Thursday, July 30, 2009


My  students  in  the  Philippines call  me Sir Buddy,  and  I  am their happy, contented, and fulfilled teacher and friend.

I came to Tzu Chi University in Hualien City, Taiwan Republic of China to study Mandarin Chinese, and after finishing my language course, I decided to stay here in Taiwan to work for and serve the migrant workers from the Philippines. I was 43 then, not yet too late to live the life of service for others.

I first came to Taiwan on October 24, 2006 as a tourist. I was invited to visit Taiwan by my sister Tina who works as information officer of FFTC (Food and Fertilizer Technology Center), an international agricultural organization based in Taipei City.
I stayed in Taiwan for ten days and when I visited Hualien City, I found the place awesomely beautiful. Then, I was struck with astonishment when I saw the gorgeous Taroko Gorge. I found Taiwan an exceptionally beautiful country and immediately fell in love with it. After my very short but memorable visit courtesy of my sister Tina, I bid Taiwan a promise, "I shall return."

In my passionate and adamant desire to be back in Taiwan, I applied for a slot in the 2007 Taiwan Scholarship Program with TECO or Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Manila. Fortunately at my age, I was granted the scholarship and was sent to Tzu Chi University in Hualien City, the school of my choice to study Mandarin Chinese for six months under the 2007 Taiwan Scholarship Program. I set foot in Hualien City for the second time on September 10, 2007, the start of the new episode in my life in my early forties.

I got excited with all the new things that I had been encountering in Taiwan---rich culture, friendly people, adorable places, interesting language, artful system of writings, savory food, magnificent temples, and many more.
I came to know Tzu Chi University as an ideal place to study, a conducive place to learn, and a "fertile soil" to grow intellectually and spiritually. I found Hualien City a shangrila, a haven of natural beauty where the mighty Pacific ocean meets the majestic mountains. Everywhere and anywhere I looked at seemed to me a picture of esthetic and an intricate image of balance and order. But not until I visited St. Paul's Catholic Church at 34 Min Guo Road.

At St. Paul's Catholic Church, an exactly different picture of Taiwan was revealed to me. There, I found out that behind the veil of Taiwan's unspeakable and outstanding beauty, a disturbing and saddening truth was hidden. There were the tired, exhausted, and sorrowful faces of my countrymen, faces of the Filipino migrant workers---domestic helpers, caregivers, fishermen, and marble factory workers. The parish priest of St. Paul's Catholic Church is Father Jean-Pierre Richard, MEP, a young and energetic French missionary who had been trying his best to help the Filipino migrant workers with their problems. The moment I saw him and knew what he had been doing to alleviate the sufferings of the Filipino migrant workers, I started to admire him and to refer to him as "foreigner helping foreigners in foreign land." Then gradually, as days passed bay, I developed an urge to help Father Richard in his mission with the Filipino migrant workers. I could sense that it was a calling from God, a calling to serve Him by doing mission for my weary countrymen.

So, after finishing my Mandarin Chinese course in Tzi Chi University, I decided to stay in Taiwan, not so much because of its astounding beauty and amazing qualities but because of my sense of Christian love for others and the strong urge within me to work for and serve my people, the Filipino migrant workers in Hualien. I talked to Fr. Richard and expressed to him my desire to help and assist him in his mission for the migrants and work as catechist for the Filipino church-goers. That was the commencement of our partnership in our mission program for the migrant workers.

Right now, I work full-time and round-the-clock as catechist and social worker for the Filipino migrant workers. I work hand-in-hand with Fr. Jean-Pierre Richard, MEP in running the Catholic Migrant Chaplaincy of Hualien or CMCH formerly known as the Filipino Catholic Community Apostolate or FCCA which Father Richard and I formulated and instituted. The CMCH is a Catholic, non-profit, humanitarian, and socially-oriented mission program for the migrant workers in Hualien most of whom are Filipinos. The role of CMCH is to attend to the pastoral, spiritual, and other support needs of the workers and to help in their labor-related and other personal problems. The life of a migrant worker is not easy, it is a life of utmost sacrifice, it is a life beset by problems that range from the ordinary to the most bizarre like the following:1. difficulties in adjusting to and coping with the Taiwanese culture and social order
2. language problem
3. extreme homesickness
4. loneliness and depression
5. marital and domestice problem back home
6. adulterous relationship
7. vices
8. unbearable workloads
9. over-fatigue
10. sickness
11. occupational accident

To address these problems, the CMCH has the following activities to offer them: Sunday Mass, confession, Marian cenacle or prayer meeting, hospital and factory visit to the sick workers, actual caregiving to sick workers in hospital, spiritual guidance counseling, or by just talking and listening to them.

The migrant workers also encounter a variety of labor related problems. Many of them fall victims to unscrupulous and exploitative employment agencies in the Philippines in-cahoots with equally unscrupulous and exploitative brokers in Taiwan. A number of them also suffer maltreatment and abuse from callous and cruel employers. Most of the labor cases that I have handled involving the migrant workers as victims are the following:

1. illegal charging of exorbitant placement fee
2. violation of contract (illegal employer, illegal transfer, and illegal work)
3. unpaid salary
4. undue termination of work contract
5. no day off
6. no overtime pay
7. maltreatment
8. physical and verbal abuse
9. forced repatriation
There are existing malignant anomalies and corruptions within the overseas employment scheme in Taiwan which the poor and vulnerable Filipino migrant workers fall into. On top of this is the overcharging of employment placement fee by the Philippine private employment agencies in-cahoots with the Taiwan employment brokerages. To be able to get an employment slot in Taiwan, an applicant is asked to pay an exorbitant amount as employment placement fee which is way above the legal amount. The legal amount of placement fee in the Philippines is equivalent to one month salary of a factory worker which is NT$17, 280 ( PhP24,192) , and of a domestic helper and caregiver which is NT$ 15,840 (PhP22,176), plus the documentation costs. However, the placement fee being charged to the worker ranges from PhP90,000 to as enormously high as PhP150,00. Thus, a Filipino agent and a Taiwanese broker form a criminal partnership that victimizes and preys on the would be migrant worker.The applicant then borrows money from loan sharks and usurers at exorbitant interest rate just to satisfy the greed of the Filipino agent and Taiwanese broker. Usually, the full payment of placement fee is demanded and extracted two days or the day before the worker is scheduled to leave for Taiwan. The pitiful applicant is then left with no choice---it's take it or take it situation for her or him. The worker pays without receiving any receipt of the actual amount the she or he has paid. Thus in Taiwan, the worker works doubly hard for to reasons: to send money to his love ones back home, and to pay his debts. It is a common knowledge among Filipino migrant workers in Taiwan that a worker does not really earn for the first year of his 3-year work because almost all his earnings for 1 year are used up to pay for his debts.

There is another equally obnoxious but cleverly subtle scheme in extracting exorbitant placement fee from the worker. The worker is asked to pay the legal amount that is allowed by law and she or he gets a receipt for that. However, before the workers leaves for Taiwan, she or he is asked to sign a letter or a note which states that she or he borrowed an amount of money from the her or his Taiwan broker to pay for the placement fee, and that the said amount will be paid by installment in Taiwan by deducting it every month from the workers salary. If the worker does not sign the note, he stays. Thus, confronted with this situation, the worker becomes a willing victim, signs the letter, and off she or he goes to Taiwan.
Another classic example of evil practice in overseas employment in Taiwan is the wanton violation of of the worker's employment contract. So, after paying huge amount of placement fee to the employment agency, the life of a Filipino migrant worker starts becoming even more problematic when she or he finds out upon arriving in Taiwan that she or he must perform jobs that are contrary and totally different to the details stipulated in the work contract that is signed and agreed upon in the Philippines with the employment agency. For instance, a female worker hired as caregiver for an old patient will find out out to her dismay that there is actually no old patient to take care of in her employer's home but only toddlers to baby-sit, a big family to cook food for, a dirty house to clean, and her employer's restaurant nearby to serve. A male worker who underwent training as forklift operator as required prior to deployment to Taiwan will find out that his training which he paid for is of no use at all. There is no forklift in the factory to operate but slabs of marble and granite to cut and polish.
To address these labor related problems, my office has telephone hotline that a worker in distress can call anytime in case of immediate assistance. I listen the problem of the worker, diligently taking notes of the details, assess and evaluate the case and then I connect and discuss the problem with other agencies, offices, or organizations . Most of the times, I seek the assistance of the Philippine Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA) and the Manila Economic and Cultural Office (MECO) in Taipei City. I also call the local office of Taiwan's labor bureau, the Council for Labor Affairs of CLA. In some cases, I have sought the help of other religious organizations and agencies that also do mission works for and serve the interests of the migrant laborers like the Daughters of Charity of Saint Vincent de Paul in the nearby county.

The first case of Filipino migrant worker in-distress that I handled was the case of Madel, a young Filipina who was working as all-around domestic helper in the nearby Taitung County. In her letter sent to me, she wrote, "I am afraid...I don't know what to do...I need your help so that I can solve my problems here. You and God are my only hope." Madel is a classic epitome of migrant worker from the Philippines who dream for a better paying employment in Taiwan, but suffered from horrible nightmare instead. She fell victim to an scrupulous Taiwanese broker and a slave driver Taiwanese employer. In her work contract, she was supposed to work as caregiver for an old sick woman. She had already prepared and trained herself to work as caregiver only to find out upon meeting her employer that she had to work an assortment of back-breaking jobs under three other employers related to each other.In her letter, she recited the litany of her everyday calvary from 4:00 am as restaurant all-around servant, onto 2:00 pm as house cleaner and laundry washer, then back to the house as cook and dish washer, then back to the restaurant at 3:00 pm as steamed-bread (mantou) baker, then back to the house as cook and dishwasher at 6:00 pm...and lastly, as stacker in an appliance store until 8:00 pm. Only then she could attend to her personal chores before she could finally lay her nearly-broken back to rest. She was physically exhausted and emotionally drained, felt gravely cheated and could not carry on. And worst, she had no day-off and barred from using cellphone to communicate and talk to other migrant workers in the area.Through the concerted effort of Father Richard, of Sister Teresa and Sister Maty of the Daughters of Charity of Saint Vincent de Paul, of OWWA-MECO in Kaoshung City, and yours truly, we were able to help Madel, save her from the hell she fell into, and send her back home in Pangasinan, Philippines, bringing with her all her compensation benefits, her bitter memories, and a story of her encounter with God through His faitfull servants.
The most distressing and daunting experience that I have ever had in serving the migrant workers was when I took care of a sick factory worker in the hospital and stayed overnight in his room to watch over him. He was a cancer patient undergoing chemotherapy. His muscular and robust body all of a sudden had turned into frail and feeble flesh and bones. He was terribly hungry but could not eat. Every now and then he would vomit gluey liquid from his stomach, and throw out so painfully hard into a small bucket I was holding for him. He was crying, craving to be with his family...and wishing to die. I was beside him all night long, offering care, extending help, providing hope, and giving strenght while I myself was becoming weak and weary viewing the surreal scene right before my very eyes. I was not ready for that. But I had to hold on and I needed to be strong in order to give him strength.
Our mission program has been very successful in dealing with the problems of the Filipino migrant workers in here in Hualien. Father Richard has been very faithfull and dutiful in providing pastoral and liturgical services to them. On my part, I'm doing my very best to help to the utmost of my abilities. I can not do much to give the migrant workers all the help they need to make their lives more bearable. There is so much to be done to the overseas employment and deployment of workers to Taiwan to get rid the system of the corruption, anomaly, deception, exploitation, and depravity that have been victimizing the Filipino migrant workers and making their lives miserable and less dignified. The system is so huge and the evil within it is enormous. I can only do so little to change it or nothing I can do at all. I have my own limitations, and I'm not getting any younger, but not yet that old to commit myself to the service of others for the greater glory of God, AD MAJOREM DEI GLORIAM.

We often hear the saying, "Life begins at forty." Well, I say life can begin at any point in your life when you realize that your life after all is worth living by making a difference in other people's lives. Moreover, you can actually inject meaning into your life by identifying, fulfilling, and accomplishing the very purpose of your existence. We also often talk about mid-life crisis. Well, I can only talk about mid-life happiness that I have been expriencing and hope to experience till the end of the second half of my life...and beyond.