Wednesday, April 19, 2017

My real beef with the new labor laws

I've been thinking a lot these days about what it is I don't like about the new labor regulations in Taiwan. I'm not sure why - they don't actually impact me as I don't have a single full-time job: I've been freelance since I got my APRC. Being generally interested in labor issues, however, might be a part of it. As is the fact that the new laws do impact many of my friends.

The most common complaints I hear from sources I care about are that work they want is being taken away from them, and that flexibility they want is being taken away (companies whining that now they have to compensate their employees more generously for the extremely long work hours expected of them do not draw my sympathy, I quite literally DGAF. You've been paying your people too little for crazy hours for awhile now, Taiwanese employers. Suck it.)

I'm not sure at all that these are the root problems that are causing me to view the new law with so much cynicism, though. That said, they're worth exploring.

I have a friend who poured a lot of passion and effort into a particular class, notably in developing a syllabus for that class within a larger curriculum. She had it taken away, because it was (apparently) the only way for her employer to ensure she did not work overtime that she'd have to be paid extra for (because goodness gracious, they couldn't just pay a valuable teacher more, could they? Oh no!). She genuinely wanted that work, and it was snatched from her. I have another friend who didn't necessarily want to work 6 days a week, but appreciated the financial boost she got from the longer hours. That was taken away, because the thought of just paying her more was apparently unconscionable? Or something? I have students who have subordinates who used to arrange their work schedules to work 6-day weeks for much of the month, but then take at least one extended weekend in that month so the hours worked out over a longer period, and they got a longer rest. That is no longer permissible under the new law. I'm not sure why not, but my students assure me it is not. I am not an expert.

I'm sympathetic to all of these complaints - especially the last one - but it seems increasingly obvious to me that they're symptoms of deeper problems the new labor law ignores rather than the root problems themselves.

What's being ignored here, and what the new law does nothing to fix, is the power imbalance between employer and employee. The "Boss Class" doesn't like the new law for obvious reasons: it's not so easy to squeeze their peons for more work for as little compensation as they can get away with giving. Good. But why don't labor activists like it? Because it does nothing to improve employee bargaining power or choice. It does nothing to address the basic truth of modern capitalism: the employee always, always - even in a labor-scarce market - has less power than a company. I could go into why I feel this is, but suffice it to say that labor does not gain sufficient power vis-a-vis employers in a world where shortages do not appear to be creating better remuneration and working conditions for teachers, or one in which jobs are not so interchangeable, and there might not be a similarly good job to jump to if the one you have (or the other one on offer) doesn't offer enough incentives to get you in the door, not because there is a job scarcity but because what you'd be doing would be somewhat unique. I mean, I'm a teacher, just ask me how teacher shortages in the US haven't led to better working conditions for American teachers. Even when the market favored labor in the years before the 2008 crash, lots of job openings didn't mean lots of offers in a world where one job opening would attract hundreds of applicants simply because the Internet made it easier to advertise jobs on massive websites and for applicants to send out heaps of resumes. A person can't necessarily live without a job, but a company can live with a position unfilled, and can get by with less-than-ideal employees until they find the right person, because the company will almost by definition have more resources than an individual.

As a result, I can't even think of a time in my adult life when the market has truly helped working conditions and pay improve. I'm not young anymore, that's actually quite a long time to see - in my observation at least, I don't claim to be an economist - essentially no progress.

In a better system, employer and employee would be on more even footing to negotiate not only pay and benefits, but preferred working hours and conditions. The employer could lay out their needs, and the employee could lay out what they hope to achieve, or get, out of the job. Employees who want to work longer hours and make more money could choose to do so, and those who wanted to work less, or be more flexible, but also potentially earn less, could choose that, too. Solutions might not be perfect, but they'd be workable for all involved because everyone was on a somewhat level playing field (and of course this is most obviously true in positions with hourly pay or clear paid overtime) when negotiating the terms of work. Of course, that's not how it works: your employer tells you if you're going to be working more or less, and how much money you want vis-a-vis free time is not considered. Often, keeping the laws relaxed so working hours can be quite variable don't necessarily lead to the employee getting more say - for every person who chooses longer hours, there are a few who are forced to work them. For every employee who chooses fewer, there are a few who are put on reduced schedules (but still told to be available for hours they will never work, so they can't even seek other employment) because that benefits the company.

So what you have are new laws that still allow the employer, without your input, to decide how much you work - those who want to work more can't if the company doesn't want to pay them the new overtime amounts, and those who want to work less might still be called in when they'd rather be off, or not get to choose when they are off. My friend who had a class she wanted taken from her was not given a choice to keep that class and lose another one. My friend who appreciates the money but not necessarily the exhaustion of a 6-day week wasn't given a choice as to whether she worked one or not - not before when she had to work 6 days, and not after when that was reduced to 5. In both cases her preference mattered little, and with any new job it would be the same. My students' subordinates were not given the choice to have a flexible schedule (it's mere circumstance that my particular students happen to be flexible and generous with their employees; not all employers are.)

It also does little to change the problem of every job essentially being a terrible deal - low pay, long hours, little in the way of additional benefits - in a world where you can't just not choose any job, you likely need to pick one. I have a student with this issue: she doesn't like her job, nor does she like any of the jobs on offer. But she has to take one, she can't just be unemployed. It's not possible to insist you deserve more than $22,000NT per month  (which I think everyone does - you can't live independently on $22k. It does not cover basic cost of living and therefore is inadequate) when there are no jobs offering more. English teachers can't insist on a job where they get paid Lunar New Year (which we ought to get under the law, but don't) if no job offers paid Lunar New Year (you might get compensation after you leave, if you complain, but that means little if what you actually want is a paid holiday without having to quit and threaten to call the government to eventually get that money). You can't change much where you actually work if speaking up means you could get "laid off", and the next job won't be any better.

The new laws really don't do anything to address that basic problem. I'm not sure what could, frankly, in a world where the company will always be bigger, and have more money and resources, than an employee or job seeker, no matter how "good" the market supposedly is.

1 comment:

Am fear eile said...

The prime solution in Europe to that skewed power relationship is to foster and allow Labour organisations (trade unions) to organise employees, on company time for certain duties, and to withdraw their Labour (strike if there is a democratic decision to do so. What are the results? Unionised workplaces are safer, have higher levels of educational attainment among the workforce and have higher productivity. In the !Post efficient, productive economies, like Germany, worker representation extends to board level.

By contrast, the management structure that seeks to minimise pay to employees and to screw as many hours as possible out of them results in long, less productive hours. It looks as if, rather than tackle a damaging managerial culture, the legislation is aimed at tackling the symptoms.