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Labor violations are the norm at factories making high-tech gadgets.

Silicon Sweatshops: Shattered dreams

Migrant workers making gadgets at Taiwan's high-tech parks sign deals that make them modern-day indentured servants.

[Editor’s note: Silicon Sweatshops is a five-part investigation of the supply chains that produce many of the world’s most popular technology products, from Apple iPhones, to Nokia cell phones, Dell keyboards and more. The series examines the scope of the problem, including its effects on workers from the Philippines, Taiwan and China. It also looks at a novel factory program that may be a blueprint for solving this perennial industry problem.]

TANZI, Taiwan — For Filipina workers at the export processing zone here, complaining too loudly about your employer can get you fired.

So says Father Joy Tajonera, who preaches and helps such workers from his center here on busy Zhongshan Road as part of the Ugnayan Migrant and Immigrant Ministry.

"Women who stand up for their rights end up losing their jobs," said Tajonera. "Their names will be blacklisted, so they can't come back [to work in Taiwan]. So they say 'let's keep quiet.'"

After dark on a September night, before the start of her shift, one such Filipina worker, 25, walked from her dorm, past a jumble of shops and traffic on Zhongshan Road, through Tajonera's humble first-floor Catholic chapel, and up the stairs. She, too, was afraid to talk, and asked to be called "Claire."

She sat on a couch on the second floor, with Tajonera beside her. Then she described the deal with the devil she made to work in Taiwan.

First, she had to pay a 50,000 pesos ($1,050) "placement fee" in the Philippines. She borrowed half that. The limit for such fees should be about $550 under Taiwan regulations.

The young woman then handed over her passport to her broker, who still has it in "safe keeping." Now, she works the 8 p.m. to 5 a.m. graveyard shift at the high-tech firm Wintek. She makes Taiwan's minimum wage, $550 per month.

But in the first year, her take-home salary was just $300, after taxes and deductions for her monthly brokers' fee, dorm fee and "forced savings.” The latter is a practice by which brokers keep part of a worker's salary in hock until their contract is finished.

Reverend Joy Tajonera, who helps migrant workers in Taiwan.
(Jonathan Adams/GlobalPost)

Southeast Asian migrant workers like Claire pay huge fees to brokers and take out crippling loans for a job in one of Taiwan's high-tech parks. They're here for three-year stints on the floors of factories churning out parts for cell phones, printers, scanners and other gadgets.

They'll clock as many hours as possible, to send money to the families they've left behind in the Philippines. During their off-hours, they sleep six or seven to a room in soulless dorms in or near the industrial parks.

A proud “breadwinner”

The Wintek factory where Claire works is one of the world's top suppliers of handset panels. It supplies Finland's Nokia. It also makes panels for Motorola and Apple, possibly including iPod Touch panels and iPhone panels, according to current and former employees, labor activists and industry analysts.

In recent months the firm has also been mentioned by Taiwan's Commercial Times, Dow Jones and other media as a possible supplier of touch screens for Apple's much-hyped, supposedly forthcoming "iTablet" gadget.

Motorola declined to comment. Neither Wintek nor Apple will confirm the two companies' business ties, citing confidentiality. Current and former workers say it's common knowledge that Apple is a customer, but describe a secretive process in which components are shipped with no logos, and not directly to Apple.

Three other Filipina migrant workers at Wintek reported placement fees, deductions, passport "safe-keeping" and "forced savings" similar to Claire's. Seven migrant workers at other firms in the same export zone reported to GlobalPost placement fees from $945 to $1,675.

All the fees, loans and salary deductions can add up to more than a year's wages, making Taiwan's foreign workers' scheme a modern-day form of indentured servitude.

Economic conditions in the Philippines are so bleak that thousands gladly accept such arrangements. In three years they can still make more than they could back home — provided they complete their full contract.

"I could find a job there [in the Philippines] but it can't meet my family's needs," said Claire. "I'm happy