Monday, October 17, 2005

The Labor Movement in Taiwan

I stumbled across this in-depth article on the labor movement in Taiwan a couple of months ago. Enjoy!

The Labour Movement in Taiwan
John Minns and Robert Tierney

The spectacular industrialisation of Taiwan has created a large working class. Yet, while there have been a number of inspiring struggles and attempts to organise, a powerful labour movement has not emerged there. Many observers of East Asian industrialisation have attributed this failure to the influence of Confucian culture. This article disagrees and suggests that the reasons for the weakness of the Taiwanese labour movement are not to be found in cultural stereotypes of Confucian docility or group loyalty. Rather, an analysis of the Cold War origins of the Taiwanese regime, the preponderance of small-scale, rural industry and the great ethnic divides which have been manipulated by political and business leaders on the island since 1949 provide far more convincing explanations for the weakness of Taiwanese labour.

Some highlights...
The KMT exported to Taiwan the trade union model already firmly established under its rule in mainland China, setting up a peak union body, known as the Chinese Federation of Labour (CFL). For several decades, the Federation controlled virtually all labour unions and all unionised workers in Taiwan. The Party financially supported the CFL at the county, provincial and national levels and paid the rent on all of the Federation's offices.62 The KMT also had the power to dissolve unions within the CFL if it considered them subversive. It forbade horizontal links between unions across industries and closely scrutinised union elections. It was almost impossible for a unionist to be elected or appointed to the position of official or of shop steward unless he — Taiwan's union movement has always been dominated by men — was a member of the KMT. This, in turn, constituted a potent weapon for mobilising workers to vote for KMT candidates in local elections. In all, the CFL was simply an instrument of party policy. 39

Backed by massive state support, the CFL was remarkably successful in recruiting members. As a result, trade union density in Taiwan has always been higher than in most of its Asian neighbours — for instance some three times higher than that of South Korea.63 However this greater rate of unionisation has reflected no more than workers' high level of subjugation to the KMT and, therefore, to management. Strikes tended to be short and few in number. According to Lin Mei-jung, only 22,268 workers were involved in industrial disputes between 1949 and 1965.64 Just 909 labour disputes were officially recorded between 1964 and 1974, and not all were strikes.65


Unlike many disputes of the late 1980s, several of the most crucial workers' struggles of the early nineties ended in failure, demoralising those who participated in them as well as those who provided ongoing support. One of the most critical setbacks was the defeat of the Keelung Bus Drivers in the 40-day strike during July and August 1992 over union independence and improved pay and conditions. Prior to the strike, the bus drivers in Keelung were regarded, somewhat, as vanguards of the worker's struggle, typified by their willingness to mobilise in support of strikes well outside their industry and region. They supported, for example, the aforementioned Jia Long strike in Taipei County. The Keelung dispute was one of the longest strikes in Taiwan's post-war history and provided evidence of a high degree of political mobilisation of the male strikers' spouses, who regularly attended and organised picket lines, while challenging traditionally sexist notions of so-called female passivity.88 The company aggressively exploited provisions in the Labour Standards Law, the Labour Disputes Law, and Trade Union Law, which between them make it possible to outlaw almost any strike. The strike was defeated and the drivers returned to work, achieving virtually nothing. A deep-seated sense of resignation began to affect many workers active in this unseasoned, new labour movement.
Why are foreign workers rioting? Read this carefully:
In July 2001, the Chen Shui-bian government established the Economic Development Advisory Conference (EDAC), in which the powerful National Chinese Federation of Industries was a key member, to make policy national economic recommendations, and one of its key proposals was the removal of foreign workers from Taiwan's minimum wage system. The Council of Labour Affairs succeeded in convincing the EDAC and the Executive Yuan of the wisdom of implementing mandatory monthly accommodation charges for foreign workers — excluding paid domestic employees — ranging between NT$2,500 and NT$4,000. The accommodation charges generated enormous protests from the Catholic Church action groups, to which many foreign workers look for representation of their interests, partly on the basis that the accommodation provided by Taiwan's employers was frequently sub-standard, over-crowded (16 beds to a 16 square metre room), squalid, and dangerous. It was also opposed on the grounds that the compulsory charges would bring about monthly wage reductions ranging between 16 and 25 per cent. The estimated annual increase in profits, flowing from the accommodation charges, is of the order of NT$10 billion.99

Basically the Chen government got in bed with the manufacturers, and decided to make it legal to screw foreign labor. Shameful.


Red A said...

The minimum wage for the foreign workers probably originated with the idea of placating Taiwanese voters that the foreigners weren't technically undercutting their wages.

Work conditions and living arrangemetns aside, which BTW, might not be much better in a Thai company in Thailand, I would guess that foreign workers would gladly sign up for sub-minimum wage jobs here in Taiwan since they still pay far better than in their home countries.

And while I sympathize with everyone's goal of making more money (workers, business owners, etc.), sometimes the alternative for the Taiwanese factory is just to close and move to China. Is that the best solution for Taiwan and the foreign workers?

Just a thought.

David said...

The article says "one of its key proposals was the removal of foreign workers from Taiwan's minimum wage system".

I'm pretty sure that's wrong - they (they? We!) had that right removed in 1999. The EDAC proposals the report is talking about are (I believe) from the '322 proposals' which were the DPP's "grand plan" to save the Taiwanese economy - which was then in a tailspin. I've been trying to find a copy of those proposals, but no success ...