by Brian Hioe
Photo credit: Brian Hioe
A HUNGER STRIKE by union collective Worker’s Struggle (工鬥) came to an end today after 52 hours in which eight workers were on hunger strike. Workers also occupied two tents in front of the Legislative Yuan and held rallies every afternoon and evening from Tuesday morning until this afternoon. Though the hunger strike was coming to an end, workers vowed that escalating actions would take place in late July and early August, with two actions planned for July 29th and July 30th, and future plans to be announced.
Workers were demonstrating planned cuts to public holidays as part of recent labor law reforms. Though new labor reforms would limit the amount of hours workers can be made to work by their employers to forty hours per week, seven public holidays would be cut, reducing public holidays from 19 to 12. This comes despite that Taiwan has some of the highest working hours in the world, with workers in Taipei averaging over 2,141 annual working hours in 2015. According to workers, this may mean that Taiwanese workers have the third longest working hours in the world; it does appear that Taiwan ranks in the countries with the top five longest working hours in the world.
The start of the hunger strike. Photo credit: 2016工人鬥總統
Workers are also unhappy with that changes to labor law regulations do not call for two set days off, but one set day off and one “flexible rest” day, in which workers can still be made to work. Workers view this as the government seeming to mandate two set days off to workers, but actually it being that workers can still be made to work on “flexible rest” day, meaning that this is not actually necessarily a day off for workers.
In particular, during the hunger strike, Worker’s Struggle was firm in targeting the current DPP administration—calling on the DPP to differentiate themselves from the KMT and accusing the DPP of merely acting as though it were different than the KMT when it was a political opposition, but now revealing its true colors now that it is in power. This adds to a growing list of accusations by individuals from the pan-Green camp that the DPP is becoming a “new KMT,” or at the very least, has not demonstrated very clearly through its first two months in power under Tsai Ing-Wen that its policy is substantially different from the KMT—instead, continuing KMT policy in many respects.
Tuesday night at the occupation encampment. Photo credit: Brian Hioe
However, workers also called on the Tsai administration to decisively take a stand on the side of workers, rather than bosses. Though the Tsai administration previously seemed to take a step back on the issue of cutting public holidays, 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, 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. Would it be that the politics of Tsai administration are merely in the service of large business conglomerates?
Notably, there was no strong DPP response to the hunger strike. Although at one point, an Executive Yuan official came out to accept a petition by workers, he refused to meet workers unless he was standing behind police at all times. The issue was raised tepidly by DPP members during the current legislative session, but labor legislation was generally sidelined, given the current struggle over transitional justice legislation. Following the end of the hunger strike, however, the New Power Party tried to force the issue, refusing to accept the DPP’s version of the labor bill while occupying the podium of the Legislative Yuan.
Photo credit: Brian Hioe
Yet despite strong media presence at the hunger strike, the hunger strike ultimately was not an issue electrifying of the whole of society, in the way that the recent China Airlines strike was. This probably returns to the difficulties of the hunger strike in messaging its demands, of mobilizing large numbers of workers, and of securing support from youth activists.
Perhaps it seems too early for many to be targeting the DPP, as a recently minted presidential administration, with many willing to give the DPP more time to demonstrate a progressive stance on social issues as labor discontents. This has led to accusations against hunger strikers from some circles of being pro-KMT and only demonstrating the DPP because the KMT is no longer in power, or of having closeted pro-unification views—it, indeed, being true that many left-wing labor activists in Taiwan have pro-China views that originate from the view that Taiwanese is a capitalist country and China a communist one.
Confrontation between Executive Yuan official and Lu Qihong of Worker’s Struggle on Wednesday afternoon, both visible on the right. Photo credit: Brian Hioe
The Worker’s Struggle collective of labor unions had faced criticism in the past for targeting the Tsai administration even before it had been elected during fall and winter 2015, as well as a series of demonstrations leading up to January 2016 elections, with the expectation that the KMT would see a battering in presidential and legislative elections. The most dramatic of past actions regarding the issue of cut public holidays included an attempt to storm the Ministry of Labor by Taoyuan-based labor activists and a large union demonstration organized by Worker’s Struggle that culminated in throwing smoke bombs at the presidential office, although the presidency then was still under a Ma administration.
There could have perhaps been a finer point by hunger strikers on messaging its stance in criticizing both the KMT and DPP, or through its demands that the DPP need differentiate itself from the past administration of the KMT. Workers were, in fact, critical of both the DPP and KMT—though at times also critical of the NPP despite its actions in support of workers for not offering legislation as significantly different from the DPP’s as hoped. But although criticisms of the DPP administration are definitely on the uptick and it seems prescient of Worker’s Struggle to have expected backsliding from the progressive social vision the Tsai administration asserted while campaigning once it was in office, many members of society at large are still not ready to directly target the DPP or actually take action against the Tsai administration.
Rain falling on workers outside of the Executive Yuan on Wednesday afternoon. Photo credit: Brian Hioe
Along such lines, if the event did not become as hot a topic of media discussion, as one would expect, it was because the hunger strike never saw large numbers mobilize in support of it. At the occupation encampment in front of the Legislative Yuan, there probably was never more than one hundred individuals. If there were a number of young labor activists involved and one of the hunger strikers was a student and many youth activists seemed supportive of the hunger strike if they knew about it, youth activists did not turn up in such large numbers as to attract media attention.
This may return to that, again, many youth activists are not ready to directly take action against the Tsai administration if, for example, they were happy to join striking China Airlines workers against their corporate employers this past month. But it was also likely that youth activists did not join in because the hunger strike was not large enough to simply catch their notice. Past Worker’s Struggle demonstration have involved thousands of participants from various labor unions, including youth labor unions and young workers, but this hunger strike did not lead youth activists to mobilize in such numbers. Labor had not been an issue highly taken up by contemporary Taiwanese youth activism until the China Airlines strike and if there are many young labor activists, sometimes their concerns are less with Taiwanese sovereignty issues.
The last day of the hunger strike. Photo credit: Brian Hioe
It appears that at the end of the hunger strike, the hunger strike was beginning to catch the attention of youth activists, particularly after an image in Civil Media of labor activist Lu Qihong giving a speech outside the Executive Yuan during heavy rain became a viral hit. However, it remains to be seen whether future actions about the issue will provoke more concrete responses from the DPP and attract larger support from youth activists. Indeed, workers may have come to realize this later on as the hunger strike went on, it being raised shortly before the end of the hunger strike that future actions would seek the participation of other labor unions and civil society groups.
But we will see as to the direction of future actions. The issue is one which remains unresolved and the dilemma of overwork is one which continues to confront Taiwanese workers.