Showing posts with label labor_laws. Show all posts
Showing posts with label labor_laws. Show all posts

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.