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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 Jonathan AdamsCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / March 19, 2008

Father Bruno Ciceri champions the cause of Taiwan's fishermen and other foreign migrant workers who make up an often-exploited underground labor force.

jonathan adams

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Kaohsiung, Taiwan

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.

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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.

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.

•••

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.

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