Hope Workers' Center marks 20th birthday

NGO stepping up education program for foreign workers

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Filipino volunteers at the Hope Workers' Center in Jhongli City join Bishop John Baptist Lee, center and wearing a Roman collar, and the Reverend Pete...
Vietnamese volunteers at the Hope Workers' Center share a light moment with friends at the center's 20th birthday party last Sunday.

Filipino volunteers at the Hope Workers' Center in Jhongli City join Bishop John Baptist Lee, center and wearing a Roman collar, and the Reverend Pete...

Vietnamese volunteers at the Hope Workers' Center share a light moment with friends at the center's 20th birthday party last Sunday.

What started as an outreach ministry for local workers 20 years ago has evolved into a center for learning, a cultural hub, a refuge, an emergency ward and an anchor to the thousands of foreign workers in northern Taiwan.
More importantly, the Hope Workers' Center in Jhongli City has given Taiwan's migrants - the silent, the powerless, and the marginalized - a voice.
"In the last 20 years, the Columban Society has worked very hard to help so many migrants," says Bishop John Baptist Lee. "They serve those who are in dire need of assistance. I hope that this Center will continuously grow, and that we will be seeing more priests and nuns (at Hope)."
"This center is really our pillar of strength," says Desiree Bordadora, one of HWC's 200 migrant volunteers. "I wish that the Hope Workers' Center's fervor - its dedication to advancing migrants' rights - will burn even brighter in the years to come."
Kha, one of HWC's 20 Vietnamese volunteers, agrees.
"Hope's contribution to society, particularly to the migrant community, has been tremendous," he says. "They do not only provide assistance to distressed workers, they empower them."
Kha's fellow Vietnamese Ngochoi, Thienhuong, Bichcanch, Thang, Hoa and Manhdung say they have always felt at home at HWC.
"We are actually encouraging more workers from Vietnam to spend their free time at Hope," says Bichcanh. "Here, they will not only get to gain new friends, they will also learn so many new things."
The Hope Workers' Center is on a league of its own, adds the Reverend Joy Tajonera, a Maryknoll priest and founder of the Ugnayan Migrant and Immigrant Center in Taichung County.
"It is, without any doubt, a trailblazer in Taiwan's migrants' rights movement. The people behind this Center are our unsung heroes," Tajonera says.
At a celebration marking HWC's 20th anniversary last Sunday, the Reverend Peter O'Neill, chaplain for migrants in Hsinchu and former director of the HWC, says he still could not believe that the Center has just turned 20.
"I could still clearly remember our 10th anniversary. It's (quite unreal) because here we are, celebrating the Center's 20th birthday," says O'Neill, when asked what it felt like to be a part of HWC's history. To many, HWC and O'Neill are one and the same.
"I joined the Center in May 1995, and it only had a staff of three people at the time: Two Taiwanese social workers and I. Our office only had three desks then. Today, the Center has a staff of 11. You could imagine just how packed that same office is today."
Founded by the Missionary Society of St. Columban in November 1986 to educate local workers and pursue advocacy and lobbying initiatives, the HWC started serving foreign workers in the early 1990s. Migrant workers with an irregular status started seeking the assistance of the Center. When Taiwan extended the maximum length of migrants' employment contracts to three years in 1997 and eventually to six years in 2002, the number of foreign workers requesting for the Center's assistance grew steadily.
The Filipinos were the first ones to arrive, followed by the Thais, Indonesians and the Vietnamese. The Center assists all migrant workers - respecting their race, culture and religion.
To better serve migrants, the Center hired social workers from the Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia and Vietnam, says O'Neill.
The Center has an extensive list of programs and services for foreign workers namely crises intervention, pro-active education, internship and training, lobbying and advocacy, community enhancement, and reintegration.
Under crises intervention, the Center provides counseling and assistance to migrants who have difficulties at or are victims of abuse in the workplace; provides shelter to workers who have been abused in the workplace or are waiting to be transferred to another employer; organizes and leads workers in labor disputes and court cases; serves as a liaison between the workers and government labor centers, and assists them in the negotiations with employers and brokers; visits foreigners detained in the Taipei Detention Center and police stations, and monitors the progress of their cases with the police and the courts; and helps irregular workers who surrender to communicate with the police.
The Center also places a heavy emphasis on pro-active education, orienting migrants on their labor rights and the strategies that they need to employ to prevent or solve work-related problems. It organizes educational groups for each nationality. This does not only empower them; it also turns them into educators, O'Neill explains.
Lobbying and advocacy, however, are among HWC's most effective tools. The Center challenges the government on its migrant policies, pushing for amendments to legislation that it deems unjust. It also lobbies the government to promulgate new laws to protect the rights of workers.
Due to the perseverance and dedication of the HWC, the Council of Labor Affairs approved changes in the Employment Service Act last year. As of January 1, 2006, for instance, the Employment Service Act has amended the standard on employment transfers with regards to migrants who are victims of sexual abuse. Foreign workers who are victims of sexual abuse are exempt from the rules governing migrants seeking employment transfers.
Currently, the Center has an 11-member staff led by Sister Doris Zahra, newly appointed director of HWC. Her team is comprised of Thai social workers Akkraporn Bunchongsilp and Suthin Phak-aew; Columban lay missionaries Beth Sabado and Jasmine Yap; Taiwanese social workers Allison Lee and Anastasia Wu; Indonesian social worker Mary Yie; Vietnamese social worker Sophia Chou; and Filipino social workers Edward Tan and Eden See. On March 1, another Thai social worker will be joining the Center.
Since empowering migrants is one of Hope's goals, the Center has been bolstering its education and assistance groups.
"On Sundays, this area here (the third-floor lobby) looks like an 'emergency ward,'" O'Neill says. "Workers with all sorts of problems come to us for counseling and assistance. Since the Center's staff could only handle so much cases in one day, we thought it would really be great if we could train migrants who could educate their fellow workers on their rights. We already have several wonderful teams in place."
The Center also has a very dynamic reintegration program. The HWC facilitates the formation of savings groups for migrants to accumulate capital for future investments and holds training seminars in partnership with non-profits such as Unlad Kabayan.
Tech-savvy parishioners led by Mike So also initiated a basic computer learning program at HWC last year, O'Neill says.
"Mike helped us acquire those computers," says the priest. The center has 18 PCs. "Eleven of those PCs were donated by the Taipei American School and the rest was bought from a company that had closed shop."
Last year, the Center was also given the green light by Thailand's education ministry to kickstart a high school correspondence course for Thai migrants. Currently, 25 Thais report to HWC's "classrooms" at least once a month to study English, Mathematics, Social Studies and Thai, O'Neill says.
"It's a win-win situation for those who have signed up for our Thai Education Program," he says. "They have come to Taiwan to work and to earn money. When it's time for them to go home, they will also be returning to Thailand with a high school diploma under their belts! They have the option of pursuing higher studies in their home country."
This year, the Thai government will be appointing a full-time staff who will be overseeing HWC's Thai Education Program, he continues.
"Starting in November 2007, the Center's Thai Education Program will have three four-month semesters," O'Neill beams.
At Hope's 20th anniversary party last Sunday, workers from Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam celebrated their cultural diversity through dance, music and even cuisine. The bountiful buffet featured Philippine fiesta-dishes such as the rich and savory menudo, pancit bihon and fruit salad; Vietnamese spring rolls; and Thailand's famous green papaya salad, yellow rice, crispy vegetable patties, tom yang soup, fried chicken, and stir-fried flat noodles.
The Hope Workers' Center is located at 3F, No. 65, Chang Chiang Road, Jhongli City, Taoyuan, Taiwan 320. If you need help, just ring (03) 425-5416, or send your fax to (03) 427-1092. You may also write them an e-mail at hopemw@ms16.hinet.net