiwan

Franics Kuo, Ilan

July 26, 2013

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About 100 ms inshore in the picturesque fishing port of Nanfang’ao, northeastern Taiwan, a three-story building recently posted a notice in Tagalog announcing Mass.

Before the Mass started, Filipino fishermen arrived early to prepare the altar and seats. It was the monthly gathering they had been looking forward to.

In the past, these migrants held Mass in a church in a nearby town but often their plans clashed with parish activities. The only alternatives were an open-air Mass by the shoreline or to drive about 100kms to a Tagalog Mass in the capital Taipei.

That changed after they set up the Yilan County Fishermen Trade Union (YCFTU) in May. Now these Catholic fishermen finally have a home where they can pray in their own language.

As the first foreign union in Taiwan after the government changed its rigid legislation two years ago, the fishermen are able to use the local union center for Mass.

“But there are many hurdles in the setting up stage,” said union secretary-general Li Lihua, a Taiwanese married to a Filipino.

All documentation in Mandarin has to be translated into Tagalog, she said, and perhaps later English if other foreigners are to follow suit. Furthermore, all the members – about 100 so far – had to adopt Chinese names.

Then there are the general problems that Taiwan's 6,000 migrant fishermen face constantly.

“The workers are only allowed to keep a photocopy of their residence permit as the brokers or employers retain the original to prevent them from fleeing,” said Li.

Many are often not paid the full amount of overtime they are owed, she added, and salaries and meals are often taken away for no reason.

Filipino fisherman Jose Toquero, who works on a trawler in Nanfang’ao, said that his written contract is for eight hours per day. But in reality, that can often turn into 14 hours, and even then rest periods are often spent on the boat.

The pay is between NT$5,000 and NT$8,000 per month (US$167 and $268).

Toquero said that contracts specify five rest days every month but many are spent repairing nets ready to head back out to sea.

“It entirely depends on the employers whether we can have a rest day,” he said. “Some simply do not let their workers take any rest days.”

But with foreign unions now permitted, things are looking up.

The YCFTU is about to put nine demands to the Council of Labor Affairs in Taipei to fight to make the lives of foreign fishermen better.

Meanwhile, in the southern ports of Kaohsiung and Pingtung, other overseas fishermen are following their example with plans to set up unions of their own.

“If the unions could work together, they could get legal protection from exploitation,” Li said.

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