by Brian Hioe
Photo Credit: Brian Hioe
INTERNATIONAL WORKERS’ DAY demonstrations drew thousands today onto the streets of Taipei. Organizers claimed ten thousand in attendance. The march began in front of the Presidential Office Building on Ketagalan Boulevard and finished in Daan in front of the office building which houses the Chinese National Federation of Industries near the Daan MRT station, passing through much of central Taipei. Participating labor unions came from all across Taiwan, arriving by bus or other means of transportation. Workers who had been marching from Kaohsiung to raise attention to exploitative working conditions faced by Taiwanese labor, covering a distance of over 400 kilometers over 19 days, were also present. Among these individuals were some of the most active labor demonstrators in the past year, including hunger strikers who had been protesting cuts to public holidays last year.
The primary march with unions gathering on Ketagalan Boulevard from noon onwards, then beginning to march at 2:00 PM. The march finished around 4:00 PM in front of the Chinese National Federation of Industries office building, with demonstrators throwing water bottles at cardboard cutouts with images of hated big business leaders. Beforehand, a separate march by the Taiwan International Workers’ Association calling for an improvement in the conditions of migrant laborers took place, marching from the Ministry of Labor to Ketagalan Boulevard. Likewise, a performance took place before the march began with workers dressed as big business leaders devouring tofu in a manner metaphoric of big business leaders consuming the livelihood of workers for their personal profit.
Legislators from opposition political parties as the KMT, PFP, and NPP made a showing to give speeches, while no DPP representatives made any appearance, although organizers stressed that they still felt the actions of all of these political parties to be insufficient. Third Force parties currently lacking seats in legislature as the Social Democratic Party and Green Party were also in attendance as part of the crowd.
In particular, labor unions called for an end to exploitative labor conditions, pension reform, low salaries for young people, and criticized the actions of the Tsai administration on the issue of how much days workers are allowed off per week and planned cuts to public holidays. Workers criticized Tsai Ing-Wen for claiming during election campaigning for claiming that she would value the rights of workers and that she viewed laborers as a vulnerable group in society, but then later siding with capitalists and big business owners once in office on labor policy, claiming that she needed to balance “workers’ rights” and “bosses’ rights”.
Seeing as organized labor in Taiwan lost the battle over pushing for workers to have two set days off per week rather than one set day off per week and one “flexible rest day” in which they could still be made to work, this is a defeat which still smarts. What particularly provokes ire is that the Tsai administration originally suggested that it was willing to listen to the demands of workers before the opposition of the Chinese National Federation of Industries and other big business groups caused the Tsai administration to flip on the issue, hence why today’s protest would target the Chinese National Federation of Industries. Beginning from the Presidential Office Building and finishing outside the Chinese National Federation of Industries would be one way to point to substantial state-corporate connections which persist in Taiwanese society, then. Big business leaders have also provoked ire through comments stating that workers are lazy and have too many days off or stating that today’s young people have it too easy, never mind their low starting salaries.
Regarding pension reform and low salaries for young people, demonstrators called attention to the fact that whatever contention there has been over pension reform which would lower the generous pensions of public servants, teachers, and members of the military, this still does not ensure that workers in the private sector will be able to survive on their pensions after retirement. Namely, the generous pensions paid by the state to public servants, teachers, and members of the military, a legacy of the former party-state, threatens to bankrupt the pension system as a whole, particularly threatening young people who may face a bankrupt pension system when they retire sometime in the future.
Water bottles being thrown at cardboard cutouts of big business leaders. Photo credit: Brian Hioe
But demonstrators view pension reforms aimed at saving the pension system as not enough, seeing the current pension system as already failing private sector workers. Hence why the call for more wide-reaching pension reform to provide for workers was linked with the criticism of low salaries for young people in the demonstration today, rather than be satisfied with existing pension reforms as something which would save the pension system for young people. Notably, the amount of young people participating in labor unions is on the uptick since previous years, as observed in today’s demonstration. Taiwanese labor organizations have been quite effective in grooming young talent to take the leadership in the past several years and events as the China Airlines strike last year have drawn more and more members of Taiwanese youth activism into labor organizing.
Going forward, it seems likely that the Tsai administration will continue to shrug off workers’ demands not only regarding pension reform, but also its past actions regarding cuts to public holidays and the issue of one set day off per week and one “flexible rest day”. Lip service may be paid to the notion of addressing young people’s low starting salaries, but as seen in the Tsai administration backing down after pressure from big business groups, the Tsai administration probably will not follow up its words with actions when it comes to addressing the low salaries faced by young people in Taiwan if this means coming into conflict with big business. And it remains to be seen through what means organized labor can put pressure on the Tsai administration if the Tsai administration is willing to ignore substantial protest. These are the questions that the labor movement should reflect on following today’s International Workers’ Day demonstrations, perhaps.