A priest ministers to the needs of Taiwan's foreign migrant workers

Father Bruno Ciceri offers them shelter, helps them get jobs – and tries to lift the consciousness of a nation.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Father Bruno Ciceri champions the cause of Taiwan's fishermen and other foreign migrant workers who make up an often-exploited underground labor force.
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These days Father Bruno Ciceri is feeling gloomy. Twelve years after he came to this gritty port city to minister to exploited migrant workers, he says their working conditions haven't improved. "I'm seeing everything through dark glasses," he says.

But when he gets too down, all he has to do to lift his mood is walk into the main room of the shelter he runs. There, an idyllic beach scene greets him. From floor to ceiling, the walls are covered with blue skies, sandy shores, palm trees, and a distant volcano. The mural was painted by a Filipina migrant worker who stayed at the shelter. "This is where we've made a difference," says the priest.

Scores of "thank-you" notes are written on the painting to Father Ciceri and his staff – in English, Tagalog, Vietnamese, and Thai. "You are the living saint of the migrants – may you never cease keeping the faith," says one.

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The walls are a testimony to one man's impact on an often overlooked social problem in Taiwan. Since Ciceri's arrival here in the country's second-largest city, some 1,500 foreign migrant workers have sought refuge at his Stella Maris International Service Center, most from Southeast Asia. Starting in the 1980s, Taiwan began importing such workers to fill low-end jobs.

Today, some 350,000 migrant workers man Taiwan's cramped fishing boats, care for the elderly, assemble electronics, and work in construction. By all accounts, they make up a shadow labor market dominated by unscrupulous brokers and abusive bosses.

Fishermen are among the most vulnerable. They typically spend six months at sea, with no legal recourse if things go bad. Bullying, sexual violence, and fights are common. When abuse becomes unbearable, some flee when in port. The fortunate ones end up at shelters like Ciceri's.

Nguyen Van Thanh came to Taiwan in 2005 from Vietnam, lured by a broker with the promise of good wages on a fishing boat. Mr. Nguyen (not his real name) paid the broker $1,000 (US) for a three-year contract. He was told he'd receive $460 per month. Once on a Taiwanese boat, he discovered his wages were a third of that. His boat included three Taiwanese officers and a 44-man crew of mainland Chinese, Vietnamese, Indonesians, and Filipinos. In their Kaohsiung port stops, they were kept in a cramped building with blacked-out windows.

Onboard, conditions were worse. "We often slept only two or three hours a day, there wasn't enough to eat, and we were beaten," he says. Once off the coast of South Africa, he says, a Taiwanese boss threw a mainland Chinese crewman overboard, leaving him to die at sea.

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Ciceri doesn't even know how to swim. In fact, little in his background suggested he might one day be serving Asia's fishermen. Yet over the years the man from a small town near Milan, Italy, has become an expert on the fishing trade and its workers.

His call to service came early. At age 10 he knew he wanted to become a priest. But it soon became clear he wouldn't take a traditional path. At seminary he argued with a superior over their policy of opening students' mail. Later, he helped organize a protest over bad food. He was kicked out, but eventually managed to talk himself back into the seminary.

A week in Stuttgart, Germany, with Italian auto factory workers showed him his path. He still remembers one worker telling him, "'Tomorrow, you'll take the train and go back to your family, but I'll be here alone.' That's when I decided, I will be with the migrants." He was 23.

He became a Scalabrinian, one of 700 Roman Catholic priests in 22 countries worldwide who minister to migrants, refugees, and seamen. His first posting was Manila, where he ran a shelter for Tamil and Sinhalese refugees from Sri Lanka's civil war. He helped them along an "underground railroad" of sorts toward refugee status and a new life in Europe or Canada.

This experience was formative, reinforcing Ciceri's worldview. He accepts people as they are – fallible, full of fault – but refuses to accept the systems that trap them.

His introduction to migrant workers in Taiwan came in 1996, when he saw hundreds of Filipinos – employees at a major electronics factory in Kaohsiung – handcuffed and led from their dorm to airport-bound vans. Their contracts were up, and they were due to head back to the Philippines. Their Taiwanese bosses had cuffed them because they feared unrest. Ciceri sped to the site on his Honda motorcycle, charged past guards at the gate, and snapped pictures to record what was happening.

In Taiwan, his duty was to minister to fishermen as part of a global Stella Maris Apostleship of the Sea. But his job description expanded as he began to take in other migrant workers with nowhere else to go. Soon, he was running a 24-hour shelter and hot line, making regular runs to the airport, helping workers secure back pay and find jobs, and raising awareness of migrant worker issues. "A newspaper once called me the '7-11 priest' because we're always open," he says laughing.

The days are long. He lives with the migrants in the shelter, a dim and dank building near Kaohsiung's waterfront. He typically rises at 6:30 or 7 a.m., handles cases all day, and then works on conference papers and other writing until midnight. Ciceri's life is modest and simple, but full of meaning. "We're with the migrants all the time; we live the life they live," he says. "I chose to be of service to migrants. That's what guides me."

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Some activists say migrant workers' rights have improved in recent years, if only slightly. Lorna Kung, of the Scalabrini International Migration Network, notes that migrant workers can now stay for up to nine years, rather than six. The government is mulling how to give caregivers better protections. Most important, there's more awareness of the problem – thanks partly to Ciceri's work.

"He's willing to devote himself to so many issues related to migrant fishermen," says Ms. Kung. "Ten years ago nobody cared, but now more and more people are concerned about the migrant workers' situation."

Still, Ciceri insists abuse and exploitation will remain rampant until systemic problems are addressed – including the shady brokerage system and the deeper problem of Taiwanese attitudes. Racism toward darker-skinned Southeast Asians runs deep and will take generations to uproot. "Taiwan people have to accept migrant workers – they are not commodities, not their slaves, not machines," says Ciceri. "They are people like them."

On a tour of Kaohsiung's port, Ciceri squints in the bright sunlight and surveys the scene he's come to know so well. A Taiwanese stevedore in flip-flops operates a crane that lifts massive slabs of frozen shark out of a ship. On the pier, four Filipino crewmen weld metal chains, as their Taiwanese bosses shout orders.

Ciceri chats amiably with the workers. While he is disappointed with the lack of progress in workers' rights in Taiwan – and may soon leave the country himself – he doesn't question his mission or direction in life.

"It's true I'm disappointed because there's no change on a general level," he says. "But we make a difference in the lives of some migrants, if not all of them. Even if in these 12 years I had just helped one person, that would be worth it."

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