COLUMBAN missionary Father Peter O’Neill knows what modern slavery looks like.
For 26 years, Fr O’Neill, from Geelong, lived among poor and abused migrant workers in Taiwan.
He ran migrant shelters, provided pastoral support and advocated for human rights – a task he now describes as a privilege.
“It held my faith in God, a God of justice, a God of compassion,” Fr O’Neill said.
“And in my prayer every day I asked God for the courage and the strength to continue in the battle.”
Fr O’Neill returned to Australia in July, to spend time with his aging parents and to work at the Columban Mission Centre in Melbourne, as the mission society’s peace, ecology and justice co-ordinator – collaborating with organisations that focus on human trafficking and slavery, migrant workers, asylum seekers and refugees, ecology, and climate change.
He can reflect on his decades abroad and the ongoing struggle to free some of Asia’s most vulnerable workers from servitude and poverty.Fr O’Neill grew up in Holy Spirit parish – now a part of St Michael’s parish – Geelong, in a family that has delivered great missionary service.
His twin brother Fr Kevin O’Neill is the Columbans’ superior general, based in Hong Kong, and sister Sr Kate O’Neill is a religious sister of the Our Lady of the Missions Congregation and their former provincial leader in the Philippines.
Passion of a different kind ruled the O’Neill household as Peter was growing up. All his family – his parents and his five siblings – are “mad keen” Australian Rules football supporters.
Peter’s father John O’Neill, played as a fast and skillful wingman for the Geelong Cats from 1954-62, alongside ruckman Polly Farmer, and represented Victoria.
When Peter and Kevin were born, on the feast of St Columban in 1962, John retired from playing at the relatively young age of 27 to take up a teaching position in Cobden, country Victoria.
Three years later the O’Neill family moved back to Geelong as Mr O’Neill accepted a position at the Cats to coach the Geelong reserve team, ensuring that Peter and Kevin grew up with a keen football interest, played rover and ruck rover, and enjoyed a privileged status amongst their peers.
“We were able to get into the club rooms and get the signatures of all the players,” Fr Peter recalls.
“Some of the boys and girls at school were very jealous. You can’t do that these days.”
Besides football, the O’Neill family also had a keen interest in social justice.
They belonged to an organisation in Geelong that welcomed Vietnamese boat-people refugees into their homes.
Once a month four young Vietnamese would stay for the weekend with the O’Neills.
It was the first time the O’Neill kids had mixed with people from another country and culture and perhaps kindled the missionary spirit in Peter, Kevin and Kate. Peter was the first to answer God’s call to the priesthood.
After attending two school retreats with brother Kevin, he started thinking about training to be a priest, chose the Columban Missionaries and underwent his seminary formation in Turramurra, Sydney.
During his seminary formation, Fr O’Neill spent two years in Japan.
After his ordination he went to Taiwan – an island half the size of Tasmania, but with a population of 23 million.
He remembers discovering his mission work during long walks through the industrial areas around the city of Taoyuan.
“I came across a lot of Filipino and Thai migrant workers,” Fr O’Neill said.
“I would talk to them about their work. They had a lot of problems – under-payment of salaries, and under-payment of overtime.”
Fr O’Neill asked to be assigned to the Hope Workers’ Centre – one of two Columban centres set up to help local and migrant workers.
He spent 12 years at the centre working with foreign workers – many of them who arrived traumatised and damaged.
He uncovered systematic labour trafficking.
Fr O’Neill found that many migrant workers were undocumented.
They arrived in Taiwan from poorer Asian countries on tourist visas and simply over-stayed so they could work.
“I read media reports that there were roughly between 100,000 and 200,000 undocumented migrant workers,” he said.
Today, Fr O’Neill said the number of migrant workers in Taiwan had ballooned to 660,000. They provide cheap labour for a booming economy, with Taiwanese companies encouraged to employee 30 per cent of their workforce from poorer countries like the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam.
“Those working in the manufacturing sector, as fishermen, and in construction are covered by labour laws, but receive no more than the minimum wage,” Fr O’Neill said.
“Often they live in dormitories under night curfews.
“No matter how long they work for the same company their salary will never go above a minimum wage.
“They are looked down upon by the majority of Taiwanese.”
Fr O’Neill said about 250,000 migrant workers were young women – the largest number from Indonesia – taking care of elderly Taiwanese in their homes or in nursing facilities.
They work for 16-18 hours a day, receive less than a minimum wage and are vulnerable to abuse.
“Many of them are locked in the house of their Taiwanese employers, never allowed to have a day off, and virtually under the control of their employer,” Fr O’Neill said.
“Some are also victims of sexual abuse – raped by the husband who is their employer.
“They run away and become undocumented workers, then they are lured by the illegal brokers to find work.
“Some of them end up in brothels and become victims of sex trafficking.
“I would describe it as modern slavery.”
Although Fr O’Neill has witnessed many improvements in workers’ conditions many inequities remain.
Workers in poor Asian countries are still forced to pay placement agencies as much as $US4000 to get a job.
When they arrive in Taiwan, a broker takes a monthly service fee totalling $US2000 to cover their three-year contract.
“The majority of migrant worker passports are confiscated by either the employer or the broker – which violates Taiwan law – and then when they work in Taiwan they don’t have the freedom to change employers,” Fr O’Neill said.
“According to the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, everyone has the right to free choice of employment.”
In 2007, the local bishop asked Fr O’Neill to be the diocesan co-ordinator for social and pastoral services for migrants, immigrants and victims of human trafficking.
The diocese has five shelters (three for women and two for men) for up to 150 migrant workers.
Fr O’Neill supervised one of the shelters for 40 men.
By day, he would organise court cases against traffickers, and lobby authorities for migrant rights.
At night, he worked in the migrant shelter, creating a family-friendly atmosphere for the victims of labour trafficking who were far from home and struggled to speak Chinese.
“Eating with the migrant men every day, listening to their stories gave me the passion and energy to keep going with the lobbying, knowing that I was their voice – a voice for the voiceless,” Fr O’Neill said. “Sometimes it was horrific for them to retell their story of abuse.
“It was a privilege to be trusted by the migrant workers.”
Fr O’Neill encouraged migrants to practise their own religion.
Catholics were encouraged to go to Mass, Muslims to the local mosque and Buddhists to the local temple.
The shelter had a special prayer room for Christians and another for Muslims.
Taiwanese authorities and police came to trust and respect Fr O’Neill’s advocacy for the most downtrodden.
Over more than 20 years Columban missionaries were a part of a movement to convince the Taiwanese government to drop requirements for migrant workers to leave the country and return home after three years.
This allowed migrant workers to stay, without having to pay further fees to placement agencies, and to choose who they could work for.
“That was a big victory for those of us lobbying for migrant workers,” Fr O’Neill said.
“Unless there’s advocacy done by civil society and faith-based organisations, very few governments are willing to change the laws to protect migrant workers.
“We were in for the long haul and had to keep knocking on the door of the government.”
In 2015, Fr O’Neill received an official hero award from Taiwan’s Hsinchu City for his service to migrant workers and immigrants.
In stark contrast to when Fr O’Neill started his work with Taiwan’s migrant workers, now only seven per cent are undocumented.
Now back in Melbourne, Fr O’Neill said he would like to use his expertise learnt in Taiwan to work with Australian Catholic Religious Against Trafficking in Humans – examining labour trafficking in Australia.
“From what I am reading there’s a lot of exploitation going on,” he said. “A lot of workers are coming in to Australia as seasonal workers to pick fruit, and some of those workers are victims of labour trafficking.”
As for his beloved Geelong Cats – Fr O’Neill was in the crowd to watch his team play in the finals this year – only to see them eliminated before the grand final.
He’ll be hoping for a Cats victory next year.