Filipino Reverend Nilo spreads spiritual riches to Taiwan
“You are near, but you are so far.”
Straight out of seminary, Leonilo “Nilo” Mantilla was appointed to the Taipei parish of St. Christopher's Church.
What made him think twice was not just differences in food and language, though these mattered. It was also the fact that Taipei, which does not always show its best face to dark-complexioned visitors, can be an alien and difficult place to be.
Migrant Workers' Concern Desk
Today, he's halfway through his second term in Taiwan. For four years and six months, Nilo has tended a flock of mostly Filipino but also Indonesian, Thai, and Vietnamese migrant laborers.
Many of them attend his Sunday mass: St. Christopher's holds five services to meet the demand.
Nilo also directs a general assistance center that operates from building's second floor. Here at the Migrant Workers' Concern Desk (MWCD), he provides legal and professional aid to those who are likewise near-but-far away from home.
'Something is wrong'
His defense of the laborers is basic.
“(If) I am here as a worker, I should be protected because my coming here is legal, by normal process,” he says. “But something is wrong.”
A soft-spoken man, he suddenly flames up as if striped by a poker, when turning to the problems of his parishioners.
“For example, if a certain domestic worker is hired to care for a sick woman, most likely she will stay in the room with the woman. How about if the husband is still very active? So can you imagine the abuse. Not only physical but also sexual abuse.”
Then there is the problem of document confiscation. It's unlawful to hold a worker's ARC and passport — but in Taiwan the practice is prevalent, he says. Later these documents are commonly used to blackmail the worker into giving up his salary and other compensation, just to return to the Philippines. Or the documents are used to hold a worker hostage within an abusive household.
The list grows. There is salary deduction, for a medley of pretexts.
There is the constant violation of contract. For instance, the typical migrant laborer signs a contract guaranteeing one day off a week. But some 42 percent of foreign laborers work every day of the week year-round, according to latest Council of Labor Affairs (CLA) data.
'Problems are the same'
The help desk at St. Christopher's acts for migrant workers who are in no legal position to protect themselves.
Nilo and his staff call up brokers to request the return of personal documents. They regularly visit detainees in local jails, arrange support in court, help prepare legal documents. Sometimes they request intervention from the Manila representative office.
Laboriously, the desk lobbies the Taiwan government.
“We try to alert the CLA ... we have audiences with the Executive Yuan,” says Nilo.
One of his advocacy projects is country-to-country direct hiring, a system that does away with the middleman. He calculates that a broker costs the laborer NT$60,000 throughout a three-year work stay.
So far, not much change has come of the lobbying.
“They will say yes, we'll try to look for the problems. But more often, nothing is done.”
Says Nilo, he arrived on June 29, 2007. Today?
“The problems are the same.”
At the end of his second term, Nilo supposes he could be transferred to any part of the world, to do “any work that's related to migrants.”
He does not expect a triumphant finish to his Taipei career: no twist or revelation, no clear happy ending. “But there are some good stories, hah? Not only bad stories.”
Some Taiwanese are open, he says.
There are workers here who are happy.
He isn't amazed or lavish with praise — just pensive.
“I will tell you. There is no such thing as superior or inferior culture,” he says, “There are some people who believe their culture is better compared to the others. That will make the situation worse.
“But if you believe that you can enrich me by your culture, and maybe I can enrich you? Then it can be a beautiful experience.”
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