Sunday gatherings are the most important time of the week for Filipino workers.
You could be forgiven for thinking you are in Manila when you pass the Ching Kuang market and the Catholic St. Christopher Church on Taipei's Chungshan North Road each Sunday, for almost all the people you come across are Filipinos, chatting with one another in English or Tagalog.
The government in Taipei opened its doors to foreign workers in the early 90s as living standards improved and local labor costs skyrocketed making it harder and harder to find local people willing to work as maids, family nurses or construction workers.
According to official statistics, there were 326,515 foreign workers in Taiwan, representing the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam, as of the end of December last year (2000). Of these foreign workers, more than 34,000 work in Taipei City, accounting for over half the alien residents of the city, the statistics show.
Filipino workers make up the biggest single grouping of migrant laborers and as citizens of a devoutly Catholic nation, many of them go to Mass each Sunday.
These Sunday church gatherings have become perhaps the most important part of the week for Filipino workers in Taiwan. They usually take advantage of the opportunity to exchange gossip, information and meet newcomers from their home country after a week of onerous household chores, nursing and construction work.
The St. Christopher Church has long been a spiritual center for the city's Filipino workers. Each Sunday morning sees hundreds of them entering the church in turn to celebrate one of the five Masses held each Sunday.
After worshipping, they spend the rest of the day shopping, eating, strolling along the streets or going on a pinic in the park nearby, which translates into a lot of business turnovers for the stores in the area.
Another special phenomenon among the Filipino workers is that unlike their Indonesian and Vietnamese counterparts, almost everyone owns a cellular phone. "The phone is very cheap and I use it to communicate with my friends. I usually use the prepaid cards," said Ragmac, a young Filipino woman who gave only her family name.
A grocery near the church that sells Filipino produce is always crowded with Filipino workers on Sundays. In addition to selling groceries, the shop assistants also help the workers deal with remitting money and the mailing goods to their hometowns.
"In the early 1990's, these foreign workers used to cause us some trouble," said Roger Yang, an official of the Taipei city government's Foreign Workers' Counseling Center. "Nearby residents often complained that the migrant laboreres made too much noise and relieved themselves in improper places each Sunday due to the lack of public toilets in the neigborhood. After discussions, however, these issues were solved," he added.
With efforts by Taiwan's two special municipalities under the directly jurisdiction of the Cabinet - Taipei and Kaohsiung - as well as by counties and cities under the jurisdiction of Taiwan Provincial Government, foreign workers have recently begun to enjoy sound protection of their rights and they are now also aware of the channels to go through in order to file complaints, Yang said.
Today, Taipei City, Kaohsiung City, and all provincial counties and cities have set up foreign workers' counseling centers to provide their charges with necessary assistance. In addition, the Taipei city government published a "Cultural Map for Migrants" in December last year (2000).
These measures provided by the government are helping foreign
workers to make the most of their Taiwan sojourn and are also helping stave
off the pangs of homesickness among these hardworking people so far away
from their loved ones.