by Brian Hioe

Photo credit: 2016工人鬥總統

WORKERS BEGAN a hunger strike outside the Legislative Yuan this morning in order to demonstrate against planned cuts in public holidays after changes to the Labor Standards Law. Labor reforms would limit the amount of maximum allowable work hours per week to forty hours, but cut public holidays from 19 days to 12 days. This reduction occurs despite that Taiwan already has among the world’s highest working hours, with workers in Taipei averaging over 2,141 annual working hours in 2015. The strike began at 9:30 AM, with workers setting up two tents outside of the Ministry of Labor. A loudspeaker truck has also been parked nearby.

Though the Tsai administration suggested that it would back away from reductions in public holidays, but this has faced strong opposition from large business groups. Possible cuts in public holidays had been a rallying point for labor unions and labor activists from dating before 2016 elections, with December seeing a dramatic attempt by members of Taoyuan-based labor unions to storm the Ministry of Labor.

13775886_272838413072012_173705884348835693_nThe start of the hunger strike. Photo credit: 2016工人鬥總統

Demonstrations continued throughout the lead-up to 2016 elections as led by the Worker’s Struggle group (工鬥), including one demonstration which saw the participation of over 2,000 and the throwing of smoke bombs at the presidential residence, then inhabited by Ma Ying-Jeou. The Worker’s Struggle group consists of many labor unions working together, but with a particularly high number of labor unions from Taoyuan.

But labor issues have particularly been particularly electrifying of Taiwanese youth activists since the China Airlines flight attendants’ strike. The China Airlines strike was a historic event for Taiwanese labor as the first strike in the Taiwanese airline industry and the strike also saw the street occupation of the road in front of China Airlines’ Taipei branch headquarters. Since then, we have seen a wave of unionization drives, including for medical workers, postal workers, or calls for workers of other airlines such as EVA to unionize.

IMG_1222Tent set up by hunger strikers. Sign indicates that hunger strikers are three hours into the strike. Photo credit: Brian Hioe

The present hunger strike includes key participants of previous labor actions, such as Mao Chen-fei, noted veteran labor activist, chairman of the Taoyuan Confederation of Labor Unions, and a key figure during the China Airlines strike. Mao, famous for frequently attending labor protests wearing a shirt that says “Fuck!” (幹) on it, is among the hunger strikers, who number between five and ten people.

China Airlines workers’ unions including the Taoyuan Flight Attendants’ Union and the China Airlines Mechanics’ Union have expressed support of the strike, their banners being visible at the tent the hunger strikers have set up outside the Legislative Yuan. Other participating or supporting groups include the Labor Rights Association, the Former Freeway Toll Collectors Self-Help Organization, and the Taoyuan Professionals’ Union.

IMG_1223Hunger strikers are visible sitting on the mat in the center of the tent. Photo credit: Brian Hioe

Accordingly, we will see as to whether Taiwanese youth activism rallies behind hunger striking workers. If Taiwanese youth activists are generally aware of the issue and the hunger strike began this morning with a rally, following an afternoon rain, only two dozen or so individuals were on-site. It may be that news of the hunger strike has not circulated enough. We will see as to the size of a planned rally tonight.

Workers plan on holding nightly rallies for the next three days. As with other recent labor actions, we can understand the hunger strike as a test of the DPP’s labor policy. With expectations of a DPP victory in the presidency and legislature, demonstrations organized by Worker’s Struggle targeted the DPP, in addition to the KMT and PFP, but with a particular emphasis on the DPP. The present hunger strike is part of a longer action which began with a demonstration outside of the DPP national congress on Sunday.

IMG_1233Six hours into the hunger strike, after the afternoon rain. Photo credit: Brian Hioe

This will be an early test of the Tsai administration’s policies on labor, as the key issue around which labor has confronted Tsai’s newly minted administration in past month and in previous months leading up to 2016 elections. Tsai expressed vague support of striking China Airlines workers at the time the China Airlines strike—during which striking China Airlines workers were quite critical of Tsai and called on Tsai to take a stronger stand on the promises of reform she made during campaign promises.

But the possibility of taking a stronger stand on the issue of the loss in public holidays would bring the Tsai administration into conflict with the heads of large and powerful business conglomerates, including the Chinese National Association of Industry and Commerce, the National Association of Small and Medium Enterprises, ROC, and the Taiwan Electrical and Electronic Manufacturer’s Association. In particular, the Chinese National Association of Industry and Commerce includes chairmen from companies as Shin Kong, Farglory, Quanta, Yulon, Fubon, Huanan, Uni-President and others. The leaders of seven large business groups have stated that they will terminate all present negotiations regarding wages if the Ministry of Labor goes through with backing down from its plans to cut public holidays.

IMG_1240Photo credit: Brian Hioe

It remains to be seen if Tsai will be willing to back workers’ demands in a stronger manner than her vague backing down from the planned cuts in public holiday after facing opposition from workers and youth activists, if this means coming into conflict with such industrial groups. And this may mean confrontation between the Tsai administration on one side and Taiwanese labor and youth activists on another side.

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