Written by Yi-Yu Lai.
Lennon Wong is the director of a shelter for migrant workers in Taiwan. Before joining the shelter in the early 2010s, he was already a labour activist and worked in the Chinese Federation of Labour and the First Commercial Bank Union. Although his prior work was not directly relevant to migrant workers in Taiwan, his engagement with the labour movement may have started with the issue of migrant workers from Southeast Asia. As a result, we may thus understand the cross-border movement of migrant workers between Taiwan and the Philippines through some of his observations.
In the late 1990s, Lennon was thinking about the type of research he wanted to conduct for his master’s thesis. Initially, he sought to work on the labour movement, but his inability to speak Taiwanese, the primary language spoken by most labourers, prevented him from doing so. Therefore, he considered the overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) in Taiwan with whom he could speak English. In fact, even Filipinos in Taiwan could only communicate with their fellows in English because Tagalog was not widely spoken in the Philippines at that time. Due to the convenience of communication and research, he is concerned about the migrant workers’ issue in the next few decades.
Movement for Labours’ Rights Across Borders
Notably, while some church groups in Taiwan began to assist with the issue of migrant workers at that time, the Asia Pacific Mission for Migrants (APMM), a migrant worker organisation in Hong Kong, was attempting to organise OFWs in Taiwan across the ocean, as Hong Kong has been a crucial location that numerous OFWs are politically organised. Since the 1970s, a large number of Filipinos have worked overseas. On the one hand, the Philippine government actively encouraged individuals to become migrant workers. On the other hand, the imposition of martial law during that time caused tension and forced many to flee their homes. Compared to Taiwan, which was also under martial law at the time, Hong Kong’s greater freedom allowed numerous Filipino activists to influence and train potential political workers.
Gi Estrata was one of the Filipino activists in Hong Kong who sought to organise his fellows in Taiwan. However, according to Wong, the work of these activists was never simple. They needed to solve the challenges of organising people across borders. In addition, they had to be wary of local labour activists who may assume that these foreign activists were there to seize resources and their bases. After several years of hard work, these activists finally established the Taiwan chapter of Migrante International. This progressive Filipino organisation aims to advocate the rights and welfare of the OFWs. It is worth noting that in the beginning, one of the primary goals for the organisation was to mobilise OFWs so that migrant or leftist parties in the Philippines may win seats in Congress. Nonetheless, after such mobilisation did not achieve significant effects, the organisation’s primary objectives shifted to promoting mass movements among migrant workers.
In October 2005, these activists assisted Gil Lebria, a previously deported migrant worker, in returning to Taiwan to launch a lawsuit against the Formosa Plastic Company (FPC), one of the largest Taiwanese corporations. Gil had been working in FPC’s Mailiao Factory. Due to illegal salary deductions and subcontracting, he and the other six hundred OFWs participated in a two-day strike on July 14 and 15, 2005. Consequently, he and several other Filipino workers were deported after two weeks. On their way to the airport, the agents required them to sign a document they did not understand the language at all. Since they realised it would be detrimental to their rights, they declined to sign. Gil and three others were, however, beaten by the security personnel. Gil was taken onboard with bruises and blood. After a Filipino flight attendant enquired about their situations, they could luckily deplane early in Hong Kong and seek medical care and police assistance.
With the assistance of APMM, local labour unions, non-governmental organisations, senators and individuals, Gil and other Filipino workers were able to demonstrate many times in front of the corporation, Council of Labor Affairs and Manila Economic and Cultural Office (MECO) in the months that followed. Gil returned to the Philippines after his visa expired and subsequently worked in other countries. In the end, the Philippine Supreme Court ruled that the Philippine agency was illegitimate and halted its operations, while the complaints in Taiwan had no further results. Nevertheless, the demonstrations sparked by the incident significantly impacted the movement of migrant workers in Taiwan. During that period, many migrant workers actively engaged in political activities, and the activists also took the opportunity to extend their networks. These political actions extended beyond the issue of migrant workers. For instance, they also urged the public to care about the political situation in the Philippines through mobilisation, such as the 2006 marches calling for the resignation of former president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo in Taipei. Lennon believes the period should be considered the golden age of the Filipino migrant workers movement in Taiwan.
More Than Only the Movement for Migrant Workers
According to Lennon’s personal experience, the migrant workers’ political activism in Taiwan has affected more than only the movement of migrant workers. This feature has been reflected in the international participation of labour unions. In the past, labour activists drew attention mostly to local concerns, and only a few could speak English. Not to mention attending international gatherings of labour activists. For example, even though Taiwan often still had participants in the International Confederation of Free Trade Union (ICFTU), the largest union representing the unions of numerous non-communist countries during the Cold War period, only unions able to overcome such language obstacles frequently attended.
Due to his ability in English, Lennon’s involvement in the fight for migrant workers in Taiwan has broadened his awareness of the cross-border movement of labourers. As a result, he has not only taken the issue of Southeast Asian migrant workers on the world stage, but he has also helped Taiwan’s labour movements increase the potential for international solidarity. However, language is not the only barrier preventing Taiwan’s labour movement from establishing ties with the international community. When Taiwan primarily cultivated relationships with anti-communist organisations led by the United States during the Cold War, the activists may also curtail their opportunities to simultaneously engage with other more radical, non-conservative regional or international organisations.
In addition, as stated previously, overseas movements for migrant workers have become a crucial arena for Filipino activists to recruit and educate potential political workers who may later contribute to the mass movement for domestic affairs in the Philippines. As a Taiwanese advocate for migrant workers’ problems, Lennon has had several opportunities to attend relevant workshops in the Philippines. During his time in the country, he witnessed firsthand how Filipino activists have united different sectors of the social movement and how they have made the Philippine issues more closely linked with transnational organisations and movement networks.
In recent years, Lennon has realised that the issue of Southeast Asian migrant workers in Taiwan is definitely not simply a problem with migrant workers, as he has become the director of a shelter for migrant workers. Rather, the political climate in their home countries and the internal conflicts and differences within the communities should also be considered when it comes to the movement of migrant workers. For example, the controversies sparked by former president Duterte and current president Bongbong Marcos have exacerbated tensions between activists and migrant workers, as well as among the workers themselves. This condition complicates the relationship between the home country and the working country. It further compels us to critically examine the cross-border movement of migrant workers between Taiwan and the Philippines. In other words, it is insufficient to frame the issue inside specific national borders, which is why we must continue to enhance conversation across borders.
Yi-Yu Lai is currently a PhD student in Anthropology at University of Hawaii at Manoa, USA, and he has studied the Indigenous resistance in the highland Philippines since 2014. Focusing on the issues of political violence and Indigenous politics, he has participated in countless academic, voluntary, and cultural exchanging projects in Taiwan, Hawaii, and the Philippines.
This article was published as part of a special issue on Conversation between Taiwan and Southeast Asia.