Organizer defends controversial work-study program for Filipinos

(By Central News Agency)

he organizer of a work-study program for students from the Philippines defended her program Tuesday after being accused of forcing the students to work excessive hours in hazardous and difficult conditions.

The charges mirrored those made in January by Indonesian students, who said the work portion of their work/study programs in Taiwan were simply pretexts to farm cheap labor to Taiwanese factories.

Christina Wu (吳孟玲), chairwoman of the Chinese Faith Culture and Education Development Association (FAITH), defended her program at a press conference Tuesday evening, accompanied by six Filipino students who backed her claims.

Christina Wu (吳孟玲, front)

She said the program, which has brought 52 Filipino students to Taiwan so far to study at Yu Da University of Science and Technology (YDUST) in Miaoli, is aimed at helping foreign students "make the transition from blue-collar work to white-collar work."

The goal, she said, is for them to get a graduate degree in Taiwan that will help them get a better job in the Philippines.

Working long hours of 'own will'

Wu admitted that some students in the program did work 40 hours a week -- double the maximum 20 hours a week permitted by law -- but said it was the students who asked to work the longer hours so they could cover their expenses.

She said FAITH then asked the flooring manufacturer that employed the students to allow them to work longer hours, even knowing that it would be illegal, because she wanted the students to be able to make ends meet.

The six Filipino students who appeared at Tuesday's press conference agreed, saying they worked longer hours of their own free will to earn enough to pay for their tuition and living expenses.

That directly contradicted accusations made Monday by three students in the program, who said Wu told them they would have to work 40 hours a week to cover NT$53,000 (US$1,718.36) in tuition and NT$9,500 in dorm fees for the semester, living expenses, and a monthly NT$2,000 fee collected by FAITH.

A source with knowledge of the case, who declined to be named, told CNA that students who worked in the factory were given Taiwan's minimum hourly wage of NT$140 in 2018, which went up to NT$150 in 2019.

In essence, the work/study program was set up in a way that forced students without any outside sources of funds to work more than the legal maximum of 20 hours a week if they wanted to survive.

Contract switch?

Wu also denied the charge that she had students sign different contracts in the Philippines and Taiwan, with the Taiwan contract having more onerous conditions.

She said that what the students signed in the Philippines was simply "a list of things to pay attention to," while the official contract was signed after they arrived in Taiwan.

A student named Joel who on Monday accused FAITH of changing contracts, reiterated in a separate interview with CNA Tuesday night that he did sign a contract in the Philippines that was similar to the one he signed in Taiwan except for two onerous penalties added to the Taiwan version.

One required students to pay a US$1,000 fine and pay the full tuition if they did not accept their work arrangements, and the other was a non-disclosure clause subjecting students to a NT$500,000 penalty if they revealed work details, such as hours worked and pay.

Asked why he signed the contract in Taiwan if he thought the penalties were unethical, Joel said he was already in Taiwan and did not know what would happen to him if he did not sign it.

Photo courtesy of Christina Wu (吳孟玲)

Wu did not deny the existence of those provisions, saying the US$1,000 was to "uphold a code of conduct" and the non-disclosure clause was to deter students from speaking out and affecting other students who needed to make money to support themselves.

She said the US$1,000 penalty has never been imposed on any student who decided to terminate their agreement with FAITH and move on to another job, and the NT$500,000 penalty has not been used, either.

Factory abuse

Another allegation was that conditions in the tile factory were difficult, with Joel insisting a foreman in his department at the plant was constantly angry and abusive.

But one of the six students who spoke Tuesday said he had never experienced the verbal abuse, and that his Taiwanese colleagues treated him and other students well and protected them from dangerous machinery.

Wu also defended her organization, saying it not a "manpower broker" as described by local media but an association that worked with YDUST to recruit Filipino students to the "Faith Program."

Photo courtesy of Christina Wu (吳孟玲)

She said the program was designed to help work/study students with their living and studying needs in Taiwan, and help them get loans for their initial tuition fees and living expenses.

The NT$2,000 monthly fee collected from each student was not a "broker's fee," she said, but a counseling fee that went toward educational improvement and sending tutors to help students who were falling behind with their coursework.

MOE stepping in

Yang Yu-hui (楊玉惠), director of the Ministry of Education's (MOE's) Technological and Vocational Education Department, said that based on information provided by YDUST, the ministry believes the university did not recruit students through illegal manpower agencies.

Yang Yu-hui (楊玉惠), director of the Ministry of Education's (MOE's) Technological and Vocational Education Department / CNA file photo

But the university is not free of blame, she said, because it failed to give proper guidance to the students, resulting in them signing unreasonable work contracts.

She said the MOE has banned YDUST from recruiting foreign students beginning this semester and that relevant documents have been handed over to prosecutors for further investigation.