A homeless Muslim Uighur woman sleeps in Urumqi on July 5, 2010.
Credit: Peter Parks

TAIPEI, Taiwan — Yeni arrived in Taiwan expecting wedding bells and confetti. But instead of well-wishers and cake, all she got were 18-hour days in a tofu factory and a date with immigration police.

Yeni, who like many Indonesians goes by one name, had fallen victim to a common scam used by human trafficking rings to lure women to Taiwan, and then into exploitative or forced labor — or worse still, prostitution. The husband Yeni thought she had arranged to marry through a broker in 2005 didn't exist, police said. In his place was an abusive “employer” at a tofu factory, who withheld her wages despite forcing her to work up to 130 hours a week.

Her story mirrors that of tens of thousands of Southeast Asians, most of whom arrive in the island republic hoping to earn a better living for their impoverished families back home. Despite Taiwan's economic success, trafficking and other abusive practices are prevelant, and give rise to companies like Apple supplier Foxconn, which has come under international criticism for brutally exploiting its workers.

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Rounded up in a police sweep as if she were a criminal, Yeni wound up in a prison cell earlier this year, where she awaits deportation back to her hardscrabble corner of Indonesia. Police say that the 38-year-old, who is owed back pay for more than 6,000 hours of overtime, is being “repatriated” because the passport her employer confiscated has expired. There was no word on how, or if, the factory owner would be punished.

Labor activists say Yeni’s case is emblematic of how authorities turn a blind eye to abuses of foreign workers’ rights.

“That’s slavery. There are anti-human-trafficking laws in Taiwan and the prosecutor’s office should charge bosses like this,” says Hsin-Hsing Chen, associate professor of social transformation studies at Taipei’s Shih-Hsin University.

“There is a nationalist sentiment among lawyers, prosecutors and judges who tend to be biased against foreign migrant workers because they are from economically disadvantageous countries. Too often they think they’re just making trouble here.”

According to the US State Department’s 2011 Trafficking in Persons Report, this diplomatically isolated island 100 miles off China’s southern coast is “a destination territory for men, women, and children subjected to sex trafficking and forced labor.” (The report gives Taiwan the highest ranking, "Tier 1," but that doesn't mean its trafficking problems are solved. Rather, it means Taiwan has recognized that there is a problem and has begun to address it.)

While the report makes note of the country’s Labor Standards Law, which prohibits forced labor, it takes exception to “an unknown number of Taiwan nationals and nearly 160,000 foreign workers — approximately half of Taiwan’s migrant workforce,” who are not protected under the law’s basic tenants of working conditions, minimum pay rates, forced labor and work hours.

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Most foreign workers' problems start at home, where they are susceptible to brokers offering the promise of marriage abroad or a reasonable-sounding job in a neighboring country or further afield. Labor brokers charge up to $8,000 in employment placement fees. That debt, often owed to unsavory brokers or the smuggling rings themselves, is then used as a coercive tool to subject workers to forced labor.

The Trafficking in Persons Report also found that “brokers often assist employers to deport 'problematic' employees forcibly, and use threats and the confiscation of travel documents as a means to control them.”

Bich Nguyen, a nurse from central Vietnam, says she paid a broker to get her a caregiver job in Taipei.

“There was no caregiver job. They took me to a factory outside of Taipei instead. I worked on an assembly line for 18-19 hours a day, and didn’t get a day off in four months. We weren’t allowed to talk and they had signs everywhere in Vietnamese that said things like: ‘don’t complain,’ ‘care about your work,’ and ‘be responsible,’” she told GlobalPost in a recent interview.

“After getting locked in a cupboard for making mistakes on the line, I ran away and found a job in a restaurant. I want to go home, but I still owe the broker’s fee. I don’t know what to do.”

Despite the horror stories, the Cabinet-level Council of Labor Affairs reported that the number of foreign workers employed in Taiwan hit a record 425,660 by the end of 2011. Much of that growth came in the manufacturing sector, where foreign workers are willing to work the long hours at minimum wage (about $635 a month) that Taiwanese employees are increasingly turning their backs on.

However, labor activists say the surge in foreign worker numbers has more to do with shrinking job markets in their own countries — as the US and European economies slow — than any real desire to set up shop in a country with an appalling labor rights record.

“I’m so very ashamed of how these Taiwanese companies are violating basic human rights in such a tremendous way. I would say that Chinese society is one of the most racist on earth,” says Ying-dah Wong, a labor activist from Taipei. “They don’t even realize they’re being racist. But there definitely is this idea that foreign workers from poorer countries are beneath them.”

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Wong says that Taiwan’s problems are symptomatic of an economy that first used cheap domestic labor to establish itself as a factory to the world, and then exported that business model to developing countries such as China, Indonesia, Vietnam and Bangladesh through outfits like the much-maligned Foxconn.

Perhaps no other case symbolizes what Wong calls “Taiwan’s top-down petite bourgeois mentality” than the recent scandal involving Jacqueline Liu, a Taiwanese diplomat in the US.

Liu was accused of having unlawfully "imported" two Filipina maids into the country and forcing them to work 18-hour days with a day off. She reportedly forbade them from leaving her home and monitored them with security cameras. Moreover, according to news reports, she withheld half of their minimum wage for “rent and expenses,” and threatened to have the maids deported if they complained.

Just last week, Taipei prosecutors decided not to indict Liu, saying there wasn't enough evidence to indict her.

Before the Liu scandal broke in late 2011, Taiwan's Foreign Minister Timothy Yang appeared on CNN in November to do damage control over another scandal. Yang spoke about a woman named Isabel who had been sold to a wealthy Taiwanese family living in the US. According to news reports, the woman was used as an indentured servant, was fed rotten leftovers and slept in the garage of the family’s pricey Silicone Valley home.

A Labor Affairs Council official said recently that further “relaxations of restrictions” would allow an additional 33,000 caregivers to work in Taiwan. Foreign caregivers, or domestic workers, are not protected under Taiwan’s Labor Act and often work for well below minimum wage.

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