Irwin Vargas has worked since 2012 for a plastic-injection factory in Taichung County, Taiwan. He also volunteers in the noon-time choir, singing during mass at the Hope Workers’ Center every Sunday. Irwin has told the story of his experience as a migrant worker for the documentary series, “The Migrant Worker’s Face.”
By Irwin Vargas
Edited by Hannes Zetzsche
Gleefully, I boarded a flight home one morning in early 2015.
I remember how good it felt to leave Taiwan behind. I was certain that I would never look back! It was a happy reunion with my mother and I looked forward to no longer enduring the tasks that had tested my patience and frustrated me daily for three years. But it didn’t take long for our reunion to turn sour. I realized that my mother was ₱700,000 Philippine Pesos (NT $426,004) in debt and the only way we could pay it back was if I returned to Taiwan.
I was born on August 3, 1984. I am the second of four children born to Ernesto and Nelya Vargas.
My older sister, Newileen, was born two years before I was, and my younger brothers, Arnie and Irvin, were born three and seven years after. We grew up in Camarine Sur, in the Bicol Region of Luzon, an island in the Philippines. Our family was always very close knit, depending on one another because we provided for each other.
My parents inhabited traditional family roles; while my mother worked in the home, raising my siblings and me hands-on, my father worked outside as a professional casket painter. I looked up to my dad immensely, seeing him as a super dad. Arnie and I would often join my dad at work, painting coffins side by side with him.
My father worked hard to take care of his family, but he always told us he wanted us to pursue higher educations so we wouldn’t paint caskets for our whole lives. Although he never finished college, himself, my father always told us, “Study and finish your studies because you can use it to go wherever you would like, whenever you want.” He promised to help us pay for college, wherever we thought we could succeed.
Obediently, my siblings and I were very good students throughout elementary and high school. The Vargas siblings were consistently near the top of our classes, particularly in speaking- and people-intensive subjects. Newileen might claim to have achieved the highest marks on our math exams, though we, her brothers, were close behind!
After high school, Newileen I matriculated to college, honoring our father’s wish and promise. In 2001, Newileen began her first year at the University of Northeastern Philippines, studying to become an elementary teacher. I followed suit in 2003, majoring in elementary education with an emphasis in math; I wanted to become a high-school math teacher and I excelled, earning three academic excellence awards in four years.
But in 2004, after my first year in college, my father died.
A fit man, he had suffered a heart attack while at work, and was pronounced dead on June 26, 2004. My whole family was in shock. From one day to the next, I went from being the son of happy, married parents to the leader of a deeply wounded family.
My father had been a role model to me, an example of selflessness in leadership. Beyond the emotional impact of his loss, I also owed my education to him. Once the shock of our father’s death had subdued, we realized that going to college would be less a certainty and more a prayer. As my family’s breadwinner, he had worked hard to pay for his children’s educations; how could my sister and I, and soon my two brothers, afford to continue our educations?
My mother, a courageous woman, took full financial responsibility of our educations. With the money she received from my father’s pension, she opened a small sari-sari store, selling canned goods and small retail products from our home’s living room. She intended to earn money to continue supporting our tuitions, as her late husband had wanted.
And she did. Newileen graduated the following year and began working as an elementary teacher, giving some of her wages every month so that I could continue studying.
By the time I graduated, in 2007, Arnie had finished high school and had begun working near home. Arnie would become the only of my father’s children not to study in college, but it seemed okay because the three oldest siblings were all working as our father had wanted. Irvin remained at home as the lone student, but my mother steadily provided monthly checks to his education, as she had to our universities as well. I knew she had taken on loans, but I assumed they were only small ones, backed by money from my father’s penchant.
I delayed my entry to the teaching profession when I was offered a job earning as a quality-inspection supervisor at a factory near home earning ₱15,000 per month (NT $9,129).
Instead of teaching high-school math, I have worked at a factory in Taiwan since February 5, 2012.
A friend invited me to work abroad after I had completed five years as a quality-inspection supervisor in the Philippines. He told me he had connections and could arrange for me to work in the same position in Taiwan, albeit with a much higher salary. Eagerly, I signed a contract with a broker my friend knew to work as a machine operator, which the broker said was simply a semantical limitation; he told me I would be a quality-inspection supervisor, as I wanted. I arranged loans of ₱145,000 (NT $88,244) so that I could pay a placement fee to my broker and I planned to pay NT $1,800 monthly for a broker’s service fee.
I felt pride as I travelled to Taiwan on February 5, 2012. Wasn’t this exactly the kind of opportunity my dad had worked for me to achieve? I was using my education to achieve what I wanted, where I wanted.
My first day of work aroused a rude awakening. I reported to work and my boss told me to operate a machine whose purpose was foreign to me. When I protested, citing my broker’s promise that I would be a white-collar quality-inspector supervisor, my boss told me I was a factory worker now, so I should do what he said.
I was overwhelmed. The factory, in Taichung, specialized in plastic injection and produced all manner of office supplies: folders, notebooks, labels, anything plastic. I didn’t know what to do and the factory was hot. In my first two hours of work, I sweated through my new t-shirt. Everything was completely counter to my expectations; I had expected to work in an office, not make office supplies. I was a blue-collar worker, operating forklifts, driving, mixing, packing, and maintaining equipment. My broker had deceived me!
After having relied for many years on the emotional support of my family, it was difficult to suddenly be far removed from them. They didn’t understand my plight and, because I had expected a significant pay increase, they thought I would have enough to send home. But between the monthly costs of my broker’s service fee and my loan repayment for the placement fee, I earned very little profit to send home. I felt trapped—between my family who wanted my money and my broker who was finding ways not to give me any money. The work was very hard and I didn’t feel like my boss was teaching me anything.
I lived with Filipinos, but I didn’t feel like I could relate to them. One day, during my rest day, I was in the hallway on my way to lunch, when Bobo, one of my coworkers came running to me with blood squirting from his head; he had been in a fight, and his aggressor had stabbed a knife into his head. “Irwin, help me!” Bobo cried.
Running to my boss, I shouted, “Boxing! Blood!” because I knew the man spoke only limited English. My boss realized what had happened and directed me to bring Bobo to the hospital. We summoned a taxi and ran Bobo into the hospital in time before he lost too much blood. I was relieved that Bobo would survive, but the experience left me rattled and afraid. Would the aggressor stab me next? Or worse yet, would I lose my mind in this place and become the aggressor?
I thought often of my father’s example during this time. Would he have quit on his family? Wasn’t this work what he had sought for me, the opportunity to travel and succeed? I didn’t quit.
My mind has always been analytical. In this time of workplace trial, I remember recognizing my only path would be forward; thus, I would have to become the best worker possible.
I watched the machines, wondering how do skilled operators handle them? Slowly, I mastered the process and became one of the best workers in my unit. My boss began to appreciate my ethic of persistence. When new employees arrived, I would recognize the same look of fear and perplexity I had worn, and I would help them because I believed it was right. I continued to be stressed by my family’s dynamic at home, but I controlled all that I could in my surroundings.
I became proud of my work. I still hated what I did and regretted immensely my decision to move to Taiwan, but I took pride in working excellently. For three years, I looked forward to going home and resuming my life.
But when my mother told me I would have to go back to Taiwan, I was horrified.
I was overjoyed to return to my family. I delighted in greeting my mother, big sister, and brothers with hugs. Since I had been away, my youngest brother Irvin had completed college; he had grown up, studying criminology at the University of St. Anthony, in Iriga. Newileen had married and was a decorated elementary teacher. Arnie was working and taking care of our mother. I was so proud of my family and it felt so right to be with them. But all my happiness was dashed as my mother gathered us and told us the situation. She told me I must go back to Taiwan to earn.
Why go back to a place that has brought me pain? Why sacrifice being with family for being isolated?
The answer: 700,000.
We owed ₱700,000 (NT $426,004). As I knew, after my father had died, all subsequent years of education for my siblings and me had been paid by my mother. She was courageous to continue her husband’s initiative. What I hadn’t known was that to pay, she had taken hundreds of thousands of pesos in loans from private lenders.
It didn’t surprise me that she had been forced to borrow some money, but I had expected the amount to be much smaller and backed by the funds from my dad’s penchant to prevent unreasonable rates of interest. Instead, my mother had gone from one lender to the next, often without rival lenders’ knowledge. My father had built up a reputation and some form of a credit rating during his lifetime—he was a respected man—and she had capitalized on this, assuming debts from almost a dozen lending agencies. With a collection of exorbitant interest rates, the amount owed was growing as she explained it to me.
As my mother explained all of this to me, showing me the paperwork that she had kept but still didn’t completely understand, I could barely breathe. I knew exactly what I saw. No one in my family had ever seen this much money in their lives, certainly not at one time. My heart sprinted through emotions: shock, awe, denial, resignation, anger, followed by some measure of pained resolve.
I would never be able to pay off my family’s debt if I stayed in the Philippines; I would have to return to Taiwan.
My brothers, Arnie and Irvin, now work in Taiwan as well and we have made some progress in paying down my family’s debt.
My broker had pestered me since I had returned home in February 2015, convincing me to return to Taiwan. My employer must have told him about the quality of work I had produced during my first contract in Taiwan and the broker was eager for me to please the employer again; certainly, he must also have been eager for the ₱145,000 broker’s fee he would likely charge me again.
When I first landed home, in the Philippines, I was certain that I wouldn’t be availing myself of anymore overseas brokers’ services. He had lied to me once; why should I believe him that my conditions this time would be better? In the conversations after I returned, I told him, “No you’ll abuse me, I won’t sign another contract.” I had been a very good worker—the best in my department—but I felt underappreciated for my skill.
But as my mother explained to me our family’s financial situation, I recognized that I might have to go against my better instincts and return to a job I hated. I finally contacted the broker, ready to negotiate. We arranged to waive my broker’s fee and to reduce my monthly service fee from ₱1,800 (NT $1,095) to ₱1,500 (NT $913), in exchange for my signing of another three-year contract with him. I arrived in Taiwan for the second time in mid-2015.
Of the ₱700,000 that my mother had owed originally, we have now paid more than half. Once in Taiwan, I sought jobs for my two brothers there too. I approached many brokers, inquiring whether they could place two hard-working Vargas brothers. Arnie and Irvin now work at factories in Keelung and Tainan, and I sometimes see them. I know my brothers are going through many of the same challenges I did—and I have tried to coach them through their struggles—but we all know the purpose of our work: our work is our mission, to save the family.
I earn minimum wage, NT $21,009 per month, with occasional overtime. My brothers and I each send half our monthly earnings to our mother and she has managed to pay enough that only ₱341,000 (NT $207,525) of our debt remain.
I have begun singing at the Hope Workers’ Center on my rest days.
Friends in my factory invited me. They noticed my tendency to become dejected and angry with my work, and thought attending mass might help me. In mass, they must have heard my voice and thought I would make a good choir member.
I have always loved to sing—in Taichung’s karaoke bars and among friends—but in the noon choir at the Hope Workers’ Center, I feel able to use my voice for good. Among the choir family, I can be happy and I feel included.
The church, in Zhongli, is about a two-hour train ride from my house, but I gladly make the trip Sunday mornings and evenings. After we sing in mass, my fellow choir members and I often go out for lunch in Zhongli, before returning to the church for next week’s rehearsals. Singing helps me escape the pattern of self-loathing.
I am committed to another year of work in Taiwan and I hope that I will have earned enough by 2018 to close my mother’s debts and go home. But until then, I work and I sing.
I often wonder: do I regret working here now?
Yes, I regret being in a place where I often still feel alone and unhappy. As happy as it makes me to sing with my choir family and to spend time with them on Sundays, I remain mostly isolated for six days out of the week. I am good at my job, but it remains very different from what I was trained to do. I am a high-school math teacher and I hope one day to work as one. Yes, I regret the trials I face daily.
But no, I don’t regret what I do. I knew what I signed up for in 2015, when I contacted my broker and arranged to commit three more years of my life to Taiwan. I was committing to my mother and her debts, taken out of panic and love for her children. I was committing to the uninterrupted continuation of my sister’s married life, so she could raise a family.
And I was committing to my father’s aspiration and promise: he told us an education would grant us the privilege to work where and as we wanted, and he promised to pay tuition.
This reflection by Irwin Vargas has been published by the Hope Workers’ Center as an entry to “The Migrant Worker’s Face” documenting project. The Hope Workers’ Center continues to seek stories like Irwin’s with which we can add detail to migrants’ intricate face. There are two ways that you can help us. If you are a migrant worker and would be willing to share your story, we want to hear from you directly! You can read instructions about how to participate here. If you are not a migrant worker, then we ask you to continue supporting our project: read our stories weekly and invite others to do the same.
The Hope Workers’ Center is dedicated to supporting migrant workers in our community. Through this project, we hope to appreciate the beauty of each person’s life while fostering recognition among a wider audience of the struggles that migrants regularly encounter in their work. Thank you for your support!