“I told my employer I do this for her benefit, too”
The following narrative was constructed by Isabelle Cockel and Ratih Kabinawa, based on an interview that they conducted with Fajar, an Indonesian migrant worker and the chair of Gabungan Tenaga Kerja Bersolidaritas (GANAS) based in New Taipei City.
What empowered me to do what I’m doing now? I was empowered by myself!
I got my job in Taiwan via my sister. She had finished her contract in Taiwan and her employer was looking for a replacement. My sister recommended I take over for the job at her former employer. I agreed and accepted the position as I was already familiar with them through her. However, after I started working, I found that the job was very demanding and the working conditions were poor. I wanted to find a solution to these problems. To achieve this, I had to know about the laws and regulations concerning migrant workers, since brokers and employers will not relay such information to us. If I knew better about these laws and regulations, I could also help and empower other migrant workers who faced the same problems.
I think I’ve become ‘addicted’ to helping and empowering others! However, our organisation, Gabungan Tenaga Kerja Bersolidaritas (GANAS), is not widely known amongst migrant workers in Taiwan. Those who have encountered problems will be able contact us. Thus, one of our missions is raising public awareness and educating the public about the issues we commonly face. Social media is an important tool in this regard, as it not only distributes information, but it also allows us to collect information from our followers. Furthermore, we use social media to engage with other organisations.
At the beginning, we used our personal Facebook accounts to promote our organisational activities amongst our personal postings. At first glance, mixing personal and non-personal postings may seem strange. Since we do not have much free time, our leisure activities are limited. Using Facebook to keep in touch with our friends is part of our social life. However, after GANAS was established, we realised that we needed to separate these two and establish an official account, so we established a fans’ group page where we share and update the information about laws and regulations. We also post reports from migrant workers on the GANAS Facebook, so that workers are enlightened on these real cases.
Additionally, we also use TikTok. Facebook and TikTok are different platforms. Facebook is more text-based; it’s useful to have longer articles where workers can read information in full. TikTok is for short videos, which, for users, is more fun to look at pictures, images, and videos. We need both because everyone has their personal preference and we try to cater to both markets.
Our TikTok account was opened in March 2022, and now we have 10,000 followers. Who are our followers? We were curious, too, so we did a small survey on them. We found out that the majority of them are home-based Indonesian domestic workers. They posted their complaints about their brokers and employers so our TikTok became a platform for registering their complaints. These complaints are very useful since they provide educational materials for other migrant workers. Our colleagues collected these videos and texts posted on TikTok and Facebook, and edited them into videos, re-circulating them amongst our followers. It’s amazing that they know how to shoot, narrate, and edit a video, and, remarkably, they did all of this in their own free time!
Using social media has been particularly important during the pandemic. We used it to disseminate information, since the situation of the pandemic changed very quickly, and so did the laws and regulations of Taiwan. We encouraged workers to post their situations so others could also be made aware of them. As a result, although we use them to distribute information, they actually enable us to collect more information. We are planning to use YouTube and Instagram, but we really do not have time to manage more social media platforms. After all, we are domestic workers and we have very limited free time outside our work.
In Taiwan, it is affordable for migrant workers to take out a monthly subscription for an internet connection with unlimited data on a smartphone. It is actually cheaper than in Indonesia, and Taiwan is known for its extensive coverage and quality reception. However, we noticed that migrant workers do not search for critical information about their conditions or their rights. They do not know that this lack of information keeps them marginalised. Recently, I was dealing with a domestic worker’s complaint. She said her employer mistreated her, but her broker was good to her. I told her if she had encountered problems with her employer for more than a year, and her broker had done nothing about it, then the broker was also a problem. Alas, she had not realised this. I was really shocked to hear that she thought her broker was good to her.
I have been in this job for nearly a year now. I am on good terms with my employer. I told my them what GANAS is and what I do there. My employer has a chronic health condition and needs to go to a clinic daily. It is during the hours when she is receiving her treatment that I carry out my work for GANAS on my phone. I cannot use the phone during the day since her health condition requires intensive care. I only have two days off in a month, so I use my rest days for my work with GANAS. My employer asked me why I did not want to take a weekend off. I told her it is up to me to decide when my day off is.
I told my employer that our activism is helping her and other employers. Why? I was hired without using a broker, a practice known as ‘direct hire’ in Taiwan. Employers will be better off if they don’t engage brokers, because they do not need to pay the very high recruitment fees to them. That is, they only pay NT 2,000 dollars to the Taiwanese government (a levy known as Employment Stability Fund), rather than NT 50,000 dollars to brokers. This is how I explained to my employer why my campaign about ethical recruitment is important. Since my employer knew about my work, I also asked her to explain the importance of our campaign to other employers who also hired migrant workers. My employer convinced her friend to allow her Indonesian employee to join a rally with me and other organisations.
We contribute to the Taiwanese economy, but many workers are economically exploited by the Taiwanese government and the people who hired them. Our rights should be protected, and our working conditions should be improved. But the Taiwanese government is not interested in talking to us. I agreed to be interviewed and also to be published because I want more people outside Taiwan to know about our working conditions. Constrained by its status as a non-recognised state, the situation in Taiwan may not be widely known. I hope this blog will help more people reach out to us and support our work.
Isabelle Cockel is Senior Lecturer in East Asian and International Development Studies at the School of Area Studies, History, Politics and Literature of the University of Portsmouth. Her research focuses on labour and marriage migration in East Asia. Her recent research interests are the Cold War in East Asia, specifically the use of women’s voices for propaganda broadcasting.
Acknowledgement: we would like to thank the North American Taiwanese Professors’ Association for their generous support for our writing project.
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