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For Migrant Workers, Holiday Is Joyous _ But Reminder of Adversity

April 6, 1996

TAIPEI, Taiwan (AP) _ For Mary, a 30-year-old Filipina worker, this Easter is a special one. It’s the first time in three years that she’ll celebrate the holiday with her husband.

Like the hundreds of thousands of workers who make up a worldwide diaspora from the Philippines, she hopes to build a better life for her family with the money she earns abroad.

Mary is one of the lucky ones. She says she is well-treated by her employer, who knows and doesn’t mind that she is using her cousin’s working papers.

But advocates say thousands of other workers, especially undocumented ones, face hardship at the hands of unscrupulous employers, rough treatment by police and exploitation by officially sanctioned recruiting agencies.

On Easter Sunday, thousands of Philippine workers were expected to flock to a Mass by Manila’s visiting Cardinal Jaime Sin. For the workers, their faith is a source of strength _ but it can also bring adversity down on them.

Because the Philippines is Asia’s only predominantly Roman Catholic country, churches have become hunting grounds for Taiwanese police eager to earn a $37-bounty for each undocumented worker caught.

The Vatican has complained to Taiwan about the raids, which at times have disrupted choir rehearsals and Bible study classes as police demand to see work permits. Six undocumented workers were arrested in and around a church last February and jailed.

About 80,000 Philippine workers are in Taiwan on legal contracts, and undocumented ones are estimated to number up to 10,000. Most workers arrive legally, but some run afoul of the law by overstaying their visas to try to find better jobs, according to Jennie Ting of the Overseas Contract Workers Counseling Center.

Philippine officials have condemned the government-sanctioned agencies they say exploit workers.

Former Supreme Court Judge Emilio Gancayco, who headed a presidential commission investigating foreign work contracts, said even if the pay is good, recruiters can easily cheat workers, who pay up to four months’ wages in nonrefundable fees to Taiwan government-accredited agencies.

If an employer goes bankrupt or has a change of heart, the workers can find themselves deported, out of their fee money and with no earnings to show for it.

The hardship and uncertainty take a toll. Last November, in a case that mesmerized Taiwan, migrant worker Angelina Canlas murdered her employer’s mother-in-law, then tried to take her own life. Doctors testified that stress had caused her to become mentally unbalanced.

For many, though, the outcome makes the risks worthwhile. Mary, whose husband arrived last week to work in a textile factory, borrowed travel papers from a cousin in order to return for a second, two-year stint.

But the couple had to leave their two sons back home with family. When their contracts expire, they plan to go home for good.

``My babies will be getting older, and needing me,″ Mary said.

Even if they wanted more children now, it would be impossible. A migrant worker found to be pregnant is instantly deported. Contract workers may not marry, either.

For 30-year-old Tonette, who works as a maid and an English teacher, and her fiance Rudie, 29, working in an electronics factory, the wait is worth it. They have only a few months left on their contracts, and will marry when they return home.

``This Easter I will pray for my family’s continued good health,″ Tonette said, ``and give thanks that I have been able to save what I have.″

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