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A Trip to Badouzi

We, allison, edec, and i, climbed into the car to make the 2-hour trip to Badouzi Harbor after lunch on Tuesday. Allison had called mei-hua earlier that morning to see how organizing efforts were going there. Mei-hua said that union members were impatient to keep things moving forward. Allison has known this for a while now, talking with pride about how the union in Keelung has already made their own T-shirts, flag, and banners despite lacking legal status. So we headed north from Nanfang’ao since poor weather conditions would keep the boats in the harbor that evening, meaning that union members would be free to meet to discuss next steps.

The KMFU T-Shirt (with the original name)

We arrived at Mei-Hua’s place, which doubles as the union office, an hour late. Nevertheless, we were still among the first to arrive. More fluid cultural conceptions of time, reinforced by a rhythm of life tied less to the "empty, homogenous" clock than weather patterns, make for a relatively flexible modality of time for migrant workers in the fishing industry. Although allison, perhaps influenced by her sense of responsibility as secretary general of the Yilan Migrant Fishermen Union (YMFU), operates with strict punctuality in mind, both edec, her husband from the Philippines, and i are less inclined this way.

I walked into the union office first carrying a box of materials because it was raining and allison and edec couldn’t find a parking spot nearby. A group of men i didn't recognize but who looked to be in their mid-20s was lounging on the floor against the far wall, phones in hand while charging. After setting the box down in a corner with a pile of winter clothing donations, I sat down on the light brown carpet to admire the messages of solidarity and brotherhood painted on the walls while we waited for everyone to arrive.

The KMFU office

The artist responsible for these messages, Mas G, was next to come in. I met Mas G the last time we were in Keelung for an event hosted by the Fisheries Agency. He told me then that Indonesian migrant fishermen based in Keelung started discussing the possibility of forming a union in May with encouragement from the leadership of the YMFU. He has been involved since the beginning and is now the union president. The connection with the YMFU is apparent in the name of the new organization, the Keelung Migrant Fishermen Union (KMFU), which currently has a membership of around 60 people. The KMFU has been able to increase membership rapidly because its leadership, including Mas G, is also actively involved in faith-based and hometown organizations. There is therefore considerable overlap between these organizations, as union leadership recruited members through already existing community groups.

But allison is anxious about making things official too quickly. The reason has a lot to do with the bureaucratic nightmare that the YMFU has been dealing with recently. The Labor Affairs Department of Yilan County has been making life miserable for the union ever since Wu Chi-hung was appointed Director by an interim County Magistrate in order to stack local government offices with partisan loyalists. Director Wu’s political orientation is, in fact, antithetical to labor, having received a Master’s Degree from the National Ilan University Graduate Institute of Management in 2011 after submitting a thesis on “Key human capital indicators of local government.” Allison often tells people that the Labor Union Law should really be called the “Labor Union Management Law,” because it is concerned more with managing unions than with empowering workers.

The complicity of government agencies in disciplining and exploiting migrant workers is legendary. Social movement activists can recount endless stories about the state and capital’s inhumane treatment of migrant workers throughout three decades of the development of the guest worker program in Taiwan. But migrant workers are not the passive victims that corporate media often makes them out to be. Such narratives flatter the conceit of power by conceptualizing political subjectivity as reserved for privileged members of society. Migrant workers are instead “incorrigible subjects” whose everyday activities exceed the attempts by state and capital to delimit, police, and control the borders of belonging and inclusion and their associated rights, protections, and access to social wealth.

Video from the Yilan County Council of Councilor Lin Chi-Shan asking Director Wu Chi-Hung of the Labor Affairs Department to investigate the YMFU

The growth of the KFMU affirms that the spirit of revolution is eternal and cannot be extinguished by reactionary forces. In the aftermath of the collapse of the Nanfang’ao Bridge, the ruling class – employers, boat captains, labor brokers, politicians, and sycophants – have viciously assaulted the YMFU. According to the dominant narrative, the YMFU is a foreign entity that is causing conflict in capital-labor relations by telling lies about the nature of living and working conditions of migrant workers. Boat owners, captains, and migrant fishermen are partners who would otherwise get along as family in the absence of the union. Allison is seen as an intruder who manipulates the banner of human rights to take advantage of migrant workers for personal gain.

Led by the Director of the Su’ao District Fishermen’s Association, local power brokers have opportunistically used the tragedy of the bridge collapse to attack the YMFU. Claiming that allison has harmed the people of Nanfang’ao in general and local fishing interests in particular, employers, labor brokers, and politicians have joined forces in suing allison, coercing the president of the union to resign, and initiating an investigation of the YMFU through the Yilan County Council. Employers have engaged in a campaign to terrorize the migrant workforce, holding captive meetings at the Su’ao District Fishermen’s Association to denounce the union and suggest that the union will be the cause of the collapse of the fishing industry.

The open hostility of employers and the resignation of the president have had a chilling effect on union members. Although the union has received dozens of boxes of donations of jackets, shirts, pants, and other apparel as part of its annual winter clothing drive, it has been slow to distribute these to migrant fishermen. A union official told us that Indonesians are fearful of taking clothing in case employers ask where the clothing came from. Employers have targeted the Indonesian workforce, in particular, since they constitute the majority of union membership and the Indonesian president has been the most visible member in the public eye.

Despite, or perhaps because of, the intensifying political suppression, the flame of resistance has carried on in new forms. Filipino migrant fishermen have shouldered much of the burden of distributing winter clothing, recruiting new membership, and engaging in social activities in the name of the union. At the meeting in Keelung, meanwhile, allison asks union members, who are all Indonesian at this point, about their thoughts regarding the resignation of the president of the YMFU. A number of people respond in solemn tones that the president’s official narrative – that he voluntarily resigned because of a lack of transparency with the union – is hard to take at face value. Hearing these testimonies, I feel a renewed sense that Truth will prevail over whatever evidence the oppressing classes trot out to mask unequal power relations.

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