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Breaking back for a dream, but not much to show

Filipino Joe De La Rosa is working in Taipei in hopes of making his big dreams come true.

Every day, six days a week, he wakes up at 4 a.m., has breakfast and then bikes to his factory. There he cuts plywood and works — for 12 hours.

The hours are long and hard, but he does not mind.

"It's OK. I am making money and have a plan. After I finish this job, maybe I'll go to New Zealand," said De La Rosa, 27. He wants to open a restaurant there.

"I can cook, of course. Any dish, I can make it good if I have jalapenos."

So far, though, he has not had much success saving up for his future: in the three months that he has been in Taiwan, De La Rosa has yet to put aside any part of his earnings for himself.

From his monthly NT$25,000 earnings, he has to pay for his room as well as more than NT$1,800 to his Taiwanese labor broker as a service charge. By the time he completes his three-year contract, he will have paid more than NT$60,000 in such charges.

Before that, he had to pay a broker in the Philippines a one-time placement fee of 85,000 pesos (NT$59,200). To cover that, De La Rosa took a loan from a local bank which he is now paying off. Such brokerage fees are one of the main complaints from countries that Taiwan depends on for inexpensive labor.

Recently, Agusdin Subiantoro, an official from the Agency for the Placement and Protection of Indonesian Workers, called the brokerage charges exorbitant and exploitative. Thus, Indonesia plans to start bringing back its workers from Taiwan in 2017.

But the South East Asia Group (東南亞集團行), a brokerage firm based in Taipei, defended Taiwan's service charges. Chih Ting-cheng (池庭成), chief of the group's marketing division, said the real exploitation occurs in the migrant worker's home country when local brokers collect excessive placement fees.

"We can't control the ecosystem in the home country," he said. "Brokers there sometimes charge workers far beyond what is lawful."

Taiwan's Ministry of Labor has banned the island's brokers from charging a placement fee, but allows them to levy a service fee of up to NT$1,800 per month during a contract's first year, NT$1,700 in the second and NT$1,500 in the third.

South East Asia Group charges each worker the maximum — NT$60,000 over three years, while the employer pays a further NT$6,000.

The payments go toward checks on working conditions, a 24-hour translation service, lectures on health issues and other services, Chih said.

But Betty Chen (陳容柔), a member of the Taiwan International Workers' Association, said many Taiwanese brokers do not deliver all the services they are supposed to. "Based on my understanding, their services are often perfunctory," Chen said.

"For example, brokers do need to interview workers about working conditions. They may be required to go every month, but they don't. Instead, every half year, they suddenly appear with six forms for workers to sign in a hurry."

Moreover, many of these "services" should be provided and paid for by the employer. However, it is not easy convincing the brokers and employers to shift from the status quo to a more ethical model, Chen said.

For De La Rosa, the cost of coming to Taiwan does seem high, though for now he is upbeat about his prospects. He says he's certain that he can make the system work for him.

"Next month or the month after that, I will save my money for me," he said.

"My plan is big, very big. It's high living."

— By Enru Lin, The China Post