Showing posts with label labor. Show all posts
Showing posts with label labor. Show all posts

Monday, October 28, 2019

In Taiwan, women are the real labor movement

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In both domestic and foreign labor, it's the women who are pushing the real changes

In the span of a few short years, I've noticed something regarding labor actions in Taiwan: all of the most successful ones (as well as less successful but highly visible actions) have been organized and carried out by women.

The Taoyuan Flight Attendants' strike (which you might know of as the "China Airlines strike") of 2016, called “first successful strike held by an independent labor union in Taiwan’s history" by the union director has overall been upheld as an example of what organized labor can achieve if they persist. Of course, the flight attendants themselves - remember them, occupying the road around the China Airlines headquarters? - were predominantly female, as were the organizers and public faces of the movement (including the union director, Su Ying-jung). 

The EVA Airlines strike, though less successful, garnered a high level of visibility, both domestically and internationally. Though they gained fewer concessions than the earlier flight attendants' strike, I do think it creased a sense that striking is a legitimate way to push for a better work environment rather than pushing "too far" and being taboo. Of course, most of the EVA strikers were also women.

There was also the China Airlines pilots' strike, which skewed more male (in Taiwan and globally, in the airline industry men are more likely to be pilots and women are more likely to be flight attendants. Someone's going to get mad at me for saying this, but the reason is sexism. But, it's not directly related to my point here.) The pilots' strike was also largely successful, but came on the heels of (and was perhaps spurred on or inspired by) the success of the flight attendants' strike. Other labor organizers have pointed to the China Airlines flight attendants' strike for giving their own initiatives more visibility.


2016 China Airlines strike
China Airlines Flight Attendants' Strike, from Wikimedia Commons - you'll see both men and women engaging in the strike, but I can assure you that the organization and core of this action was predominantly female

These strikes were historic in Taiwan, in part because there really hasn't been much in the way of labor movements or strike actions in the country since the 1990s. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, there was a strong uptick in the number of autonomous labor unions formed, in contrast to the old-style, often conservative, government-backed unions which were mostly formed to prevent organized labor from making significant ground or challenging KMT control of and profit from the island's most lucrative industries (there's a long history of state interference and personal and party benefit from industry in post-war Taiwan and of course the military dictatorship didn't want organized labor threatening their control, and most autonomous organizations of any kind were banned - labor, women's organizations, you name it). As Martial Law was lifted and Taiwan began the process of democratization, unions in general threw off the shackles of state or corporate control and protests, strikes and various labor actions did take place, but then the movement lost steam. 

Around the same time, the Supreme Court upheld the ruling against RCA for exposing workers to toxic waste - especially carcinogenic solvents - causing high incidents of cancer among former employees. Though the RCA workers did not have all of their demands met, RCA was ordered to pay damages to afflicted former employees and their families. And, again, most of the workers involved and the people who organized to fight the lawsuit were women.

I have been looking into it and can't find a similar example of an organized group of male workers bringing a lawsuit against a former employer and winning in the way that the RCA workers did - if you know of one, please clue me in. There's a reason, however, that this case was considered historic.

While all this was going on, there has been exactly one large cross-industry labor protest of note, which took place in late 2017. Though many of the attendees were female, if you look at the photos, you'll see that huge blocs of industrial union participants were male (indeed, check out the photo of the Chunghwa Telecom Workers' Union from that link). The women I saw in attendance tended to be foreign domestic workers fighting to end their exclusion from many of Taiwan's labor protection laws, and young protesters showing up to represent a variety of related but not-quite-the-same causes, such as marriage equality and Taiwanese independence.

For a number of political reasons which are not quite relevant here, the usual activist groups and left-leaning political parties were largely absent in any organized form, though individuals from those movements did show up.

And that protest went exactly nowhere, and a lot of people felt tricked or misled by the organizers, myself included. To be honest, beyond the foreign labor groups and some of the individual young activists who showed up, the whole thing felt like conservative older men and some leftie labor activists who aren't exactly pro-Taiwan (some people call them 'pro-unification left') coming together to hold banners, and create a whole bunch of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

In short, it sure feels to me like the backbone of the labor movement in Taiwan is female. Not only that, but the future of labor movements in Taiwan are, as well. It's the women who fight back, the women who lead historic strikes, and the women who get results while the men hold signs and criticize President Tsai (but where were they when working conditions were degrading under President Ma? I remember no large labor protests from those eight years. Do you? Why, whatever could be the reason?) and nothing happens.

I've also noticed that the fact that women are leading the labor movement is simply ignored in media reporting of their success. New Bloom, which is usually quite good at highlighting issues of misogyny and gender/sex discrimination, called the China Airlines flight attendants' strike predominantly young, which is true (flight attendants in Asia skew young), but not predominantly female, although it was. They did point out that the EVA Airlines flight attendants were all female, in the context of EVA's frankly sexist and probably illegal hiring policy, but not in the context of women being the vanguard of contemporary labor movements. Taipei Times didn't bring up gender at all when discussing the flight attendants' strike or the RCA lawsuit.


EVA Airlines strike photo from CNA via Taiwan News

Of course, it shouldn't matter, because labor is labor regardless of gender. But considering historic discrimination against women in labor around the world, including Taiwan, what is considered to be overall low labor participation by Taiwanese women (more on that later, though), and the overall tendency of small and medium-sized businesses to be represented by men (regardless of who is doing most of the work) and the painting of men, traditionally, as hard-working entrepreneurs but not women (see the male-oriented phrase 黑手變頭家 which lionizes male 'black-hand' laborers for becoming successful business owners)...it does matter. It has to matter. I hope for a world where someday it doesn't, but in 2019, it does. 
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One of the few examples of a group of women at the 2017 labor protest

It truly feels like women are on the front lines and taking the initiative in a society that is still oriented to respect male labor but not female labor, and getting zero credit.

This invisibility of women as the backbone of labor in Taiwan has historical roots - at least, I think it does.

Looking at Taiwan's labor history, those post-war "home industries" and "home factories" where individuals did manufacturing piecework in their homes were often seen as a way for the women of a household - who, by the way, still had to do all the regular household labor - to help the family income. Men and young people engaged in this work as well: I remember a student who'd reached an extremely high perch in an internationally-known Taiwanese company telling me about pressing plastic leaves for fake flowers with one hand while studying with a book in his other hand, because his father's income as a bus driver wasn't sufficient to support the family. But, so often, it was "housewives" who did this work.

When factories - both large and small - drove Taiwan's industrial miracle, they often looked to women as sources of labor. This was in part because they could pay them less, and in part because they expected the women to leave their jobs as soon as they married and (probably) got pregnant, meaning they wouldn't have to worry about things like severance pay or a retirement pension as they would with long-term male workers. For the smaller factories, men were often the sales and public face of the company, but women did a huge proportion of the actual manufacturing. These factories and industries were seen as 'male' - all those 'black hand' laborers working their way up in the world - but they weren't, really.

When 'family businesses' became part of the small-and-medium sized enterprise boom that helped make the Taiwan Miracle possible, who do you think in the family did all the back-end work? The 'man' (usually a husband or father in the family) would be the public face of the company, but the person keeping the books, taking stock, perhaps doing a large proportion of the actual work, and often making important business decisions was that man's wife. Mr. Chen might be the 老闆 (boss) with his own business card, but Chen Tai-tai - the 老闆娘 - is the real boss. If you want something done, don't talk to Mr. Chen - talk to his wife. Of course, she does all that and also all of the housework and child-rearing, but probably doesn't have a business card.

I say all of this anecdotally, but I've brought up my observation to countless Taiwanese friends and students and not one has disagreed, and while none of my reading states this explicitly, it's strongly implied in several of my sources.

And yet, when one reads about society in the Taiwan Miracle (there's even a book called State and Society in the Taiwan Miracle, which mentions 'businessmen' but generally not the women who actually did a great deal of the work), rarely are women's contributions to this miracle acknowledged, and they're certainly not given credit for being the backbone of this miracle, which I absolutely believe they are.

I've seen this play out in my social circle as well. One of my best friend's parents run a small business in Taiwan, and until recent years my friend's father was the 'face' of that company (though her mother also did a huge amount of the work). Recently, my friend has taken over a lot of the operations and she does get credit as the 'public face' of her family's business, but that's a modern development. But, remember a few paragraphs ago when I touched on "low labor participation" of Taiwanese women? This friend of mine doesn't draw an official salary. As far as I'm aware her job isn't official at all. While she is absolutely employed, I'm not at all sure that the government considers her as 'part of the labor force' (I don't know how they arrive at those statistics). I get the feeling that a lot of wives and daughters do in fact participate in labor outside the home, but aren't counted because it's all informal.


Informality is quite possibly a key, in fact, to why Taiwanese women get so little credit when they deserve so much. Taiwanese labor contracts - if there's a contract at all, which there often isn't in the case of family - in these small businesses are often extremely informal, looking more like agreements between relatives, neighbors or friends than formal work contracts (that's backed up by academic research, not just an observation). I count women's labor for a family business to be labor 'outside the home', though often it takes place literally inside the home (the home often doubling as an office for the family business, or being physically connected to it, in the case of family factories). Families themselves might consider this work to not be labor in a workplace but rather just..women's work that women do for the family, at home.

How much of the labor of women is simply not counted because of this?

To drive home my point, I want to leave you with a story that goes further back in Taiwanese history. In her excellent book, Anru Lee narrates how textile production was banned under Japanese colonial rule, when economic policy was essentially mercantilist (foodstuffs such as rice and sugar would go to Japan, finished goods would come from Japan to be sold in Taiwan). But cloth was scarce, especially during the war, and there was profit to be made in weaving and selling it - so families, often women, would do so. Raw cotton had to be imported and wasn't available to these women, so they'd use cotton from old clothing and household products. Then they'd use their recycled-material cloth to swaddle and carry their babies in public, where they could then sell that cloth without being noticed (women were also considered less likely by the Japanese authorities to break the law, so they wouldn't come under as much scrutiny). In this way, women contributed economically to their households, and did so entirely under the radar.

And it seems women in Taiwanese labor are still under the radar, even when they take to the streets.

* * * 
A few sources for this piece which I didn't explicitly mention (and are in print so can't be linked) but deserve credit: 



In The Name of Harmony and Prosperity: Labor and Gender Politics in Taiwan's Economic Restructuring by Anru Lee

Women's Movements in Twentieth-Century Taiwan by Doris T. Chang

The Trade Union Movement in Ma's Taiwan by Yu-bin Chiu and Uneasy Alliance: State feminism and the conservative government in Taiwan by Huang Chang-ling, both in Taiwan's Social Movements Under Ma Ying-jeou, edited by Dafydd Fell. 

Saturday, February 16, 2019

Taiwan needs more strikes!

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As you've no doubt heard if you follow Taiwan news at all, Taiwan ugh China Airlines pilots were on strike until very recently. Notably, while part of the negotiations to end the strike included an annual bonus (de rigueur in most Taiwanese workplaces, so I was surprised to learn that apparently pilots did not receive one? Huh), overall the strike was not about higher pay, better 'perks' or other 'benefits' not related to health and safety.

At the core of their demands were that more pilots be assigned to longer flights, so that total working hours for pilots could be brought down to a reasonable standard that would not leave them overworked and overtired. It also prioritized hiring Taiwanese pilots (including foreign pilots residing in Taiwan) over foreign pilots.

I have no particular opinion about the latter demand, but the former is simply reasonable. Nobody wants an overworked pilot; that's how disasters happen, and let's not forget that until very recently China Airlines had a poor safety record (in recent years things seem to have improved). Although China Airlines says its safety and working hour policies are within international standards, considering said safety record and how overtired pilots can be a factor in plane crashes, I question this.

Besides, it's simply not that culturally ingrained in Taiwan to strike at a particularly busy time for your employer (the strike began over Lunar New Year, one of the busiest travel times in Asia), especially if better compensation is not the employees' core demand. To take an action like this, the pilots themselves must have known that overwork and lack of sufficient cockpit crew was a major issue. The only real rebuttals to these demands were, essentially, "but that would cost money!" (yeah, a safe work and customer environment usually does) and "but we'll lose passengers!" (yup, but you'll lose more if there's a major crash and people will die), which underscores how strong a case the pilots made.

The thing is, this kind of strike has been a fairly rare phenomenon in Taiwan, especially in earlier decades. Up through the 1980s, generally pro-business, anti-labor laws governing collective action made strikes difficult if not impossible (not surprising given the repressive Martial Law political atmosphere more generally), and even in the 1990s, despite some strikes taking place, "legitimate union strikes" were still rare, and difficult to legally carry through. Although strikes have become more politically possible since then, they're still fairly rare, with an exception being the China Airlines flight attendant strike in 2016. (That the ground zero for highly-publicized strikes seems to be China Airlines also points to an anti-labor bent to their workplace culture).

The lack of strikes in previous decades wasn't just about anti-worker labor laws - there is an overall lack of a strong labor movement in Taiwan for a number of reasons. There are surely some cultural reasons for this (think of stereotypical "East Asian" work culture which values hierarchy and collectivism; there's a kernel of truth to it, although Taiwan is certainly more chilled-out than South Korea or Japan in this way).

But, more importantly, it's the result of an intentional political attempt to keep labor from organizing so as to advocate for its own needs. This has been done in a very devious way: not by union-busting or trying to dissuade workers from organizing, but by preemptively creating worker "unions" and "trade associations" that employees in a company or industry may belong to, so as to create the veneer of organized labor, but which is ultimately controlled by the companies or government, not the workers themselves. Such organizations have typically represented the best interests not of the workers but of management (or the government) and did not necessarily take on labor advocacy at all. In fact, what "management" and "the government" might want were not always different, given the history of nationalized industries / state-owned enterprises in Taiwan and how government control of industry and labor was used as a tool for political repression.

Of course, as independent labor movements coalesced, these came into conflict with the old-style "unions", there were disagreements on whether to improve the lot of labor overall or to address specific needs of specific groups of workers and...it's all very complex but essentially, that's the reason why not every political party, group and organization which claims to represent the interests of "labor" is on the same page, or even gets along. For more on this point I recommend Yubin Chiu's chapter on trade union movements in Taiwan's Social Movements under Ma Ying-jeou (I'm sorry that it will probably cost you $50 to buy the book if you wish to do so, though that's better than the earlier price of $150 - and although Chiu obviously comes from a Marxist viewpoint on labor issues, he's good at explaining the fundamentals and historical complexities of trade unionism in Taiwan).

Under such conditions, it's not surprising that the labor movement has not been particularly robust and strikes have been fairly rare in Taiwan.

Anyway, taking all of this together, Taiwan simply needs more strikes.

First, because the typical Westerner's idea of a "strike" seems to involve the workers demanding better compensation. An anti-union libertarian friend of mine has even said that he imagines that only mediocre workers support collective bargaining, because the most talented employees have a strong position from which to negotiate better remuneration - it's only the employees who are not particularly distinguished who need to rely on collective action to improve pay and benefits.

That's wrong for a number of reasons, most notably that it assumes that all collective bargaining is aimed at better compensation for each individual rather than improved working conditions for everyone as a collective whole (it also assumes that more valuable workers don't care about whether their less-highly-performing coworkers are compensated fairly, which isn't always true.) But the flight attendants' and pilots' strikes show that this simply isn't that common a motivation in Taiwan: although compensation played a minor role in these actions, the crux of what the workers in both cases were demanding had to do with overwork and general working conditions.

Although I also support strikes for better collective compensation, there's a moral high ground to striking so that you can do your job better, not just to get more "stuff". Salaries in Taiwan are quite low and organized labor has not made any strong moves to push for better pay overall. There are a lot of hurdles for labor to jump simply in terms of social awareness of this issue: it's still taken as normal that one cannot challenge one's boss; changing jobs more often to garner wage increases rather than asking for a raise at one's current job is still seen as a good strategy; and it's still quite common for workers to defend long hours in the office because they prioritize making more money over having more personal time (even though one could argue that workers deserve both reasonable pay and reasonable hours, the rejoinder is that if management won't even give workers one of these two things, it's unrealistic to expect both).

 Of all the good reasons to strike, strikes in Taiwan seem to happen for the best possible reasons. So, more strikes please.


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What's more, modern labor movements in Taiwan tend to be tied to other important social issues -
this labor protest attendee is marching to "end overwork", and also showing his support
for marriage equality


Second, given the cultural and historical reasons outlined above, there's no reason to believe that Taiwan's economy or infrastructure will grind to a halt (as seems to happen regularly in France) due to a large number of strikes. Despite the two prominent China Airlines strikes, they are still seen as a last-ditch strategy by labor unions that have only fairly recently coalesced outside of management control. Without a strong history of striking, it's unlikely to become a popular or even particularly common strategy. I don't foresee any sort of slippery slope here where there's a strike every few weeks over every little issue.

And if workers feel that their complaints are valid enough, and their conditions urgent enough, that this 'last ditch' strategy is necessary, there's probably a good reason for that. More strikes please!

Even if there were a slide into strikes taking place over a greater variety of issues - pay, sex discrimination in the workplace or the gender pay gap (still real problems in Taiwan), long hours - this would overall be a good thing for Taiwan. These are intractable issues that have been allowed to fester. Employers in Taiwan have taken the attitude that "I hired you and pay you, so you have to do everything I ask of you exactly when I ask for it, even if I take up all of your free time and I will take it as a personal affront and loss of face if you challenge me in any way on this or even attempt to discuss your working conditions" for too long. Labor standards are a joke. If strikes are what it takes for management to wake up to the fact that their employees are not their chattel, then more strikes please!

Working conditions, culture and compensation have been problems entrenched in Taiwanese society for far too long, and have arguably hindered Taiwan's economic development overall, as it loses its Millenial generation to better career opportunities, pay and working conditions overseas. Greater labor organization that is not under management control will become easier to attain as workers take stronger collective action, and will be the final step to eradicating the old government/management collusion which has been both historically politically repressive and anti-worker. It has the potential to bring various social movements together (see the image above).

Yet strikes are not likely to become yet another entrenched problem in Taiwanese society given how they are already typically viewed as an action that ought not to be commonly taken.


To put it simply, Taiwan needs more strikes.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Taiwan has made me more skeptical of free market solutions

It is really hard to love Taiwan sometimes.

From The News Lens, which really hits it out of the park when they want to, Taiwan's bus drivers face atrocious conditions, and it impacts public safety:


If the driver is at fault for a major accident they will have a strike against their name, and if they accumulate three major strikes then they will be dismissed; the drivers who have accumulated two major strikes will usually spend their days off making up for their “accidents.” This is seen as a "voluntary service" so their names will not show up on the work schedule, but of course they only have time for this when they are not working.


The result is that even though they have a day off, they end up working every day of the week, and the day after volunteering, they have to drive the bus, but as they are still tired, they will probably cause another accident, receive another strike against their name and will therefore have to volunteer again… completing the vicious cycle.

and

If the driver causes an accident, the Public Transportation Office (PTO) will check their work hours within the last three days, but the company will have the legal team tamper with the shift records, so that it says the driver only ever worked a maximum of 10 hours a day, even if they have worked more....

This meant that each person in the law team shouldered the responsibility of forging documents, something we could not hide as the documents have our seals stamped on them. If the company was charged with fraud, then whichever team member was on duty that particular day would have to bear all legal responsibilities, and would be seen as an accomplice....

If the records were not changed, the company forced that team member to bear the financial burden of the fine, either upfront or from their salary. I have also witnessed the company force the rest of the legal team to pay for a fine, after the original team member had resigned. It was the most ridiculous situation ever and really emphasized how unjust the company was.

...and so much more, but go read the article. 

All of this could be avoided, and service remain the same, if they just hired more people.

But they won't, because there is no mechanism in the market that incentivizes them to not be two rungs above slavers (I'm being generous - they get two rungs!) and politically, everyone knows about these endemic problems, everyone knows companies skirt the law, and yet enforcement remains lax. It can't be anything other than intentional.


This is also why I'm skeptical of total free market solutions to problems: free market solutions generally hinge on consumers having the power to create change, but I see no way to do that here. Many people must ride the bus - some for economic or location reasons, others because they have reasons why they can't drive (I'm not willing to drive in cities, for instance, and it would be compromising another value of mine to buy a vehicle.) They can't refuse to board until conditions get better for drivers or the buses are safer to ride. They might prefer happy, rested, fairly compensated drivers, but they will have to get on that bus whether it happens or not, so companies have no market-based incentive to change their exploitative behavior.

Neither is there a solution in which people just don't take those jobs, forcing companies to offer better conditions to get new hires in the door: they just plod on, understaffed.

I simply do not see a solution here that does not involve some enforcement of government regulations. 

Yet, not solving these sorts of issues is not acceptable.

The government has sure fallen down on this one too, but unlike corporate overlords (whom we have no power to wrest from their cushy jobs), we do have some power to insist on elected officials who take labor violations seriously and are willing to fight the rot they know is in the system. Even the proposed solution in the article: to note the driver, time, place, license plate and route number - involves engaging the government, not using the miniscule droplet of power the market affords you.

I don't hold out much hope that a political or governmental solution would do much good either - not yet, anyway. Taiwan just hasn't developed a labor movement the way some other democratic have, most likely because they left Martial Law (and the rampant exploitation that could not be escaped under that system) not long ago. There hasn't been a lot of time to evolve.

While there may be some slight cultural factors, generally I believe people are people. They all know what overwork means. They all know what it is to be exploited. There's no "Confucian" ideals here keeping rotten work conditions and low pay in place. It's not passivity either: have you been to the major protests, the ones that have changed the country? Taiwan may pose as a passive country on its face, but when it gets down to tacks, it's not.

Y'all pirates. And that's great. I just want to see Taiwan take that "let's protest this shit 'till their on their knees" attitude they have toward political problems and apply it to businesses and labor issues too. And really do it. Like, occupations and hundreds of thousands, strikes across the country. 


You've burned it down before - you forced the KMT to allow democratization. That was you, not benevolent leaders kindly giving you freedom.

Now it's time to burn it down when it comes to labor. Don't wait for bosses and CEOs to do better - they won't. It is only by great force of will that I am not overtly calling them "scum". Bring them to their goddamn knees. Force them.

You've done it before, and you can do it again. 


Thursday, January 4, 2018

Don't trick people into civil disobedience

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I want to keep this short, because I have a grad school paper to write and, while I'm doing OK with that, I am in real danger of getting behind.

But, ever since the labor protest on 12/23, something's been bugging me and I feel like I have to say something, because it's just not been reported to my satisfaction.

I touched before on a particular moment in that protest in which the demonstrators marched up to a row of police blocking the Zhongshan/Zhongxiao intersection, forcing them to turn towards Taipei Main Station.

The march stopped - it did not continue towards Taipei Main as directed, and announcements were made that the police had blocked the route they'd been approved to march, changing the route without notice and declaring the intended march from DPP headquarters to the Legislative Yuan as an "illegal" protest. It was made quite clear at the time - well, as clear as it can be in such a mob - that we had been approved to march through that intersection and now the police were stopping us in order to cause problems or to choke the march - and therefore that the police were in the wrong.

I didn't buy that - why would the police want to create conflicts with protesters? I've covered the reasons why in my other post on this demonstration.

It also makes sense not to approve marching in that intersection, rather than to approve it and later refuse entry. The Executive Yuan is on that intersection, and it was heavily protected with barricades and barbed wire. It makes a lot more sense that the government knew perfectly well that demonstrators would try to occupy it if they were allowed into the square, and try to head that off before it ever became a potential outcome (though I would hope Taiwanese protesters have learned by now that, right or wrong, that won't be allowed again).

So we get to that line of police, who are standing in tight formation but not instigating anything (though I'm no fan of the riot shields), and people start to push back, shouting "police give way!" and starting scuffles and short fights.

It is important to remember that the demonstrators confronting the police almost certainly believed that the police were denying the protesters the right to enter a space they were supposed to be officially allowed to enter, not that they were trying to push past police to occupy a space they had been told they could not enter.
I don't believe that protests and marches must or should always stick to "approved" routes, or that they must "apply" to be allowed to protest. Protesting with government approval undermines the whole point of demonstrating in many cases. Civil disobedience has a role to play in a healthy democracy, and I am not opposed to breaking unjust rules, regulations or laws.

I do not believe it was wrong to try and enter that intersection in principle.


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Remember that as I continue the story.

The police stand their ground, with some physical clashes taking place (nothing too serious - there were injuries later but not at this point). Eventually, they give way, and the demonstrators occupy the intersection. As expected, some try to enter the grounds of the Executive Yuan.

Later, I find out via the friend I was with that the demonstrators had never been approved to enter that intersection, and the police were trying to ensure we took the route we'd been approved to take.

In fact, as I found out much later - because I am a terrible journalist I suppose - the people perpetuating the false impression that the police were blocking our path were the labor union organizers, not the youth. The two groups don't overlap much, with the former being older and skewed somewhat politically differently (lots of pro-unification leftists, not necessarily green but also not Third Force)  and the latter being younger, pro-independence and classic Third Force. After getting us to break through police lines, the union contingent left, leaving the younger social activists encamped in the intersection and later playing a cat-and-mouse game with police as they engaged in civil disobedience (perhaps this time the more honest kind) from Taipei Main to Ximen to 228 Park and back again. After engineering a certain outcome, the labor union demonstrators went home.

To be honest, I feel tricked and abandoned.

Again, I don't think it's a problem to deviate from what has been "approved". I don't think we have to obey every command we're given. I don't believe in allowing the government to render protests toothless. I absolutely believe in civil disobedience.

But here's the thing - the organizers lied about the reason for the police line.  They led us to believe we were being denied a space we'd previously been promised. They led us to believe the government was trying to provoke us, that the police had no right to be there (even if you believe in civil disobedience, you have to admit - the police did have the right to be there. We also had the right to try and push past them).

To me, civil disobedience must be genuine. It must come from a social movement deciding it must follow certain ethical principles that clash with unjust laws, and working together to insist that legal frameworks accommodate just actions. It must happen honestly - it must come from the crowd based on real situations and perceptions that are as accurate as possible.

If we were going to push past that police line - and I do believe we had the right to do so - we ought to have done it as an act of civil disobedience, not because we believed that the police were barring us from a space we were "approved" to be in.

We might have done the right thing, but we did it for the wrong reasons. We did it because we were lied to. We did not do it based on accurate perceptions of the situation - what we believed was dishonestly manipulated to engineer a specific desired outcome on the part of the organizers. We were their pawns.

I do not like this. I do not like it one bit. I do not like being lied to. If I'm going to confront the police (which I generally won't do - I'm not a citizen after all and I can theoretically be deported), I want to do it knowing what the real situation is. I do not appreciate being lied to in order to steer me toward a particular action, and I bet a lot of people there that day felt the same way.

If that action was going to happen, it needed to occur honestly, sincerely, with demonstrators knowing what they were doing and why. We are not cannon fodder.

It discredits a social movement for the organizers to knowingly lie to participants to engineer their desired outcome. The government is opaque and often dishonest - the last thing we need is for those who organize to demand more transparency and accountability to the people to be opaque and dishonest as well. It discredits social movements as a whole if this becomes a regular tactic. We can't say we're the "good guys" if leaders can only get what we want by lying to us, if we allow them to keep doing it.

I'll be honest in a way the organizers were not - I'm deeply disappointed and disillusioned. I'll still turn up at protests and other civil actions to observe and report, but I'm not sure when I'll participate again.

All you do when you lie is lose our trust. We're not afraid of civil disobedience, but only if it's done honestly. Only if we really are the good guys, and we live up to higher ideals than the unjust systems and dishonest people we're fighting against.

Don't do it again, or you'll lose more than one unimportant white lady: you'll lose your supporters, the trust of the Taiwanese people, and any chance you might have had of getting the powers-that-be to take you seriously.

I am also worried that if the two main groups fighting the new labor laws can't get along and have divisions that run so deep that one would basically pull the rug out from under the other, and neither can seem to capture the public zeitgeist, Taiwanese labor is, well, screwed.

Don't be children. Grow up and do it right. Come on guys.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Young Taiwanese are leaving Taiwan in record numbers, and the reason why WILL SHOCK YOU!

Oh wait, no it won't.

The reason why is they want fair pay and reasonable hours. 

"Why is brain drain such a problem in Taiwan?" these articles always ask.

It's because pay is too low and hours are too long.

"OMG China is benefiting from the brain drain!"

Well yeah, because even though the hours there are long and the work culture generally terrible, at least you're being paid better to bend over and take it. If they could earn a competitive wage in Taiwan they'd probably stay.

"How can we resolve the brain drain problem?"

This article could have been written in four words:

FAIR PAY, REASONABLE HOURS

It's not rocket science, jeez. 

"Maybe we could solve it by attracting more foreigners?"

No.

Fair pay, reasonable hours. We are not your excuse or your get-out-of-jail (I hope literal, actual jail because some of these employers need to go to prison) free card to treat workers like garbage. 

This article seems to think China is 'trying' to woo these talented young Taiwanese. 

Maybe, but it hardly matters. It wouldn't work if Taiwan offered labor a fair shake. Most wouldn't choose to work in China if they could get - you guessed it - fair pay and reasonable hours in Taiwan. Bosses who aren't incompetent morons and a work culture that affords autonomy, a voice and a sense of purpose - maybe even the chance to grow and develop in what you do - wouldn't hurt either.

But most people would probably settle for fair pay and reasonable hours. 

This guy who somehow became a professor (wonders never cease) is not only condescending but also wrong.

The cost of living has been rising yet wages have not, which directly affects purchasing power. The difference in pay in Taiwan doesn't reflect the cost of living accurately, at least not anymore. It has nothing to do with choice of career - a total misdirection - and he doesn't seem to go anywhere with his education data.

Basically, he totally misses that Taiwanese are leaving not only because they want fair pay for the hours they work, but also to work reasonable hours. 

* * *

Nobody - at least nobody that I can find - is reporting on the basic facts:

How do you solve Taiwan's brain drain? 

Fair pay and reasonable hours. It's not rocket science. 

But working overtime helps Taiwanese earn more!

Sure, but that's because they're not earning enough now. Few people who earn enough money wish to work themselves to exhaustion. They're doing it because they need to.

OMG the low birth rate!

Yeah if people earned more they'd have more kids, anyway when they're working all the time there's no time to bone.

Again. Not rocket science. 

But why are they leaving???

LOW PAY AND UNREASONABLE HOURS

So how do we get them to stay??

FAIR PAY AND REASONABLE HOURS. 

Guys. Seriously. Come on. Quit it with your nonsense, spinning webs of words around this very simple problem that literally a monkey could solve.

Most people don't want to leave their home country. Some do - they tend to be the adventurers or those looking for something different. Many return, a few don't. That's OK. Some find the lifestyle abroad suits them better, as I did. But most are happy to stay in the country where they are from if that country is more or less a comfortable/good/safe/friendly place to live. Their friends, family and community are here. They wouldn't leave if they could get good work for fair pay at reasonable hours.

So Jesus Monkey-Juggling Christ, if you want to keep them offer them fair pay and reasonable hours.

I'm not even joking about the monkey. If you devised a test where on one side they had to run on a treadmill for like 12 hours (a typical Taiwanese work day) for ten peanuts, and on the other, they had to run on a treadmill for 8 hours for 20 peanuts, the monkey is smart enough to choose the better option.

Like...seriously. How is this hard? 

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Gonzo Journalism at the labor protest (updated!)

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So, I pushed myself to go to today's labor protest even though I woke up this morning to the news that my grandfather had passed away (it was not a surprise).

Pushing myself to go anyway was a feat, but there is work to be done and I wanted to be one of the faces in that crowd helping to do it, even if all we were going to accomplish was media attention. After all, I live here and work here too and although the new labor laws don't affect me, Taiwan's generally terrible labor situation does affect me indirectly. Imagine, though, viewing a protest of roughly 10,000 people through a poorly-lit and echo-filled tunnel of unrelated personal grief.

I won't say that I went today as a journalist; I'm not one. I went as a demonstrator in a very conflicted state of mind who happened to plan to write about the experience.

I showed up just as the speeches were getting started and immediately grabbed one of the 'official' (in that everyone had one) protest placards. One side said "累" ("Tired") in Chinese, the other had a large graphic middle finger and said "終止過勞" ("End Overwork"). Almost every labor union I know - and some I didn't know existed - were there. Some were industry-related (e.g. the Taiwan Media Workers' Union), some business-specific (a Carrefour workers' union was present), some related to a specific kind of workers, such as foreign laborers who were quite noticeably present. Some, I noticed wryly, represented workers from government-run enterprises such as Taiwan Railways, Taiwan damn it China Airlines and ugh China Telecom.


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Also available were fake temple talismans on yellow paper, a reference to Premier Lai Ching-te saying that working hard for low wages was akin to earning "merit" (in the Buddhist/karma sense). Some people held placards showing a Pinocchio-like President Tsai, who is seen as having lied about the DPP's support for Taiwanese labor. Others held signs that looked like cassette tapes, a reference to a legislator saying all of the slogans being chanted outside were "on a tape" (something the pro-unification protesters - all 6 of them - regularly do) because the "real laborers were busy working hard at their jobs".

I didn't stay for the whole demonstration - which is actually still ongoing - but I stayed long enough to see some intense clashes between demonstrators and police over where the protest was "officially" allowed to be held. More on that later.

First of all, if there's any reason for hope, it's this: for the first time, foreign laborers were being brought into the fold and treated as equals alongside Taiwanese workers. They took the stage and had a translator (as the speaker used Bahasa Indonesia) relating their speech in Mandarin. For the first time that I'm aware of, labor from private and public industries came together, and had visible support from other social activist groups as well.

In fact, the Social Democratic Party, the Green Party, several marriage equality groups (including the Taiwan Tongzhi Hotline) and a Taiwan independence group holding signs saying "Fuck ROC" and passing out stickers saying "DPP KMT both are ROC", despite none of these issues being the main focus of the day.

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Taipei Labor Bureau Commisioner Lai Hsiang-ling at the protest

Along with the far left, the far right of the Taiwanese political scene was also there. Veterans showed up demanding the benefits they'd been promised, and at least one KMT legislator, Lee Yen-hsiu (李彥秀) was present giving interviews and generally pretending that the KMT gives a crap about labor (SPOILER ALERT: it doesn't). Apparently the NPP also declared its support, but oddly was not present. I fully intend to, um, inquire about this. Not cool, NPP.

This protest won't do much except garner media attention, but what I really hope comes of it is this - that these groups will continue to work together and turn labor issues into a major social movement with broad and active support. This sort of cross-pollination - marriage equality, Taiwan independence, migrant workers' rights, leftists and rightists, government workers and private-sector workers - is needed for a movement to gather momentum.

Several speeches, as well as several people I talked to in the crowd, noted that the DPP is no better than the KMT. While I do think people hold the DPP to a much higher standard than the KMT and that's not always fair - the KMT can get away with being supremely awful, and yet they're still around and still sometimes get elected whereas everyone jumps all over the tiniest slip by the DPP - that's to be expected when one party grew out of a mass-murdering dictatorship it doesn't seem too contrite for having perpetrated, and the other had idealistic roots based in freedom and democracy. You expect more from the people who claim to be better.

That said, on labor issues, and frankly on a lot of domestic issues, I have to say that they deserve the criticism. I'm generally happy with the way the DPP is handling China, but they're sure making a mess out of Taiwanese domestic issues, labor included. All I can really say is that they inherited a massive KMT mess to clean up, and the main problem is that they haven't got a clue how to do it. So they suffer for their own mistakes - which is well-deserved punishment - as well as the KMT's, which isn't.

Remember, we wouldn't even be in this labor mess if the KMT had given a damn about labor during their many, many, many, many years in power.

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KMT legislator Lee Yan-xiu at the protest
The presence of foreign blue-collar labor groups was of special interest to me, as a foreigner myself but one of comparative privilege. I was happy to see that they were included and treated as equals to Taiwanese workers, as this has not always been the case: often groups that claim to support Taiwanese labor and care about labor issues ignore or outright dislike foreign labor, thinking (erroneously) that foreign labor steals jobs and drives wages down, rather than what they really do, which is support the economy by doing the hardest work for truly exploitative wages.

In fact, I wonder if this is why the NPP - which seems pro-dual-nationality for (some) foreign professionals, but is not in favor of relaxing restrictions on foreign professionals and certainly not a great friend to foreign blue-collar labor - didn't show. Hmm. NPP, I luv you guyz, but come on. You're losing me here.

In any case, two things I noticed about foreign laborers at the rally: first, that they mostly wore surgical masks (unlike most Taiwanese workers there) because they were afraid of being identified and fired, a point explicitly made in their speech. Second, that while Taiwanese workers were fighting to have fair labor laws, the foreign workers were in some cases fighting to have the labor laws apply to them at all: many of those present held signs demanding that foreign care workers be included under Taiwanese labor protections, which they currently are not.

The airline, telecom and railway workers also interested me: as they pointed out in their speeches, their bosses are the government, and yet these new labor laws will screw them over, too.

Not everyone in the government is blind to this: the Taipei City Labor Bureau commissioner, Lai Hsiang-ling (賴香伶) marched with protesters in solidarity.

After listening to all of these speeches and chanting the usual anti-government slogans, we walked from DPP headquarters to what we thought was going to be the Legislative Yuan. On the way, I saw a marriage equality sign that said (in Chinese) "We can't get married but no matter - home, life, all not given". I quipped to a friend, "I'm surprised nobody has a sign that says "the birthrate is so low because nobody has time to fuck!" He replied that, in fact, someone on stage had said that (I missed it - I miss a lot, what can I say) but there was no sign. Too bad.
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Clashes with police

I noticed something I hadn't seen before - though it is possible they have always been there and I just hadn't taken note: police cameras. Every few yards, one of the police officers watching the march was filming it.

When we hit Zhongshan and Zhongxiao Roads, however, a line of police appeared and would not let us continue up Zhongshan - trying to force the crowd to instead walk west, past Taipei Main Station. Organizers asked the crowd not to do that, as the route they'd applied for had them going up Zhongshan Road, whereas the police said they were not allowed.

There are conflicting reports of what exactly happened: the organizers were saying that the police were blocking an intersection that they had been approved to march through, with some commenting that this was to create conflict. Others say that the police announced the protest violated the Parade and Assembly Act and that was the reason for the blockade. Some say this was a ruse to simply stop the protest, as there was a possible intention to storm the Legislative Yuan (again...I suppose).

I don't buy either of these. Why would the police want to create conflict? Peaceful protests can be - and usually are - ignored. Protests that end in brawls grab media attention. Why do you think the KMT did exactly nothing to stop - nor to answer the demands of or even acknowledge - the old DPP-led protests during the Ma administration?

In terms of the second, with legislators and high-profile government employees there, and with it having been all over Facebook for weeks, there is no way this march "violated" any laws. Come on.

In any case, the protesters started chanting "police let us through!" and several intense clashes broke out, though nobody appeared to be seriously hurt (I was right there for one of them).

Finally, the police gave way after several attempts to push through, and the intersection - one of Taipei's largest and busiest - was occupied.

Here's my pet theory as to what happened:

By virtue of it being at Zhongshan and Zhongxiao Roads, the protest stopped outside of the Executive, not Legislative, Yuan. Apparently - according to a friend - a meeting was being held in there at that time. In any case, it was so heavily blockaded and surrounded with barricades and barbed wire that there was a clear government fear of an attempt to storm it.

UPDATE: the forced move into the intersection was, according to one of the organizers, an intentional move by the rights groups to start a conflict.

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What resulted was an occupation of a major intersection - garnering more media attention than any of the previous labor protests, possibly the most since the 200,000-strong marriage equality rally - that is still ongoing. There are still clashes with police as people attempt to storm the Executive Yuan (see?) and apparently the police, according to a friend, are starting to look 'ready'.

I left around 4pm, because frankly, I lost my grandpa this morning. It was time to go and take care of my own headspace.

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Migrant workers are afraid to show their faces for fear of retribution from their employers
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Fake temple talismans mocking Premier Lai's comment about low pay earning "merit"
But watch this space - a lot of people don't have much hope for a massive, Sunflower-scale labor movement. I hope they are wrong - labor issues affect us all, and there seems to be potential from what I saw today for the sort of mass cooperation among different groups that could well propel the cause forward. It's true that labor isn't "sexy" in the way that cross-Strait relations are, and that the students who drive a lot of social movements in Taiwan generally don't have much work experience - that is to say, they are not laborers themselves - and so might not be as attached to the cause as it doesn't affect them directly. It's also true that it's hard for labor to fight back against the ever-evil boss class, the ones keeping their wages low, refusing to hire a sufficient workforce, and keeping toxic work culture expectations in place, as not everyone can take time off or afford to lose their job.



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"You can abuse President Tsai!" the people who set these up told me helpfully. She makes noise if you slap her. 


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Is there anything more Taiwanese than a bunch of workers in nylon vests drinking Wisbih (or is it Man Niu?) at a protest?
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More migrant workers
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Although there were kids at the protest, I got the feeling it was much angrier and more visceral than typical family-friendly Taiwanese demonstrations
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My favorite protesters, every time
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Even government workers are upset



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A reference to the "the slogans are taped" comment by one legislator



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Lots of different groups came together


Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Time to ride that dragon (and Ker Chien-ming is a coward)

Please enjoy this photo of cowardly garbage person 柯建銘 sneaking out a side door of the Legislative Yuan after the stankerific amendments to the Labor Standards Act passed, like the loser and all-around character-lacking person he is. Taken by a good friend.

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He's the one with the bald head.

Oh yeah, protests broke out today, for good reason.

There's a big protest on Sunday 12/10 in Kaohsiung and on 12/23 in Taipei - I advise you to be there. I am supposed to make 5 curries, and I will, but I also need to be there. I'll make it work.

Let's ride this dragon. 

Saturday, November 11, 2017

No, immigrants are not the key to the labor shortage

Anyone who has even a passing acquaintance with Lao Ren Cha or me personally knows that I am staunchly pro-immigration. It's one of the very few beliefs I actually share with libertarians. I do believe relaxing immigration requirements - not only in terms of naturalization but in terms of the laws that regulate us once we arrive - will be to Taiwan's benefit, not just my own. We contribute to the economy and deserve commensurate rights under a fair-minded policy, and those of us who wish to remain permanently deserve better tools to be able to do so, because we are generally good for Taiwan.

However, I have to say, I'm a bit sick of people referring to a sickly cousin of this argument as a defense of immigration reform: that it will "help reverse brain drain" or that it is "the key to the labor shortage" - that, in order to stem the dual problems of Taiwanese talent moving abroad and a cratering birth rate, we need more immigrants. Despite immigration, in my view, generally being a good thing.

In his recent statements, Premier William Lai was not entirely wrong - we cannot discuss how Taiwan will keep pace in a (so sorry for the lame cliche) "globalized world" (barf) without discussing immigration (link above):

“It is impossible to talk about talent recruitment without touching upon immigration policy,” Lai said, adding that the Cabinet would discuss how to create a friendly immigration environment before revealing its new policy.


However, he is doing more harm than good in referring to us as the key to bolstering the labor shortage:

Lai made the remarks in the last of five news conferences held this week to address the nation’s “five industrial shortages” — land, water, electricity, talent and workers.

No.

First of all, Mr. Lai, do you know what kind of damage you are doing when you revise the new labor regulations in a way that hurts workers on one day, and quite literally on the very next day you talk about attracting immigrants? What kind of message do you think you're sending?

Since perhaps you are not aware, Dear Willy, I will tell you:

You are sending the message that you don't care about Taiwanese labor - that you do not care about the average voters, that you do not care about your own people - because you intend to replace them with immigrants anyway. This does not help. This only lends credence to the notion that the government not only isn't concerned about plummeting wages as a result of ostensibly "cheaper" immigrant labor, but that they are depending on it. It only renders true the recent criticism that the current DPP-led government not only doesn't care about Taiwanese workers and doesn't think they are strictly necessary, but that they likely never did.

You are essentially saying that it is acceptable to crap all over Taiwanese labor rights, because it doesn't matter - you can always get some foreigners in here to do the work.

That not only hurts you, Willz, it also hurts us. It makes us look like the bad guys, which we never wanted to be. We just wanted to build lives here while also being a positive force that contributed to Taiwan. We never wanted to be fingered as replacements for Taiwanese labor, nor the reason why it was deemed acceptable to further worsen an already problematic set of new labor laws.

Stop it, WillWill. Just stop. No.

In fact, as wrong as New Bloom was regarding immigration regulations in other countries, they are right about the disastrous effect the DPP's  changes are going to have not only on Taiwanese labor and the brain drain, but to their own popularity. They are going to pay for this, and you know what? They should.

The solution to Taiwan's labor shortage is simple. Four words.

Treat your workers right. 

In fact, I have a problem with the whole "brain drain" debate. I'm a bit sick of people like me - "foreign talent" - being touted as a "solution". Not just today, from the mouth of Billy Lai here, but generally.

I'm not sure why more people are not saying this, because it's bleedin' obvious to me - the solution to Taiwan's brain drain is for Taiwanese employers to treat their workers like human fucking beings.

Pay them a fair wage - a wage on par with what they can earn in other countries at a similar level of development (and some that aren't, like China). Then the most talented among them won't feel the need to go abroad to seek work. Paying them more further makes it easier for them to start families, which will help slow or reverse the declining birth rate. Considering that Hsinchu County has a high birthrate (a student once told me it was the highest) in the country and is an affordable place to live while still having a number of professional jobs thanks to the tech sector, it is clear that given a reasonable income vis-a-vis expenses, that Taiwanese want, and will have, children. Save a number of women who have figured out quite rightly that traditional family roles in Taiwan don't offer them a particularly good deal in life and have therefore decided to remain child-free, if they're not having kids it's not because they've lost interest - it's because they feel they can't afford them. Pay them more and watch that magically change! WOW!

I'm a regular magician, I know.

Give them reasonable working hours. Quit it with handing them work in the late afternoon and then promoting a corporate culture where they feel pressured to stay late to finish what they've just been given. Quit it with the hiring of one person to shoulder a workload best split between two or three people - seriously, stop that. You're not helping yourself or anyone. Tired workers are not innovative, efficient or productive workers. Give them reasonable paid vacation and let them leave at a reasonable time (5 or 6 - with overtime being a rarity asked for and paid for accordingly when an issue is truly urgent - and no I don't mean like now where every issue is urgent, because they're not and you know it - and a full 2-day weekend, even if it doesn't always fall on traditional weekend days).

If they have more free time not only are they better workers - win for you! - but also they have more time to get busy, which means more kids.

Give them room for growth. Stop pushing them down and then wondering why they're not happy with it.

Stop being dicks to them - stop it with the nonsensical orders, the immature management, the babying, the corrupt practices, the passive-aggressiveness and the lying. Not every boss is like this, but for those you are - we see through you. The average Taiwanese employee is no idiot, and knows your stupid game. Why do you think they want to leave? Why do you think they aren't having kids, when they're too tired to do the horizontal tango and too broke to feel they can give their would-be kids a good life?

Basically, treat them well. 

Honestly, most talented Taiwanese who leave probably would have preferred to stay, bar a few adventurous types who just want to see the world (fair - I'm like that too). Taiwan is a great place to live. It's a developed country. It's friendly and fairly safe. It's their home, and enjoys a high standard of living and relaxed lifestyle. Few would leave if they felt they got a fair shake here. Some might start their own businesses, but many would work for you, and you'd be better for it.

So stop saying people like me - or workers from South and Southeast Asia - are the "solution" to this problem. We can and do contribute to Taiwan, and many of us do want to stay. The smarter ones among us support immigration reform, but make no mistake - we are not your easy answer.

The solution is and always was to treat your Taiwanese workers better.

Protect this with robust labor laws, and engender it with moves toward a deeper culture shift in which the crap doesn't sluice from the big roosters top through cages stacked like a chicken coop to the workers clucking below.

Treat. Your. Workers. Better.

Stop using us as an excuse. Engage with us for what we can contribute, not as a way to avoid improving local conditions. By touting us as the solution we never wanted to be to a problem you helped create, you hurt us, you hurt Taiwanese workers and you -William Lai and the entire Tsai administration - hurt yourselves. 

Monday, September 25, 2017

My latest for Ketagalan Media: Taiwan needs to do a better job of protecting domestic workers

You may remember my post a few weeks ago about the proposed changes to regulations aimed at protecting foreign blue-collar labor, and my absolute fury over allowing employers in Taiwan who had previously sexually abused a foreign worker to hire one again after after a few years, with a lifetime ban only after repeated offenses.

A few things I've learned since then - Taiwanese women are not protected either (the vast majority of domestic workers in Taiwan are foreign women, however), and although Taiwan has a sex offender registry, it is not open to the public and therefore potential foreign employees at this time have no way of knowing if they are taking a job with a convicted sex offender.

So, I've written up a new piece for Ketagalan Media on this issue. As a foreign woman, albeit one of comparative privilege, it is important to me.

I hope you'll take a look.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

The color line is the power line: the new pro-Taiwan generation and attitudes toward foreign blue-collar labor

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From a foreign labor rights protest I attended before the Tsai administration took power


I want to start this post with a little story. Every Saturday morning I tutor one of two intelligent, thoughtful young women - sisters. Which one I teach changes periodically. They used to have a domestic worker from Indonesia, whom the whole family liked (she eventually returned). She would cook Indonesian dishes for them to try, bring them gifts from her visits home, and was generally a part of the family. I liked her a lot, too. The girls called her Auntie. They call me Jenna.

She seemed older. Her face was lightly lined, a few silver wires in her hair. I guessed that she was in her forties, both by her appearance and attitude.

One day, while the helper was in the next room, one of the girls let slip that she thought I was in my twenties. I laughed and encouraged them to guess my real age. We were sitting in the living room, and they guessed and guessed but just would not make it up to my actual age. It's not their fault: I really didn't look it. No wrinkles, no visible gray hairs, a youthful personality.

I finally spilled: I was 33.

They were both silent.

"33?" one of them finally said. "But that's Auntie's age!"

"It is?"

They called her over in Chinese and asked her age.

"33," she answered simply.

"Oh," I replied in Chinese.

"...I'm 33, too."

But the truth thumped gracelessly in the pause.

She smiled sadly. I don't know what my face did. The girls were merely surprised, and I can only think that someday in the future they will reflect on that moment.


* * *


I often hear that a sense of Hoklo nationalism (think "Taiwan for the Taiwanese") and anti-foreigner sentiment once marred past pro-Taiwan movements. And I've seen it: more than once, I've watched Southeast Asian laborers march in demonstrations demanding better worker protections, only to be ignored by the government and the Taiwanese population. I've watched demonstration, mostly by older people, holding signs saying things like "foreign workers (外勞) go home." I was worried they meant me, but was told (by way of "reassurance") that I was welcome, it was foreign blue collar (mostly Southeast Asian) labor they didn't want.

In one notorious case, the Liberty Times - that bastion of the older pan-green "left" - reported on the horrific traumas one foreign domestic worker had suffered as a rape victim who was repeatedly ignored by authorities, making it all about Taiwan's "loss of face" rather than the woman in question (link in Chinese).

I have had more than one conversation with older pro-Taiwan people who still say things like "Taiwan isn't racist, we treat you well" and "I don't think we should bar employers from holding foreign workers' passports, because those foreign workers can commit crimes in Taiwan and then just leave the country!"

In short, the Hoklo chauvinism that also deterred many non-Hoklo Taiwanese from supporting the DPP in the past, while writhing in what I can only hope are the throes of death, was a problematic attitude held by many which caused them to either view immigrants with suspicion, or only want 'certain kinds' of immigrants (i.e. Westerners).

While it's not fair to tarnish every pro-Taiwan supporter of past generations, or even most of them, the lack of regard for foreign labor was a real problem. This doesn't mean that Taiwanese activists shunned making international connections: they have worked hard to build networks around the world, lobby for support and garner high-profile allies. Rather, this attitude ran parallel to that sort of activism.

I'm here to tell you it is unfortunately still something of a problem.

Let's get a few things out of the way first: this is also a big issue in the pan-blue camp, too: the KMT not only doesn't care about foreigners, their chauvinism is Han chauvinism - just another type of prejudice. They are just as likely to welcome white Westerners but turn their noses up at Southeast Asians, and they are not off the hook.

What's more, the worst of the old-school chauvinism is on its way out. You will generally not hear young people trashing foreign workers in the same overtly racist ways that their predecessors may have: they'll speak out against communities that want them to leave simply because they are foreign, and they'll argue that they deserve fair treatment and a non-exploitative work environment in Taiwan. They won't take to the streets holding signs admonishing anyone to "go home". Certainly most would recoil at expressions of Hoklo chauvinism.

Many, if not most, support better pathways to dual nationality, with some of our staunchest allies in this regard being people like Freddy Lim and Hsiao Bhi-khim. Note, again, though, that the dual nationality they support is aimed at foreign white-collar workers, not labor.

And, with the DPP in power, we are seeing more movement on foreign workers' rights, although this is still a hotly-contested issue when, frankly, it shouldn't be. Unless I missed something, I don't recall ever seeing so much talk from the government end about foreign labor in Taiwan under the KMT. For example, it wasn't until 2016 that exit rules requiring foreign labor to leave every three years (often at great expense, often funneled through corrupt brokerage agencies) were changed to lift this requirement. There are DPP legislators working to protect foreign worker rights.

There is plenty of evidence showing that working conditions in Taiwan for foreign labor are poor, and you will find plenty of support in the pro-Taiwan camp for changing this.

So, I want to make it clear that this is not a hit piece. I don't want to make anyone look bad, nor do I want to take a swipe at the new generation of pro-Taiwan advocates. I don't even want to imply they all share these views.

However, we still have a problem when it comes to how people, even in this otherwise progressive camp, view foreign blue-collar and mostly Southeast Asian labor.

It is still strikingly common for someone agreeing one minute that working conditions for foreign labor in Taiwan should be better, and then the next express opposition to giving such workers a path even to permanent residency. Foreign professionals such as myself can obtain permanent residency fairly easily, although some of the rules seem a bit arbitrary. Foreign blue collar workers, however, cannot. Even if the visa allowed for it - and I am fairly sure it doesn't - they wouldn't meet the income requirements. It's fine to let them come here to work, apparently, but giving them the same opportunities as white-collar workers is apparently too much.

There are new laws, but some of these don't strengthen worker protections enough, and none of them expand worker rights to include the same opportunities I enjoy in Taiwan. It's a line drawn between types of foreigners, as though one type is better than the other. For example, it is simply not acceptable that being convicted of sexually abusing a foreign worker would bar you from employing another one after just 2-5 years, rather than being barred for life. Nor are the protections to stop employers from holding workers' essential documents, including passports, strong enough. "Strong dissuasion from doing so without a good reason" is too weak.

So, essentially, the narrative seems to be that foreign labor deserves better working conditions, but not more rights.

I don't agree with the reasoning behind this. The first reason given seems to be that they will "swamp" Taiwan. I'm not sure about that. Of foreign workers already in Taiwan, it's like that only a fraction would be eligible for whatever sort of permanent residency requirements the government sets. Of those who are eligible, only a small fraction would ever obtain it. Perhaps they will do so at higher rates than professionals as there are more of them, but it wouldn't likely be a majority.

Most intend to only stay a few years, and the option is not on their radar. Although there are far more foreign laborers than professionals in Taiwan, it is safe to assume most do consider their native countries home and intend to make money for awhile, but eventually return.

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You can see from the photos of politicians at the back how old these pictures are, and yet the same issues remain


Remember, for many, they work here to earn money to send home. Home. They will stay as long as they need to earn that money, but they don't intend to live out their lives here. Just like us, they have family, friends and connections where they come from.

What's more, I'm not sure what "swamped" is supposed to mean here. Taiwan has a labor shortage, not a surplus (the fact that this has not translated into increased wages is all about fiddling at the top). The birthrate is going down, not up. The average age is going up, not down. The population is set to decline, not rise.

We talk about foreign talent being part of the solution to all of these problems, although I think the bigger solution is to stop the top-level cronyism that leads to artificially depressed wages for locals, and to improve working conditions (and pay) across the board so the brain drain gets plugged. But people seem to assume that including immigration as a solution to Taiwan's economic and labor woes means professional foreign labor - frankly, we also need foreign blue-collar labor. They are consumers too. They sometimes marry locally. Many have children locally. One in five marriages is to a foreigner.

This is good for an aging population, not bad. It's not swamping, it's replenishing. That is, unless you are worried about the racial makeup of your country changing. And why would you be worried about that if this wasn't about race?

In any case, the people who would be eligible are the people who are already here. Nothing would change, really.

I've heard the 'culture' argument too: as more Southeast Asians want to come here than people from other parts of the world, allowing that many (although I disagree it would be so many) of them in would change the cultural makeup of Taiwan. Would it, though? Let's take one cultural marker for example - Islam. Right now the Muslim population of Taiwan is about .03% of the population (Christians are about 4.5%, and I've also heard 5% as a figure). Even if that number grew exponentially, it's still a long way to even 1%. I honestly just don't think it would change that much, even taking into account the fact Taiwan is quite a bit smaller than the US.

Even if that were a legitimate fear, it strikes me as another form of discrimination based on national origin - ethnocentrism, perhaps. We learned in the 20th century that nation states based primarily on ethnicity were a bad idea (I'd double underscore that if I could), so I'm generally wary of this line of thinking.

Another reason seems to be that "more foreign labor hurts Taiwanese labor". I didn't believe this when Bernie Sanders said it about immigration in America (he eventually modulated his message to be anti-corporate exploitation, but his original platform was anti-foreign-labor as a defense of American workers) - and I don't believe it now.

Foreign labor has been coming to the US ever since we've had work for them, and it has never significantly slowed down the US economy. If anything, accepting scores of low-skill workers who eventually assimilate and move up so their children can do better and the whole country can grow more prosperous is what made us what we are.

What's more, we do need people to do that work. Anti-immigration Americans insist that Americans will do it, but I'm not so sure about that. I'm not so sure about it in Taiwan, either: there seems to be a real prejudice against 'black handed' work (that is, work that gets you dirty). As it stands now, in the US, foreign labor pretty much ensures that our agricultural and service sectors run. In Taiwan the industries are different (elder care and factory and fishing work) but the story is essentially the same.

I'm not happy with the exploitation I see in any of those industries, in either country, but the solution isn't to tell foreign labor to stay home, it's to improve the industries to be less exploitative. They want to come, and they do work we need done - don't punish them. Punish the people who victimize them.

Bernie still doesn't seem to have figured this out, and unfortunately Taiwanese who think similarly don't seem to, either.

The most persuasive argument is that foreign labor is so cheap that it undercuts Taiwanese wages.

As for domestic workers, however, I'm not sure this is persuasive enough. Salaries in Taiwan are stagnant, and the population is getting older. People can't afford to pay more to hire someone to care for their elderly family members, but it is difficult-to-impossible to hire a Taiwanese person to do this work at the same rate you would pay a foreign caretaker. If we had a shortage of domestic workers, the work would most likely fall to the women of the household: yet another family obligation that pushes women to scale back on their other goals and ambitions. I can't condone that.

Regarding factory and agriculture/fishing workers, research seems to indicate that the impact is small and short-term if it happens at all, but foreign blue-collar labor is overall a benefit. Remember, without them prices would go up, storefronts that now house shops and restaurants aimed at Southeast Asian immigrants would be empty, the population would drop, certain work would not get done and lower production, even in the short term, would harm the economy. It's not so simple as saying "they can just hire Taiwanese (and pay them more)".

And, frankly, wages in all of these sectors (and all other ones too) need to go up whether the workers are foreign or not. I don't want to see Taiwanese wages drop because of foreign labor. I want to see foreign labor wages increase to rival that of Taiwanese workers, so that industries hire the workers they need, not just the ones they can get at a cut-rate price.

I have tried to talk to friends about this issue, reminding them that I too am a foreign worker. The only thing that differentiates me from them is my skin color and, well, white Western privilege (and the education that comes with it). I remind them that by supporting expanded rights for me, but not for a class that is almost entirely Southeast Asian, that they are essentially rewarding born privilege. Rewarding me for being born Western, with means. At the same time, they are punishing other people for the less fortunate circumstances they were born into.

I know my friends and other pro-Taiwan advocates well enough to know that they aren't intending to be racist. They are just as happy to welcome foreign professionals of any race, including Southeast Asians, and are horrified to hear stories of racism in professional labor (which do exist - ask...well, any given one of my non-white foreign professional friends in Taiwan).

However, it can't help but be about race. The race divide is too clear: most foreign labor in Taiwan is Southeast Asian, most professionals are Western, and most (but not all) of those are white. Although the intention is not to discriminate based on race or skin color, that is essentially what they are doing. It's playing into that same old socioeconomic game: they see it as a line between what helps Taiwan and what they think doesn't, but it is also a color line, whether we like it or not. That color line is a power line: I have the power to gain certain rights and privileges in Taiwan simply because of the circumstances of my birth: the country and family I was born into. There is no universe in which I think this is fair.

Not wanting to consider that the line drawn is, in effect, a color line as much as everyone would like it not to be is a real problem. It's still discrimination. It's still saying "some people deserve more rights than others". It's still saying I deserve something better than a woman from Indonesia because I happen to have been born with more money and in the right country. And if you group people by who is on the 'preferred' side of that color line, of course it's the people who are mostly white. Who, again, is kept down? Non-whites.

Whether you like it or not, that is what it is saying.

But that line is also a poverty line: these views advocate rewarding people who were born in the right place to the right people, and punishing those who weren't. People who want a better life, just like anyone else. People who just want to work hard and make money to better their circumstances. People who do contribute to the Taiwanese economy in invisible ways, whether one wants to admit that or not.

With these attitudes still in place, I'm not sure how the New Southbound Policy will remain on solid footing going forward: Taiwan already has a bad reputation in SE Asia as the worst of all the industrialized Asian countries to move to for work due to low wages, long hours and rampant exploitation. Are these same countries supposed to happily work more closely with Taiwan for mutual benefit in industry, tourism, trade and culture, when Taiwan still doesn't want to give immigrants from those countries in Taiwan more rights? This whole strategy can only work if both sides stand to benefit, not just Taiwan as it weans itself off reliance on China. That means extending rights and benefits to foreign labor from Southeast Asia in Taiwan, not more of the same.

No one is an island, whether you like it or not. 

It also bothers me that, as I've talked to so many friends recently about how to talk about Taiwan in a convincing way with American liberals, that I essentially have the same problem in Taiwan: I don't know how to talk to Taiwanese liberals about foreign labor, especially blue collar labor. They seem to have gotten the message regarding foreign professionals and dual nationality - not that that is moving any faster - but cross that color line and I feel like I hit a discursive brick wall. There is a lot of sympathy for ending abusive treatment, but none for giving foreign labor real opportunity in Taiwan.

It's also just a bad look: I know the intent isn't racial discrimination but as that's the practical effect, it's bad optics when it comes to getting foreign support. We are foreigners too. We are, essentially, foreign workers with more privilege and different skin. We do - especially the more liberal among us - feel solidarity with Southeast Asian workers. When a party isn't doing everything they can for some foreigners, all politically astute foreigners notice. If they want more 'New Taiwanese' to support them, loyalty is bred by treating all 'New Taiwanese' well, not just the comparatively privileged ones.

It is quite problematic, as well, that when these issues do finally get discussed, they feel filtered down through layers of acceptability. First, the NPP didn't support changes to regulations regarding foreign professionals. I'm not sure that ever changed, but they did start to support relaxing dual nationality requirements...again, for professionals. The DPP relaxed these requirements, but only for certain professionals. It might be extended to the rest of us plebes someday, but not laborers. Only once that happens does it feel like the conversation might open to include talk of increasing their rights, too. It's like ideas of inclusion in Taiwanese society have to drip down through a layer of white Westernness for them to finally be acceptable to think about also including people who are not as privileged.

The US also has a problem when it comes to how the majority of people view blue-collar immigrant labor, although the liberal landscape is changing enough that Sanders took some heat for his views. It was ultimately not enough for most to abandon him or even reconsider their support. For us, that labor tends to come from Mexico, Central and South America.

It's not much different in Taiwan, the only difference (beyond the origin of the majority of laborers) being that not even the liberal electorate is admonishing the progressives they support for their views on blue-collar immigrant labor.

In both countries there is a power and a poverty line, and in both it is difficult to get certain liberal thinkers to really consider how it is also a color line - but in Taiwan it feels so much harder these days.

I know the progressives of whom I speak, so I know the intention is not to keep certain people considered 'undesirable' based on their race. We cannot ignore that this is the practical effect, however, and if Taiwan doesn't provide better opportunities for Southeast Asians within its borders, then Southeast Asia has less incentive to grow the stronger links with Taiwan that this country needs to weaken China's grip. There are times when the effects of globalization are not positive, but this, I feel, is not one of them.

Let's end with this: not too long ago, one of the strains of Taiwanese public discourse was that it wasn't good enough to just seek independence. That Taiwan has two gauntlets before it - de jure recognition of the independence it already has, and deciding not that it is a country (it very obviously is) but what sort of country it wants to be. At the time this discussion was about marriage equality, and it later evolved to include aboriginal land rights.

I'd like to extend that and say that Taiwan also has to decide what sort of country it wants to be vis-a-vis how it treats its immigrants - all of its immigrants. Not the ones that most obviously benefit the country, but those who benefit the country in less visible ways. Not the ones it is easy to welcome, but the ones you may have to overcome prejudice to welcome. Not the ones who already have the benefits of privilege, but those who don't, so they have the opportunity to do better and, as they raise themselves up, help make your country better as well.

Does Taiwan want to be the sort of country that gives all immigrants rights, or does it want to be the sort that discriminates based on old prejudices about what sort of people are desirable, drawing a line that, as much as we wish it weren't, is a color line?