11/15/2005, 00.00
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Taiwan's new slaves, Thai migrants

by Weena Kowitwanij

At a conference organised by the Bishops' Conference of Thailand, human rights activists and missionaries highlight the plight of Thai migrants abroad, who have to endure hunger, violence and abuse for little money.

Bangkok (AsiaNews) – Conditions for Thai workers in Taiwan "are awful. They look more like slaves than workers," said Fr Jerry Martinson, a Taipei-based missionary, at a conference in Bangkok on the "Hardships and suffering of Thai workers in foreign countries" organised by the Thai Workers Assistance Centre of the Bishops' Conference of Thailand and the Hope Assistance Centre in Jonglee, Taipei.

"My home is close to a factory where many Thais work," Father Martinson said. "When I see them every morning I greet them in Thai saying Sawaddee Krab (Good Morning), and they smile back even though they work like animals in the sweltering heat."

"They can't speak English or Chinese, and cannot talk to anyone. And because their names are long and hard to pronounce, supervisors use numbers instead to call them. To me they look more like prisoners than workers."

"They work all day long in places that are often filthy, and women are victims of sexual abuse," the missionary explained. To make matters worse, "bosses take away their passports when they arrive so that they can't get away. And when companies are in financial difficulties, they are simply not paid."

"The problem involves even more people when the migrant workers go home without enough money after a year abroad, because they are often abandoned by their wives and families."

In his presentation, Akraporn Banchongsil, from the Hope Assistance Centre, spoke about the protests by Thai workers that took place last August 21 when some 300 of them set fire to some buildings in Kangshan protesting against their living conditions. The incident was serious enough that Taiwan's Labour Minister Chen Chu resigned as a result.

"The main problems are salaries and living conditions," said Banchongsil. "Workers are often forced to live in dormitories for 220 people without adequate sanitary facilities. Food is never sufficient for all forcing workers to spend their own money to feed themselves. They also can't use the phone and whoever tries can be fined up to 2,000 Taiwanese dollars (about US$ 77)."

Security agents enforce the rules laid down by the employers in "factories and dormitories using electric truncheons against anyone who protests".

"In some cases, employers ship problem workers home. Payday is often late and salaries are paid to the workers' 'agents' and not to the workers themselves. Agents then give the workers at most a 1,000 Taiwan dollars," he said. "The 140,000 or so workers can work 100 to 160 hours but are paid only 46. Overtime does not exist."

"In case of accident, workers are sent away without pay. In the last ten months I have seen at least a hundred workers end up like this," he added.

What is more, people have to pay to get a job. Term Laiyarat, who comes from Umnardcharoen province, said: "I had to pay US$ 4,500 instead of the 1,500 the government demanded".

Ornatda Toh-nak, who comes from Chonburi, added: "I had rice paddies that I gave as collateral to borrow US$ 3,250 to come here. I should warn anyone who thinks that they found the goose with golden eggs to think twice before coming because they'll face unexpected and unthinkable things".

Samarn Duongsithong, who hails from the province of Sakonnakorn, said that "he was sent away without even a penny as compensation after suffering a disabling accident in factory. Before you leave, be careful; farming in Thailand is not such a bad thing."

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