When Fr. José Ellacuría opened the Rerum Novarum Centre in Taipei in 1971, it was in response to a situation of flagrant injustice suffered by Taiwanese workers exploited by greedy employers who made them work long hours in inhuman conditions with ridiculous pay. These people often came to the city from the countryside to earn a living; they had neither the education nor the strength of association that would have enabled them to demand their due rights.
Over the years, Rerum Novarum’s services have expanded in response to the crying needs of a rapidly growing economic society that bowed to the god-money and in which human rights were quickly forgotten. This expansion of services began once again in the world of day labourers and other low-wage workers. The establishment of an occupational health and safety office has provided - and continues to provide - legal counsel in cases of workplace accidents and free consultation and outpatient services in cases of injury. Since 1989, prevention has been at the heart of the centre’s mission, which, in conjunction with government authorities, has promoted the development of workplace safety laws and regulations.
Services to workers further expanded and from 1990 onwards, it became clear that, if the situation of Taiwanese workers had improved significantly in 20 years, the one of migrant workers is still scandalous. Poor people, mainly from the Philippines, Indonesia and Vietnam, are contracted by unscrupulous agencies and sometimes have to work in contexts similar to slavery: their passports are taken away, they have to live in overcrowded dormitories, and their salaries are withheld. Furthermore, the Jesuit social services’ work tries to reach these exploited of unbridled capitalism to inform them of their rights. Again, with government services, Rerum Novarum works to resolve conflicts. The centre even operates a shelter for immigrant women who are particularly vulnerable if they lose their jobs.
As in so many other countries, the situation of indigenous people in Taiwan is not always rosy. The isolation and deficiencies of the education system in their regions make them easy prey when they arrive in the city. In 1997, the Rerum Novarum Centre became involved. It opened an employment service for indigenous people in the metropolis, Taipei. This desk helps indigenous people to obtain employment in public construction projects under good conditions.
The most recent project (2017) - and the one that was the subject of the longest sharing time during Father General’s visit to Rerum Novarum - concerns foreign fishermen who, in turn, are easily exploited by brokers and employers who are not mindful of workers’ rights. The services include legal interventions but also much-needed human attention and warmth for those people who live thousands of kilometres from their families. Mandarin courses are offered as also cultural activities.
The history of the services of the Rerum Novarum Centre in Taipei demonstrates a capacity to respond to the needs of each decade. It is the manifestation of attention to the neglected in a fast growing society, a context that can easily leave behind those who are isolated or powerless. The Rerum Novarum Centre manifests the gospel in action. This was the mission Father Ellacuría took on himself at the time of its founding; it is the mission that the current director, Mrs. Zhong Jia-Lin, continues. This was what animated Sister Stephana Wei, known as Wei Wei, who succeeded Fr. José in 1995 and headed the work for 22 years. We will soon offer on this site the video testimony of Sr. Wei Wei, a testimony that reflects the spirit of Ignatian discernment and the desire for closeness to the poor that has marked the life of this nun of the Missionary Mercedaries, a Spanish congregation in service in Taiwan.