Life on the lam: an undocumented migrant worker’s story

Although the exact figure is difficult to ascertain, Ministry of Labor figures suggest there are over 55,000 undocumented migrant workers in Taiwan.

In 2017, the National Immigration Agency announced that it would stop referring to these workers as “runaways.” However, this remains the default description among media and public. The term is misleading. Most workers abscond for one of two reasons: They are out of contract and cannot find another job (sometimes because their brokers won’t assist them) or they have experienced unbearable conditions.

Anita is in the latter category. Arriving in Taiwan from the Philippines as a 24-year-old in 2011, she worked in Taipei, Taoyuan, and Hualien as a caregiver and housekeeper. (Though It’s technically illegal for workers hired for one role to perform another, almost all of them do.)

When she was no longer needed – in two cases because her elderly charge died and in another because the patient recovered – Anita had little problem securing new positions.

Until her last legal job, that is.

“I had a year left on my contract, but couldn’t take any more,” she says. “In my second year, I started feeling pain in my back. Their home was not designed for wheelchairs, so I carried Grandpa from the bed to the wheelchair outside every day.”

Fit and energetic, Anita could handle hard work; but the strain took its toll. “He weighed 78 kilograms,” says Anita, who tips the scales at 46kg.  “The boss wouldn’t find anyone to help,” she says. “For six months, I wanted to leave, but she wouldn’t let me.”

Eventually, Anita took the plunge. “I became an actress,” she says. “That’s what we call people who work illegally – actors and actresses.”

Financial considerations were also an incentive – an indictment of the woeful salaries most legal migrant workers receive. “My best friend was already an actress and earning double my salary,” Anita says.

Before arriving in Taiwan, Anita’s life was marked by hardship. Growing up in a remote mountain hamlet in Batangas Province, she made the arduous roundtrip to school on foot, setting out at 4:30 a.m. on a journey that required crossing five rivers. “Five hours if you ran for parts,” she says.

There was no electricity and TV was limited to peeks through the window of an auntie’s house – another mighty schlep through the countryside. “She didn’t want us in the house as we were dirty,” Anita recalls.

Foraging for food was the norm; protein was often scarce. Yet, she recalls the period with fondness. “My house was five steps from the river. We caught crabs, frogs, shrimps and eels,” she says. “Ferns, wild tomatoes … jackfruit, cucumber, papaya, string beans – you could pick it all. It was a paradise!”

FEELING UNWANTED

Things changed when her parents separated. Not yet a teenager, Anita was sent to work as a housemaid, 70 kilometers northeast in neighboring Laguna Province.

“My father took my older brother; my mother took my younger. It felt like no one wanted me,” she says, her voice cracking and eyes welling up.

Since then, with a brief respite when she returned to high school for a spell, most of the money she has earned has been sent home.

After two years at a Samsung plant in Calamba city, Laguna, where agents took half of her NT$6,000 monthly salary and the other half was sent home, she applied for a job in Saudi Arabia. An uncle had prospered in Dubai, and Anita, now mother to a 5-year-old daughter, wanted “to give my family a good life.”

From the moment the plane landed, Anita realized life would be more restricted than ever. As they disembarked, the passengers were separated. “Men on the left, women on the right. We were immediately handed a black gown.”

Modest attire was a must. In the presence of men, this meant the works. “They would shout ‘man!’ before they came into the room, and you had to quickly put the burqa on,” she recalls.

VIRTUAL PRISONER

For 2-1/2 years, her only glimpses of outside were the rooftops from an upper-story window and the streets from behind the tinted windows of a van on a couple of visits to “madam’s relatives.”  She was effectively held captive for the last six months – a familiar theme in her working life. Two months after returning home, she was off to Taiwan. “It was twice my salary in Saudi,” she says.

Fast forward 11 years and, while undeniably better, things have not changed much in some regards. Although no longer under contract, Anita was prevented from leaving her most recent position by a temperamental employer. “She wouldn’t even let me go out, and threatened to call the police if I left,” she says.

Finally, a replacement was found, but on the day she left, Anita heard her younger brother had died. With most of her salary in Taiwan going toward the purchase of a house for her mother, her sibling’s protracted illness had been a further drain.

Despite the insecurity of being freelance – she is currently doing part-time and temp jobs – Anita now has control of her situation and is far happier than she has been at any point in her working life. Since she began working as a child, she has barely had a break in 15 years. It wasn’t until 2014 that she got her first half-day in Taiwan.

She has made up for this recently, becoming a passionate hiker who favors challenging trails. “I got content to look outside from windows. I thought that’s the way it is,” she says. “I missed a big part of life. Seeing people posting their adventures on Facebook, I realized there is something else.”

 

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