Once again we are mining the ‘Far East’ magazine of the Columban Missionaries with a story that will resonate with anyone aware of how employers and governments can oppress workers. It will also resonate with students of history in Canterbury: at least 3 saintly archbishops were exiled due to speaking truth to power: Dunstan, Anselm and Thomas; as also was Saint Columban, patron of the society that Irish missionary Fr Neil Magill belongs to. He was sent to Taiwan in 1979. Article by Fr Cyril Lovett.
The government’s chief concern was economic growth and that was to be reﬂected in export ﬁgures. The workers were seen as mere tools to be used for that national purpose. The Columbans felt distressed when the government began to import and exploit cheap foreign workers from the Philippines and elsewhere. Neil soon realised that the local Church was not involved with social issues or concerned about ofﬁcial Church pronouncements on justice and peace.
Neil believed that the Catholic Social Encyclicals were meant for daily living, and he felt called as a missionary to preach the message of Christianity to factory workers struggling for justice in Taiwan. With his bishop’s approval, he rented a small apartment in an industrial estate where he was the only foreigner and priest. He started with nothing and tried to meet workers to form his ﬁrst core group. Contact was difficult, but Neil made friends by simply wandering around the industrial estate when the workers were coming out of the factories, or by eating with them at the food stalls on the streets nearby. Anyone he met, he invited to his apartment.
Little by little some workers began to visit him just to chat informally. Later they began to share some of their personal problems and finally to talk about their working conditions. After a year the bishops allowed him to start the New Life Workers’ Centre (NLWC); its main purpose was to help workers get to know their rights through educational programmes. Neil organised regular seminars and two lawyers offered their services free of charge. In a ten-year period, he managed to set up forty nongovernmental trade unions.
The NLWC was controversial because the government did not want it, and the Church tried to avoid conﬂict with the civil authorities. Police began to visit workers’ homes to warn parents that their sons and daughters should not attend labour educational courses. Factory bosses threatened to sack any workers who continued to attend the Centre. Neil himself was continually harassed. His mail was stopped, his phone tapped or cut off, and on different occasions police came to tell him that his movements were being carefully monitored.