Silicon Sweatshops: Small signs of progress

TANZI, Taiwan — It's just after Sunday morning Mass on an overcast day in in this industrial, non-descript town in central Taiwan.

About 25 women in their 20s and 30s sit on plastic chairs in a meeting room at the back of a Roman Catholic church, dressed in jeans and simple blouses or T-shirts. They're giggling, teasing each other and cracking jokes in Tagalog and English.

They've just listened, along with 400 to 500 other Filipina migrant workers in a packed hall, to a Sunday sermon on forgiveness, loving oneself and rising above one's difficulties in life.

For these women, the difficulties are many. They live hundreds of miles from their husbands and families, sleeping in crowded dorms, to earn money in a strange, foreign land where they have few rights and are routinely exploited — as reported previously in GlobalPost's series "Silicon Sweatshops."

The good news: since that report, conditions have improved for this one small group of Filipina workers at a company supplying Apple and other high-tech brands.

The bad news: it's business as usual for many of the other 370,000 southeast Asian migrant workers in Taiwan, including those assigned to companies in the supply chain of the world's high-tech giants: exorbitant "placement fees," additional "broker fees" deducted from workers' hard-earned pay; and second-class status.

The workers trade away basic freedoms and rights for the chance to earn better money than they could at home. The story's the same in Japan, South Korea and other wealthy East Asian countries, which increasingly import cheap labor from Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam and elsewhere to fill low-end jobs that locals don't want.

A better deal

The 20-some workers at the Taiwan firm Wintek said they had each paid $1,000 to $1,200 in placement, processing and other fees to a Philippines manpower agency to come to Taiwan (Taiwan guidelines supposedly limit such fees to one month's minimum wage, or $540). Then they forked over an additional $45 to $55 per month, or nearly 10 percent of their gross salary, to their Taiwan broker, fees that can add up to $1,800 for each three-year stint abroad and lower their take-home salaries to below minimum wage.

But by March this year, the workers said, Wintek had stopped deducting the monthly "brokers' fee" from their paychecks. Some workers were even reimbursed up to four months of such fees in cash. Brokers gave them back their passports, which until then had been in "safekeeping."

"Please extend to Apple our thanks," one worker said, as other Wintek workers nodded and murmured agreement.

All these changes were made with no explanation from Wintek or the brokers, workers said. They complained that they still hadn't gotten their "chops" — stamps needed for some financial transactions in Taiwan — back from their brokers. There's still no hotline for them to air grievances anonymously.

Nadine Lebrilla. (Jonathan Adams/GlobalPost)

Apple spokesperson Jill Tan declined comment, pointing only to a progress report earlier this year in which the firm highlighted the issue of excessive placement and brokers' fees. The company says it now considers this a "core violation" of its supplier code of conduct. It said its limit for such fees is one month's net wages and said "as a result of our audits and corrective actions, foreign workers had been reimbursed $2.2 million in recruitment fee overcharges."

Wintek spokesman Jay Huang confirmed the changes in a phone interview, but denied that pressure from Apple or any other customer were behind them. "It's not [because of] any pressure from customers," said Huang. "It's because we need to comply with social accountability on workers' rights and benefits. Maybe before, we didn't focus too much on this."

Huang said the changes were part of company-wide measures begun last year to help Wintek earn SA8000 certification (a global "social accountability" standard for corporations developed by Social Accountability International, and in Wintek's case awarded by German certification body TUV, according to Huang). He said Wintek was now paying the monthly Taiwan labor brokers' fees.

Johara Santos, a 28-year-old from Tarlac Province, said she works in a three-woman unit cutting small screens for Apple. She said Wintek officials had not communicated with them about any of the changes, but did warn them that Apple auditors were coming in May. "They told us to clean, and said 'don't talk so much,'" said Santos. "They wanted us to behave."

Another Filipina who gave the name "Lei Ai" works in a four-woman unit making screens she believes are for Apple laptops and iPods. She works on the 8 p.m. to 5 a.m. graveyard shift, taking home $315 per month after deductions including "forced savings," which she can only access in an emergency and with her broker's permission.

She said three to five Apple auditors came to Wintek in May for a week, but didn't talk to the workers. She said she doesn't get enough overtime — she wants to make more money — and that recently Apple had cut its orders.

Little recourse

For the Wintek workers, at least there are some small improvements. But these workers seem to be the exception to the rule.

"Apple has responded," said Father Joy Tajonera, a Filipino-American Roman Catholic priest who runs a shelter in Tanzi and provides other services for migrant workers. "But the problem is, a lot of the other companies haven't."

Two other Filipinas in the group told stories that highlight the lack of rights for many such workers if their job situations turn sour.

Nadine Lebrilla, 25, from Bacolod City in the central Philippines, came to Taiwan last June to earn money. In the Philippines, she had worked on a temporary contract at a mall, earning just $220 per month. Brokers in the Philippines promised her double that in Taiwan, if she first paid them about $1,880 in fees.

But her dreams of riches quickly turned into a nightmare. She was assigned to central Taiwan as a caretaker for a 55-year-old man she described as "alcoholic, diabetic, depressive, a smoker, cannot control his temper." At nights, he would get drunk on Chinese rice wine — shaoxing jiu — then yell, bully and physically attack either his wife, Lebrilla or both. In June, he had a particularly nasty fight with his wife while Lebrilla was home.

He beat up his wife, then threatened Lebrilla, she says. "He told me that if I left my room he would kill me," she said.

Lebrilla's terrified calls to the Taiwan labor office, Philippines labor office and her own broker initially yielded little response — her Taiwan broker at first said he'd come by to check on the situation the next day, before relenting and taking her to a shelter that day.

Being assigned such a boss was a stroke of bad luck. But what followed shows migrant workers' lack of basic recourse in such situations. Lebrilla was told she could file a formal complaint with Taiwan authorities, but it could take six to eight months to resolve, during which time she could not work, and so would receive no salary.

Or she could settle privately with her Taiwan employer and Philippines manpower agency; if so she would have two months to try to find a new job in Taiwan. The catch: neither her Philippines manpower agency nor Taiwan broker had any obligation to help her secure new work.

She chose to settle. Unfortunately, she didn't find a job and so had to return to the Philippines. She had her $1,880 in placement and other fees returned to her, but received no other compensation and so essentially wasted more than two months of her time.

No easy exit

Nerissa Delos Reyes, a 33-year-old from Pagasinan Province and mother of two, was also lured to Taiwan by the promise of higher pay. Wearing a pink Polo shirt and sitting in back of the church in Tanzi, she told her story in a soft, shy voice.

She and her husband grow rice, tobacco and corn on their farm, but don't have enough money for fertilizer and so have a tough time making ends meet. So she said she borrowed $1,880 from friends and her godfather and handed it over to Infinity International Manpower Services, a well-known Philippines placement agency, to secure her work in Taiwan.

She signed a contract to do factory work at Peace Musical, a musical equipment store in Taiwan's Taichung County. She said she paid her Taiwan broker, Lec Chuen International Development, an additional $55 monthly brokers' fee, for doing little else besides helping her secure a Taiwan residence document and open a Taiwan bank account, then keeping her passport and bank documents in "safekeeping" for her.

When she got to Taiwan, however, she says she ended up working 15- to 16-hour days, including both heavy factory work for which she was ill-suited, and nanny work — cooking in the morning and evenings, house-cleaning, and taking care of two babies. She was allowed 5- to 15-minute breaks, and if she tried to rest longer than that her boss would yell at her, she says.

(Peace Musical declined repeated email and phone requests for comment, and one company representative said the person whose name is on Reyes' contract is no longer with the firm. The phone number given on her contract for her Taiwan broker, Lec Chuen, is not currently in service.)

The breaking point came when her boss got angry and accused her of breast-feeding one of the babies. She complained to her broker, saying this wasn't what she'd signed up for and she wanted to go home.

Documents reviewed by GlobalPost show what happens next for such a worker. Like Lebrilla, she opted to settle with her Philippines manpower agency, asking them only for a return of the $1,880 in fees she says she had paid them so that she could go home as soon as possible. She demanded no further compensation for her time or distress and made no formal complaint to Taiwan labor officials or courts.

In a July 16 letter from Infinity to the Philippines labor attache in central Taiwan, a copy of which was obtained by GlobalPost, an Infinity representative said, "We vehemently deny having charged said complainant with a placement fee. The only amount spent by the complainant relative to her application and deployment to Taiwan are her documentation expenses which are legally chargeable to her as per POEA [Philippines Overseas Employment Administration] Rules and Regulations."

The parties went back and forth through late July and early August, according to Reyes, before Infinity agreed to pay her 85,000 pesos (or equal to about $1,880, the amount of fees she says she paid Infinity) to settle her case.

However, she says she also signed an affidavit in Taiwan waiving her right to any future action, saying the "complaint was mistakenly filed by me as it arose from my misapprehension of the facts and circumstances," as well as a separate affidavit saying "what happened is beyond the fault of my Philippine agency, neither my foreign employer but due merely to miscommunication." Copies of both affidavits were obtained by GlobalPost.

In a phone interview, Infinity's Christina Layug said said the company had returned "all the money she [Reyes] was asking" for and "cleared up all the problems."

"The problem with her [Reyes] is she doesn't like to accept the work we gave to her," Layug said. "Some of the applicants and workers, once they agree and are deployed and then they feel they aren't happy, and they want to be repatriated immediately."

"There are a lot of workers in Taiwan, sometimes they do not like their work -- that's why they're complaining. They're not satisfied."

Infinity declined to comment further on Reyes' complaints and case.

"They love your smiles"

Reyes said she had learned alot from the ordeal, and might even consider returning to Taiwan to work again — but not through the same agency. She said she would be more careful about what she agreed to in the future, and offered advice to other Filipina migrant workers like her: "They shouldn't be afraid to ask for help from other people, and pray about their problems."

A fax to Reyes from May 31, after she had been assigned house work in addition to the factory work indicated by her contract, lists do's and don'ts for her new job. It includes some words of encouragement, in slightly mangled English:

"Please do not worry. The employer's family likes you very much. It is just that there are some things that they would like you to adjust a little. We all come from different places and have different habits in life. When living together, we all need some time for adjusting each other."

"They love your smiles. You smiles all the time. They like that. They want you to keep smiling."