Taiwan-Phils Spat Ensnares Overseas Workers

Taiwan is threatening to freeze visas for Filipino workers as the result of a diplomatic spat sparked when the Philippine government recently deported Taiwanese and Chinese con men to China instead of Taiwan. That would mean the 77,000 who are in the island's economy now would not be replaced.

In December, Philippine authorities arrested 14 Taiwanese and 10 Chinese nationals for allegedly swindling US$20 million in an international scam targeting mainland Chinese.

In addition to previously canceling preferential treatment for Filipino citizens holding visas to advanced countries, the Taiwanese have lengthened the screening process for applications for would-be Filipino migrant workers. This measure has left thousands of Filipino workers waiting to depart to Taiwan in limbo.

As the retaliatory acts have so far failed to make Philippine President Benigno S. Aquino III issue an apology apologize, the Taiwanese government is now threatening an across-the-board freeze on Filipino workers. If the Taiwanese go through with it, within the next three years, Filipino workers currently on the island will have packed their bags. Then the impoverished archipelago would lose out on the US$600 million its citizens toiling in Taiwanese factories, hospitals and households have been remitting back home annually.

While Beijing appears to have been behind the deportation of the Philippine-based cross-strait fraudsters, Taiwan's Kuomintang government has from the spat's earliest stages conveniently put the entire blame on its neighbor to the south. And Manila has not made this too much of a difficult task.

International convention stipulates that judicial jurisdiction over criminal activity resides first and foremost with the territory in which it occurs. In this case, given that the Philippines chose to forgo its jurisdictional rights based on territory, it should have respected Taiwan's rights of jurisdiction based on nationality, legal scholars say. By instead deporting both groups of Taiwanese and Chinese fraudsters to mainland China, Manila acknowledged that Beijing holds jurisdiction over Taiwan.

Thus, "Manila trampled on Taiwan's national dignity" was the tenor of the furious allegations. On the part of the Taiwanese government, however, there was no word on the role the Chinese side played in the story.

"The Ma administration did not blame China at all," said Tung Chen-yuan, professor at Taipei's National Chengchi University, in an interview with Asia Sentinel.

While the KMT government's calls for painful sanctions against the Philippines might do their share in convincing the public that President Ma Ying-jeou isn't a leader to be messed with, the one's whose livelihoods are affected have begun feeling the heat, causing them to take to Taipei's streets against the discriminating measures.

On Feb. 27, Filipinos, Indonesians and members of local civic groups protested at the gates of Taiwan's Council of Labor Affairs (CLA). As two days before the CLA declared that it was ready to implement a freeze on Filipino workers and that it also obtained a consensus from the industrial sector and received its support, emotions ran high.

The Taiwanese authorities before have demonstrated that they mean business when they threaten to bar foreign workers.

"Every time we Taiwanese suffer from yet another diplomatic failure, we use immigrant workers to restore our national dignity," Ku Yuling, an activist with the Taiwan International Workers Association (TIWA), said in an interview with Asia Sentinel. "From 2003 to 2005, we barred workers from Indonesia just because the government there didn't allow Chen Shui-bian to visit," she said.

Ku's allegation refers to a bitter diplomatic spat between Taipei and Jakarta in 2002. At that time, the then-Indonesian foreign minister said Chen Shui-bian would have been denied entry had he tried to visit. Shortly before, Taiwan put a temporary freeze on the import of Indonesian laborers mainly as a response to incidents of Indonesian workers absconding from their places of employment. But Taiwanese lawmakers in a furious response to Jakarta's diplomatic snub rallied for the retention of the ban. What was originally meant as a temporary freeze became two and a half years.

"Last time, it was the Indonesians; this time, it's the Filipinos," Ku said, accusing the Taiwanese government of using immigrant workers as all-to-easily punished scapegoats.

What bothers Ku the most, however, is that according to her, more than 5,000 Filipinos who were just about to come to Taiwan had their applications frozen. "These people already paid horrendous fees to the manpower brokerage agencies, but now they can't come to earn the money back," she said.

The US$3.000 the applicants each paid in parts to Taiwanese and Philippine middlemen is a serious economic blow to their families, Ku said.

Aquino sent a Philippine special envoy to take care of this "very, very important matter", according to the envoy. When shaking hands with the Taiwanese Foreign Minister, the envoy called Taiwan his country's "closest neighbor."

The Taiwanese side didn't reply. After the journalists were told to go, the envoy was grilled for not less than 12 hours. But although an apology was demanded repeatedly by the Taiwanese, no apology was issued.

Afterwards, Ma Ying-jeou personally sent the envoy home with a strikingly blunt message to Aquino.

"Your government officials were telling lies," Ma reportedly told the Manila envoy, referring to the Philippine authorities' way in handling the deportation. "I ask you to convey my opinions to President Benigno Aquino III."

A day after, the Philippine president acknowledged that his envoy had failed to resolve the row.

"They were asking for us to apologize, and I don't believe that there is something we have to apologize for, given the circumstances", he told reporters. Aquino didn't seem to be overly worried about the fate of the migrant workers, either. "If they freeze hires, we will look for other places for deployment," he said without elaborating.

Yet, as both stubborn governments have been presenting themselves throughout the spat, there still seems to be one flicker of hope for the Filipino workers who are faced with the loss of paid-for brokerage fees. This is because the actual scapegoat could be simply replaced.

If Philippine officials who are found to have mishandled the case would be held accountable and possibly reprimanded, for the Taiwan side, this "would signify a kind of apology," Taiwanese officials have yet hinted.