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Market Scene : Taiwan's Foreign Workers Left Adrift at Sea : Fishing harbors teem with illegal employees who are forbidden to come ashore. But their labor is needed by the booming economy.


HSIAO LIUCHIU, Taiwan — Roberto, a 21-year-old fisherman from the Philippines, stands on the deck of the Honghai, a rusty Taiwanese trawler anchored in this small harbor, and gazes at forbidden land a few hundred yards away.

For Filipinos and other foreign seamen on board the Honghai, Taiwanese soil is off limits by government decree. "We're stuck here," Roberto says bitterly.

The young Filipino is caught up in a peculiarly Taiwanese dilemma: He is part of a tolerated gray market in foreign labor necessitated by this island nation's low birthrate and booming economy. But he is forbidden even such a basic right as walking around on Taiwanese streets because of a national concern about being overrun by foreigners.

While the Taiwanese fishing boat on which he has been at sea for the last year puts in for repairs, Roberto is trapped aboard one of four rotting old scows in the harbor that the locals call "floating hotels."

About 80 "guests" are crammed onto the Honghai, a 42-ton vessel designed to accommodate only 10 fishermen. Keeled over at a 25-degree angle, the converted trawler has no running water and no electricity. Green and yellow tarps stretched overhead provide the only protection from the sun. A few men try to escape the searing heat by jumping in the water, while others spend their days playing poker or scribbling anti-Taiwanese graffiti on walls.

Other men now crowd around Roberto, who has the words "Sailor Navigator" tattooed on his chest. "They treat us like pigs," he says of the Taiwanese. "They give us food and nothing more."

The men aboard the floating hotels of Hsiao Liuchiu are part of a nagging problem for the Taiwanese government. Few people in newly affluent Taiwan are willing to take low-prestige jobs as fishermen, factory workers or maids. Although the government announced a revised policy last May to allow a limited number of foreigners to do manual labor, it is loath to totally lift restrictions.

As a result, while only about 200 foreigners have official permission to work on Taiwanese fishing boats, another 2,000 to 3,000 like Roberto work illegally. The floating hotels allow the fishing industry to skirt the law by never allowing their unsanctioned foreign seamen ashore in Taiwan.

The fishing companies are not the only Taiwanese industry to rely on foreign workers. With the unemployment rate at a negligible 1.7% and the average manufacturing wage now over $400 a month, many factory owners see foreign labor as their only way to survive. The government estimated that 30,000 foreigners were working illegally in Taiwan before it launched its latest crackdown in June. About 3,000 workers volunteered to be deported, and hundreds more were rounded up in police raids. Yet unofficial estimates put the number of foreigners still working illegally at 20,000.

The crackdown has yet to have much of an impact on Taiwan's fishing boats. "It's very difficult to control them," admits James Shu, chief of the marine fisheries division at the Council of Agriculture. A procedure does exist, he adds, for companies to legally hire foreign fishermen, yet it is cumbersome and costly. Since the passage of the revised law governing foreign labor last May, no additional foreign fishermen have received permission to work in Taiwan.

Filipinos like Roberto pay $500 to employment agents who get them gray-market jobs with the Taiwanese fishing fleet. They make about $150 to $250 a month, which is very good by standards in their poverty-plagued homeland. The agents also arrange places for them as needed in the floating hotels.

Taiwan's diplomatic isolation further complicates the situation for these foreign fishermen. Manila has no formal diplomatic relations with Taipei, where it is represented only by a low-profile interests office. (The office would not comment on the floating hotels to The Times). The main advocates for Filipino fishermen are Catholic church officials, who criticize both Manila and Taipei for tolerating the floating hotels.

"The conditions are subhuman," says Father Jemy See, a Philippine priest who serves as chaplain for all his countrymen in Taiwan. Men sign contracts in the Philippines to work as fishermen, only to find conditions changed once they get on board ship, says See. Many work months without receiving any salary. "It's slavery all over again," he says.

Father Gilberto Orioli runs a center for foreign seamen in the southern port city of Kaohsiung, and the 41-year-old Italian priest calls the floating hotels powder kegs. "The treatment is bad, the food is bad, they are not allowed on shore," he says. "It's an explosive situation."

Taiwan's government insists that it will improve conditions for the foreign seamen. Shu, of the agriculture council, says that the government will soon open its own floating hotel, a 600-ton ship that will have all the comforts of home. "Karaoke, television, VCRs, refrigerators," Shu says.

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