Taking on Human Trafficking
BY CHRIS LASKOWSKI
Taiwan has improved its international reputation, but more needs to be done to protect foreign workers.
On August 26, 2003, a group of maritime smugglers dumped their cargo into the sea off of the coast of Miaoli County as they attempted to escape the Taiwan Coast Guard. But their cargo that day included 22 Chinese women who were being trafficked into Taiwan, presumably to be forced into prostitution. Six of the women thrown overboard drowned.
In the following years, foreign observers visiting Taiwan saw how women smuggled into the country, like the survivors of the 2003 incident, were treated – held in detention centers, waiting to be repatriated because they violated the immigration law. By 2006, the U.S. State Department, in its annual report on trafficking in persons, had downgraded its assessment of Taiwan’s response to human trafficking from the highest level to nearly the lowest possible. This negative international publicity finally prompted the government to take action.
Since then, the Legislative Yuan has enacted new laws and the Council of Labor Affairs and the National Immigration Agency have adopted new policies aimed at preventing human trafficking, protecting foreign workers and victims of trafficking, and punishing those who violate the law. These steps allowed Taiwan to be restored to the highest level of assessment in the U.S. State Department’s 2010 report. But as with many public policy problems, advocates fear that most of the improvements have come on paper only, and not necessarily in the lives of foreign workers and victims of sex-and labor-trafficking in Taiwan.
Human trafficking is usually defined as the recruiting, transporting, or holding of people by some coercive means – including force, fraud, or abuse of power – for the purpose of sexual or labor exploitation. Some call it a form of modern-day slavery. This definition, includes women smuggled into the country and forced into prostitution, but it also includes workers who come to Taiwan legally and end up working long hours with no breaks and no freedom of movement – and sometimes without fair compensation.
Sex trafficking often gets the headlines, and it is easier to define. But according to government statistics, exploitation of foreign workers is actually more prevalent. Of the 156 victims of trafficking that the government identified in the first eight months of 2010, 109 held a legal employment visa and only 23 were identified as victims of sexual exploitation. In 2009, 231 of 329 identified victims entered the country with a valid work visa.
Trafficking is not a new phenomenon in Taiwan. Years ago, young aboriginal girls were frequently sold into brothels in Taiwan cities. Advocates pushed for legal reform, and in 1995 the Legislative Yuan approved the Prevention of Child and Juvenile Sexual Trafficking Law. For many years this was the only law on the books dealing with human trafficking, and it was effective in reducing underage forced prostitution. But by the early 2000s, advocates noticed an increasing number of women being trafficked into Taiwan from other countries – particularly from China – and issued reports calling for additional reforms.
The 2003 drowning incident brought the problem to public attention. And in 2005, a group of mostly Thai workers who were helping to build the Kaoshiung MRT and living in a dorm run by an outside contractor vented their longstanding frustrations about unfair living and working conditions – from bans on smoking and cell-phone use during their personal time to unpaid overtime wages – through riots that caused an estimated NT$10 million (about US$322,000) in damages. Despite the obvious inequities and domestic calls for reform, it took outside pressure to bring change.
Every year since 2001, the U.S. Department of State has issued a Trafficking in Persons Report, an influential document often called the TIP Report. The report assigns countries to one of three tiers based on their commitment to addressing human trafficking and exploitation. From 2001 to 2004, Taiwan was listed in the highest tier – indicating that the government was adequately responding to trafficking problems. But in 2005, partly because of concerns about the treatment of Chinese women who were smuggled into Taiwan (specifically that these women often spent long periods in detention centers before being returned to China) and partly because the 1995 law was no longer seen as adequate to address international trafficking, the United States downgraded Taiwan to Tier 2.
The 2005 TIP Report also noted that “sham marriages” were increasing at an alarming rate. These are marriages where foreign women, often Vietnamese, immigrate to Taiwan legally in order to marry a Taiwanese man, but are forced into prostitution and/or abused by their “husband” after arrival. Then in 2006 Taiwan was placed on a list of countries in danger of falling to the lowest level of trafficking response. The 2006 report added concerns about foreign workers (most of whom had entered the country legally and were not involved in the sex industry), noting that a lack of regulations governing the recruitment of foreign workers could “lead to situations of involuntary servitude.”
Specifically, labor brokers in Taiwan and in the foreign workers’ country of origin often collect huge fees from workers, who are then forced to repay these fees once they begin working in Taiwan. In some cases, workers receive no salary once all outstanding fees are deducted from their paycheck. Because of the financial leverage employers hold over foreign workers in these circumstances, the workers are often afraid to report mistreatment.
New law in effect
In response to the criticisms in the TIP Reports, the Legislative Yuan in 2009 passed an Act Preventing Trafficking in Persons, the culmination of an Action Plan for the Prevention of Trafficking in Persons that the Executive Yuan promulgated in 2006. The law authorizes punishment for anyone using improper means to force others to work for compensation that is not commensurate with the work done; this is meant to protect foreign workers coming to Taiwan with artificially large debts. It also specifically outlaws trafficking for the sex industry, expanding the ban on child prostitution in the 1995 law.
The new law took effect in June 2009, and in 2010 Taiwan returned to the small group of Tier 1 countries in the TIP Report. In addition to the new law, the Executive Yuan set up an interagency task force to coordinate the efforts of the various agencies involved in preventing trafficking and protecting foreign workers in Taiwan – primarily the Council of Labor Affairs (CLA) and the National Immigration Agency (NIA).
In general, the response to trafficking focuses on what is often called the 3 P’s: prevention, protecting and punishing. Over the last several years many changes have been made in these areas. NIA, the National Police Agency (NPA), and the Coast Guard Administration, for example, have stepped up their investigations into human trafficking. One eight-month investigation, in which NIA worked in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, led to arrests of several members of a human smuggling syndicate that was funneling young girls through Taiwan into the United States.
In January 2009, the Coast Guard began an investigation that led to the arrest of eight suspects and the rescue of 13 women who had been forced into the sex industry in Taiwan. Because trafficking is necessarily an international issue, NIA has worked to create stronger relationships with foreign authorities – meeting with U.S. and Japanese officials and recently hosting a conference attended by officials from 15 foreign countries.
Unfortunately, despite efforts to prevent trafficking, there are still many victims in Taiwan. NIA, CLA, and NPA have hotlines that workers or the public can use to report abuses of foreign workers or victims of sex trafficking. NIA has 25 specialized operations brigades that seek out victims of trafficking and coordinate with local police to investigate complaints. CLA has 240 investigators who respond to complaints and seek out violations of all labor laws, including abuses of foreign workers.
The NPA, Coast Guard, the Ministry of Justice Investigation Bureau, and the prosecutors’ office also all have developed special task forces focusing on human trafficking. These units have been successful in identifying more victims of trafficking in Taiwan; the numbers have increased from 51 and 55 victims identified in 2007 and 2008 respectively, to 329 last year and 156 in the first eight months of 2010. There is no way to know how many victims remained unidentified, however.
One of the main obstacles to fully addressing human trafficking problems in Taiwan is a lack of public awareness and understanding. Sandy Yeh, now a professor at the Central Police University, says that when she headed the Taipei Women’s Rescue Foundation (TWRF), she was often asked: “Why should we help foreigners and prostitutes when there are so many in Taiwan who need help?” Regina Fuchs, a sociologist at the HOPE Workers’ Center in Jhongli, adds that at a recent NIA conference a judge admitted that many of his colleagues did not understand trafficking issues, and a prosecutor echoed this statement.
Advocates say that judges often throw out evidence because of discrepancies between victims’ testimony at trial and statements made when they were first arrested, not understanding that many victims are at first reluctant to tell the truth, fearing retaliation from their employers or abusers. Police can be reluctant to get involved in trafficking cases out of belief that if a victim came to Taiwan willingly, disputes about work conditions are a matter to be resolved between employee and employer.
The government has taken several steps to combat these misconceptions. At the Central Police University, foreign affairs police officers get extensive training in issues relating to in human trafficking. NIA holds training sessions for prosecutors and police, and also invites local-level officials to attend. NGOs also work to educate judges, prosecutors, and the public. But most educational materials, especially for public consumption, are produced abroad and so are often dismissed as irrelevant to Taiwan.
Further, many advocates report that the sentences handed down in human trafficking cases are far too light, citing this as evidence that judges and prosecutors do not truly understand trafficking and exploitation. NIA data shows that in 2009, 68% of the sentences in these cases were for less than six months. One proposed solution is to establish special courts to try these cases, so as to ensure that judges really understand the issues involved.
Taiwan opened its borders to foreign workers in 1989 to address labor supply shortages. Today around 90% of the foreign workers in Taiwan come from four countries: the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, and Vietnam. In January 2009, the CLA counted over 355,000 foreign workers in Taiwan, almost all of them either in manufacturing/construction (approximately 49%) or engaged as domestic caretakers (over 48%).
A major problem facing foreign workers in Taiwan is that existing labor protection laws generally do not cover domestic help. Although CLA is currently drafting a law to protect domestic workers, advocates worry that live-in caregivers are so numerous that it is nearly impossible to monitor their working conditions, making them particularly vulnerable to abuse.
Caring for the caregivers
In a major initiative that has already benefited many trafficking victims, CLA and NIA last year started funding a total of 19 NGO-run shelters around Taiwan. In the past, victims were often arrested and placed in detention centers to await repatriation. Today, they are placed in one of the shelters, safe from exploitation. Victims are also allowed to continue working. CLA helps those without valid work permits to obtain or extend their documentation; it also helps victims to find a new job or enroll in vocational training programs. Additionally, victims are urged to cooperate with prosecutors, with the help of translators, to bring their traffickers to justice.
The exorbitant fees – often more than US$10,000 – charged by the brokers who brought them to Taiwan is another problem facing foreign workers in Taiwan. Employers often garnishee workers’ wages until the fees are repaid. In addition, workers often have to pay monthly fees to these brokers even after they are in Taiwan, sometimes reducing the effective salary to nearly zero after all the fees have been deducted.
Besides the financial burden this places on guest workers, who are often paid minimum wage, it also gives employers leverage over the employee. Workers fear that reporting abuses by their employers will deprive them of their only chance to repay this debt, leaving relatives vulnerable to threats by brokers in their home country. CLA recently adopted new regulations capping the monthly fees that brokers based in Taiwan can collect and banning Taiwan-based brokers from collecting fees on behalf of foreign counterparts (though many brokers and employers continue to assist foreign agents because they are a reliable source of cheap labor).
CLA has issued recommendations to foreign brokers and foreign governments stating that brokerage fees should not exceed one month’s wages for a minimum-wage worker (NT$17,280). But while CLA can threaten to revoke the license of a Taiwan-based broker, and it has concluded agreements with some foreign governments to share information and encourage direct hiring programs, it has no authority over foreign companies, and most countries have shown little interest in capping brokerage fees. CLA also now requires that foreign workers, the employer, and brokers in the sending country and Taiwan all sign an affidavit clearly outlining the worker’s salary and expenses before the worker comes to Taiwan. This measure is only effective, however, if the workers are willing and able to report violations after they arrive in Taiwan – and many are not.
Since 2007, CLA has permitted direct-hiring services to allow foreign workers (and employers) to bypass brokers altogether. But this procedure has not been widely utilized. In 2009, less than 10% of the foreign workers entering Taiwan were hired directly. For the program to be effective, it will need to be more widely publicized in workers’ countries of origin.
Public education remains an important issue for those seeking to combat trafficking, including the education of foreign workers themselves. CLA has begun handing out information packets to arriving workers at the airport, but advocates say that brokers often take the materials before the workers have a chance to read them. And despite the hotlines that agencies have provided for reporting abuses, many foreign workers come from countries where the police are not to be trusted, and so are reluctant to contact the authorities.
Advocates and government officials agree that Taiwan’s unique political status is also an obstacle. Successfully combating trafficking nearly always involves international cooperation, and since Taiwan cannot participate in most international organizations, it is shut out from many channels of cooperation with other countries. The lack of extradition agreements with many countries also makes it difficult to apprehend human-trafficking suspects when they are abroad.
Substantial progress has been made, but some of the biggest tasks remain. First, Taiwan must see that the new laws put in place are enforced effectively. Officials must find a way to control excessive brokerage fees, and they must ensure that domestic caregivers –nearly half of the foreign workers in Taiwan – enjoy the same protections as other workers. The government has put promising ideas into place. Now it must live up to the goals it has set for itself.
— Chris Laskowksi, a graduate of The George Washington University Law School, is a member of the Maryland bar.