Posted 2018-05-08 11:34:13

There are 640,000 foreign contract workers in this island of 23 million people.  Of this number, 147,000 as of latest count are Filipinos.  We constitute the third-largest number of foreign contract workers in Taiwan, the first being Indonesians, mostly caregivers and domestic household workers, and the second, Vietnamese, who like our OFWs, work in factories.

But MECO, our “de facto” embassy in Taiwan, has seen it best to have three offices servicing the needs of our OFWs.  One is in the capital, Taipei, which serves the northern part, another in Taichung for the central part, and Kaohsiung to serve the southern part of Taiwan.  The other representative offices maintain only one office in Taipei.

Aside from POLO or overseas labor offices with a labor attaché, and a welfare officer from OWWA, the Manila Economic and Cultural Office has a department called Assistance to Nationals to serve the Filipino population here in Taiwan. Taipei, Taichung and Kaohsiung all have such assistance desks.

Filipinos working mostly in Taiwan’s factories do not encounter as much problems as their counterparts in other parts of the world, such as the Middle East.  Differences in language, culture and attitude towards foreigners often result in abuses perpetrated against lowly workers, as evidenced by a multitude of problems our kababayans working in Kuwait and other Middle Eastern nations have experienced.

Still, it behooves the “de facto” embassy to look for ways and means by which we could better serve our kababayans here in Taiwan.

We found out when we first came to Taiwan after being appointed by the president last June 30, 2016 that labor and tourism attaché offices were not housed in the same office where MECO and the trade office were.  So after diligently searching for a better location and terminating our inherited lease contract, we consolidated all offices under one roof in Neihu, Taipei’s new CBD.  The MECO office in the capital is just two minutes walk away from the nearest MRT station and is serviced by several bus lines, making it more convenient to access.

 In Taichung and Kaohsiung, we also asked all offices representing the Philippines to make their work place visitor-friendly and OFW accessible.  Last weekend, the MECO Kaohsiung office was blessed by Fr. Nilo Mantilla of the Scalabrinian Missionaries.  Fr. Nilo is a “kababayan” of President Duterte from Maasin in Southern Leyte.

We have also recently overhauled the MECO website, making it more interactive and informative for its users, both Filipinos and Taiwanese.  A potential tourist will find it very easy to access the website and view the best destinations our country has to offer.  Even the closure of Boracay is reported in our website in both Mandarin and English.  An OFW will likewise find information on how to renew his passport or attain consular services such as notarization of important documents, even through his cellphone.

This also made it easier for our Assistance to Nationals officers and Labor and Welfare Officers to coordinate the handling and resolution of cases involving Filipino workers.

Take the case of the Hualien earthquake last February when MECO, labor and welfare officers efficiently handled the case of the lone Filipino casualty, coordinating assistance to next of kin and facilitating the swift repatriation of the victim’s remains to her family.

That experience likewise made us realize that all these efforts can be pushed to a higher level if only the Filipino community would establish a connection with the MECO family through constant exchange of communication.

This is particularly important in monitoring the concerns of our workers and extending timely assistance to them in times of great need such as disasters and other types of emergencies.

To encourage this, the office launched over the weekend the MECOnnect project aimed at bringing MECO closer to Filipino workers based in Taiwan.  We organized a town hall meeting in Kaohsiung, the huge southern port city of Taiwan.

The initial town hall meetings were held last Saturday in Nanzhi District and St. Joseph’s Church in Kaohsiung, and thereafter, on Sunday, at the Queen of Angels Parish Church in the Xinying District of Tainan.

Coming from a predominantly Catholic country, Filipino workers are known to congregate in Catholic churches in Taiwan during their off days to hear mass and socialize with each other.  Fortunately, most of the priests here in Taiwan are Filipino missionaries, three of whom we personally met last Saturday.

During the town hall meetings, MECO offered off-site consular services such as passport facilitation and overseas voters’ registration, as well as other relevant services, for the Filipino attendees.

MECO also aims to propagate a massive information dissemination campaign about its plans and projects and establish stronger and closer relationship with leaders of the Filipino community through more town hall meetings in the future in Central and Northern Taiwan.

Some Filipino community leaders I met in Kaohsiung have so far reacted to the changes positively, extending their pledge of cooperation to ongoing and future projects of MECO. To them I sincerely express my gratitude, for the task of looking after the welfare of thousands of Filipinos in Taiwan is indeed a gargantuan task.

And as we share the President’s genuine concern for our OFWs, I believe it is also imperative that they cooperate with the Philippine government in ensuring their safety and well-being while working in another country.  To operationalize this, we have to bring our foreign offices closer to them.

In the case of MECO, we designed the MECOnnect project, so that we can update them on relevant information, “connect” to them easily both ways, whether in “normal” times or during emergencies.

Indeed, the MECOnnect project was put to test last Saturday night.  Just as we were preparing to sleep in our hotel room in southern Kaohsiung, a Batanguena OFW who had earlier registered her number with our Taipei office sent us a video recording she made on her cellphone.  There was a huge fire engulfing a factory in Taoyuan in northern Taiwan.  She informed us that there were many Filipinos occupying a dormitory in the eighth floor of the factory building, and in a crying voice, she kept praying for their safety.

Alerted, our labor attaché and our ATN officers checked with Taoyuan authorities, and found out, to our collective relief, that no Filipino was hurt in the fire.  A national of another country, and five Taoyuan firemen were not so lucky however, and we grieve for them.

MECOnnect connects, indeed!