by Brian Hioe
Photo Credit: 洪欣慈/UDN
GIVEN THAT elections are only a few weeks a way, some have claimed that the recent wave of labor protests in Taipei is irrational. Protests should not occur so soon to elections and would only be distracting to elections, as some would have it. But it is that workers are quite deliberately demonstrating in Taipei before elections, in order to make the public pay attention when workers’ voices are largely marginalized from mainstream politics—by KMT and DPP alike.
The role of organized labor has been precarious in Taiwan since the martial law era, when labor unions were banned under the authoritarian rule of the KMT and labor unions persecuted using the rhetoric of anti-Communism. Arguably, the weakness of organized labor in Taiwan to this day is because of this inability to build a strong foundation for independent organized labor in Taiwan that goes back to the martial law period. Though labor unions existed and were given victories from time to time, they did not have the capacity to challenge the party-state directly and were largely pawns of the KMT. Indeed, despite several years of strong youth activism in Taiwan, it remains that labor remains weak and student movements have largely not joined up in organizing with labor at any deep, integral level, the support of many students activists for workers and workers for student activists notwithstanding.
If it is that the KMT is a natural enemy for labor unions because of this past history, the needs of labor have also been marginalized under the DPP. The KMT is perfectly happy to trample over Taiwanese worker’s rights, or sell them out to Chinese business interests. But there are also those unscrupulous DPP politicians who are plainly as happy to sell out workers to business interests as their KMT counterparts. And the interests of business have, too, been placed above those of workers by pro-independence DPP politicians and supporters. It is hoped by these individuals that strong economic performance may be a keystone to preserving Taiwan’s current de facto independence.
More broadly, if the Taiwanese voter electorate is largely concerned with domestic issues in this election, economic growth is still the main priority for voters and, thus, also for the politicians who hope to appeal to voters. This is true for both DPP and KMT politicians. It is such that recent worker militancy is targeted at both parties, given that policies aimed at stimulating economic growth may not have the rights of workers in mind.
The 2015 Autumn Struggle demonstration in front of DPP headquarters. Photo credit: 秋鬥：左派力量
Actually, the pivotal event which kicked off the recent wave of demonstrations was the yearly Autumn Struggle (秋鬥) event. This year, labor unions demonstrated in front of DPP headquarters, a move which was rather controversial. Obviously it is not yet that the DPP, under Tsai Ing-Wen, has taken the presidency, but it would appear that in light of a probable DPP victory, the decision was made to demonstrate in front of the DPP under the assumption that the DPP would be the new ruling party—and that the DPP might prove prone to being bought out by corporate interests as the KMT was. Certainly, though we are still waiting to see what a Tsai presidency will be like, none can deny that certain elements of the DPP are already bought over by corporate interests.
Workers are quite happy to continue to protest the KMT, as we saw with protests that broke out after former Minister of Labor Jennifer Chu was announced as Eric Chu’s vice-presidential candidate. Protestors recently also stormed Eric Chu’s campaign headquarters on December 25th, a move which was also viewed by some as an unjustified one because of how close elections are–in view that this would be an unruly and disruptive action.
Namely, the hotbed issue as of late an amendment to the Labor Standards Act announced by the Legislative Yuan, which would limit the amount of maximum allowable work hours to per week to forty hours per week, with two days off per week as mandatory holiday. Previous legal regulations stipulated maximum allowable work hours of 84 hours per two weeks. Yet though some would see this as progress for worker’s rights, the Ministry of Labor also announced after the amendment that seven days of vacation would be removed from current national holidays, reducing the amount of days off from 19 days to 12 days. It is also claimed by workers that the amendment still does not guarantee that workers will have two days off per week.
The storming of Eric Chu’s campaign headquarters on December 25th was in demonstration of this amendment. But most dramatically, on December 15th, thirty workers charged and briefly occupied why Ministry of Labor demanding to meet with the Minister of Labor and spraying “Return our vacations!” on an elevator in the Ministry of Labor building. The workers were later removed by police. There are some reports that this brief occupation may have been a spontaneous act by a Taoyuan-based labor union.
Workers during their brief occupation of part of the Ministry of Labor. Photo credit: 洪欣慈/UDN
How, then, does it remain for workers to make their voices heard when DPP and KMT alike can easily shrug off their demands? It seems that workers have resorted to direct action. The recent wave of worker demonstrations is to ensure that workers’ demands are not drowned out in the hubbub of public clamor about upcoming 2016 elections. Unfortunately, workers’ voices are still ignored, with election coverage dominating most media coverage, and few drawing the dots as to why a wave of direct action by Taiwanese labor would suddenly appear now as we near election day.
If a Tsai victory seems quite inevitable, it remains for her to more clearly express what policies she would put into place to defend the rights of labor. Tsai herself has drawn controversy in the past for suggesting that Taiwan has too many public holidays and that the number of holidays should be reduced. And if there are those who claim that workers are wrong to demonstrate in the present when elections are so close, they place their blind faith in that Tsai Ing-Wen would in fact defend the rights to labor in spite of her lack of concrete stances on the issue—or, to begin with, that Tsai would even live up to all of her campaign promises. Indeed, if Taiwanese political history is any indication, one should not put blind faith in any politician altogether, DPP, KMT, or from smaller third parties.
It is that Tsai will be put into office after a year of unprecedented civic activism and protest by Taiwan’s young. But is it, then, that the demonstrations of Taiwanese workers are somehow invalid and not worthy of being paid attention to? Will the marginalization of Taiwanese labor continue?