Indonesian band takes stand for Taiwan’s migrant workers

Southern Riot mix poetry and punk to create songs that rail against the exploitation and abuse of migrant workers.

Southern Riot's lead singer Rudi on stage. He's wearing a black T-shirt and a red bandana around his head. The other band members are behind. There are crowds around him. He is holding the microphone out to the fans
Southern Riot performed at Taiwan's largest music festival Megaport [Jan Camenzind Broomby/Al Jazeera]

Kaohsiung, Taiwan – Surrounded by his fellow band members, Rudi takes the stage in Taiwan’s southern port city of Kaohsiung. As he looks out over the crowd, his bandmates begin to play, whipping the audience into a frenzy of excitement.

“Silenced by threats, here we stand against this system of slavery,” Rudi sings, as the crowd forms a mosh pit, chanting along with him. Beside him, a banner strung between two microphones reads, “Migrant workers have the right to a voice”.

Originally from the town of Indramayu in West Java, Rudi struggled to find work in his home country. “It’s hard to find a job in Indonesia, almost impossible,” he told Al Jazeera. “I didn’t have any permanent job. I did everything I could.”

Rudi moved to Taiwan in 2015 to operate heavy machinery in a factory. Like many of the island’s 768,000-odd migrant workers, he was looking for employment and the chance to build a better life.

But the reality is often more complicated. While migrant workers earn more in Taiwan, many find themselves exploited, trapped in debt or facing physical and sexual abuse. In the face of this, many are pushing back, forming labour unions and NGOs, and engaging in protests varying from flash mob dances to musical performances.

Comprised of four workers from Indonesia, Rudi’s band, Southern Riot, was formed just three years ago and is already performing at Taiwan’s largest annual music festival, MegaPort.

Southern Riot's guitarist playing on stage. There are banners in Indoneesian saying 'We are not robots' and 'We are humans too'. The guitarist has curly black hair and is wearing jeans and a black T-shirt. He has his left foot up on one of the speakers and is balancing the guitar on his knee
Southern Riot was formed three years ago by a group of migrant workers from Indonesia [Jan Camenzind Broomby/Al Jazeera]

Mixing poetry and punk music, their protest songs rail against what they describe as the “systems of slavery” that they say trap migrants.

They provide a space for their audience, too – who are also mostly migrant workers – to express themselves and escape from working life. “On the stage, I feel happy,” Rudi explained. “Our songs are like an expression of our feelings.”

Facing exploitation

Almost all workers arrive in Taiwan through an employment agency or broker, which immediately opens them up to exploitation.

“We have to pay them to get us here,” Rudi said, referring to the “placement fees” these brokers charge. “Then, when we get to Taiwan, we also need to pay. They cut our salary to pay for the monthly fees.”

For many, these placement fees can be as much as $9,000. That represents an almost insurmountable cost for the migrant workers who exclusively come from less wealthy Southeast Asian countries, explained Lennon Wang from Serve the People Association (SPA), a local NGO that focuses on migrant worker rights.

Originally from a family of rural farmers in the north of the Philippines’s Luzon Island, Ronalyn Asis had to pay some 120,000 Philippine pesos ($2,035) to cover the costs of her training, plane tickets and placement fees before she started working as a domestic carer in Taiwan in 2014.

While Asis was able to borrow money from her extended family, Lennon said many others are forced to seek private loans. These are usually provided via the employment broker themselves and may come with high interest rates that can leave workers trapped in debt.

Their problems do not end when they arrive in Taiwan. Rudi explains that migrant workers are given more strenuous tasks and expected to work harder than their local counterparts, while others are not paid properly. “Every aspect of our work is full of injustice,” he added.

Many are expected to work beyond the remits of their contract, or without proper time off, Lennon said.

A head and shoulders portrait of Ronalyn Asis. She is wearing an orange -shirt and has long black hair. She is standing between laundry hanging from a washing line
Ronalyn Asis was given just 10 hours of free time a month [Jan Camenzind Broomby/Al Jazeera]

Initially employed to look after an elderly member of a Taiwanese family, Asis found that she was expected to also act as a household maid, cooking and cleaning for her employers. She was given just 10 hours of free time a month.

“At first, I felt very disappointed about the situation but I felt like I was tied to my employer already and that I didn’t have any choice but to accept,” she said. “I had loans to pay, so I sucked it up.”

Others are tricked into moving to Taiwan on entirely false pretences. When Asher and Jaali were first approached by an employment agent in Kenya, they were promised the opportunity to work as acrobats in a circus.

“The main reason I came to Taiwan was to perform, earn money, make myself and uplift my family,” explained Asher. “But when I came here, things changed.”

Rather than performing, both Asher and Jaali were told to work on a farm, operating heavy machinery and spraying chemicals. Their passports were taken by their employers so they were unable to leave and search for alternative work.

They are currently involved in ongoing legal cases and asked to be known only by pseudonyms so their families would not find out what was happening.

Asher and Jaali are not alone. “Most migrant workers in Taiwan have the risk of forced labour and human trafficking,” Lennon said. In 2023, Walk Free, an NGO dedicated to the eradication of slavery, estimated some 40,000 people were living in modern slavery in Taiwan.

Three migrant worker women at a protest. They are wearing purple T-shorts and have bandanas around their heads. They are carrying pink placards which together spell the word 'ONE'. They are smiling.
Most of Taiwan’s migrant workers come from less wealthy countries in Southeast Asia [Jan Camenzind Broomby/Al Jazeera]

Feeling Powerless

Even if they have not been subject to human trafficking, migrant workers can be left feeling powerless at the hands of their employers.

Originally from a fishing community in Bulacan, on the outskirts of the Philippine capital of Manila, Liezel Bartolome was excited to begin work in Taiwan. As much as half of what she made, she sent home to pay for her mother’s medical care.

But when Bartolome was diagnosed with ovarian cancer and began chemotherapy, her excitement faded. “I didn’t want my mother to worry about my condition,” she explained through tears. “I always pretended that I was OK. That I was happy.”

Although her employers initially agreed to help cover her medical care and promised she could continue to work for them, once she left the hospital, they tried to fire her.

“When I was discharged from hospital and went home, my broker was there to terminate my contract,” she said.

While ending a contract in such a way is illegal, many migrant workers remain unaware of their rights, according to NGOs, adding to the power imbalance between employers and workers.

For domestic carers, who often live in their employer’s house and therefore rely on them for income and a roof over their heads, the imbalance is even more pronounced.

When Asis told her employers that she was pregnant, they gave her 24 hours’ notice, leaving her without a source of income and facing homelessness. At seven months pregnant she was forced to move into a shelter run by SPA. She now lives among a group of migrant workers, many of whom have escaped exploitation or abuse.

While employers regularly exercise control over migrants’ living and working conditions, they can also attempt to exert control over their physical bodies. There have been cases of women being forced to sign contracts promising they will not have children, or even pressured into taking contraception, Lennon told Al Jazeera.

Liezel Bartolome. She is standing in an office. She is wearing a black T-short with the word 'Beautiful' written on the front. She has long black hair
Liezel Bartolome says she would always pretend she was happy when she spoke to her family back home in the Philippines [Jan Camenzind Broomby/Al Jazeera]

Physical and sexual abuse is also common, especially for the mostly female domestic carers who may even be forced to share a room with their employers. “There are hundreds of workers who have been raped during the past years,” he said.

In research SPA commissioned in 2023, it found that one in six female migrant workers had faced gender-based violence including explicit or implied sexual demands.

Finding community

While migrants face difficult working conditions in Taiwan, many have a conflicted relationship with their adopted homeland.

For Asis, living in Taiwan has given her access to work and social services she would not have had at home. When her newborn baby boy fell ill, she said his treatment was cheaper than it would have been in the Philippines.

One year on, her son is back with her family, while Asis plans to continue earning money in Taiwan. The baby’s name, Twain, is a “scramble of Taiwan”, she explained.

Even Jaali and Asher, themselves victims of human trafficking, expressed a desire to stay. “We came here to earn money,” Jaali said. “We can’t go home without money, because we have no jobs back home.”

For those who continue to work in Taiwan, finding a community can be an important source of autonomy. In cities around the island, there are now restaurants, cafes, hotels and even discos, as well as NGOs and labour unions, run by and for migrant workers.

As well as engaging in advocacy, groups such as Migrante Taiwan and SPA have organised protests and flashmob dances, hoping to draw attention to migrant worker issues in a creative way.

Southern Riot taking a bow. They are lined up on the stage. They look tired by happy
Southern Riot take a bow. They started the band for fun, but it quickly acquired a more political dimension [Jan Camenzind Broomby/Al Jazeera]

Back in Kaohsiung, Rudi steps towards the crowd, letting audience members sing with him as Southern Riot finishes their set.

Although they played music for fun, since forming the group, the band has taken on a distinct political dimension.

With tracks titled, “Love song from an Indonesian migrant worker” and “From the people for the people”, they explain that they are motivated to give a voice to the suffering, troubles and dissatisfaction their fellow workers experience.

“We lack the voice to convey our thoughts to the Taiwanese authorities,” Rudi explained. “Through this music, we hope we can convey some of our difficulties, our troubles.”

“We want to boost the voices of our fellow migrant workers,” he added. “I hope they will know that they are not alone here. We are here for them.”

With reporting by Shanthi Levanita Tahmasebian

Source: Al Jazeera