by Chen Chung Hsin

Photo Credit: 02 Student Club/Facebook

CLEANING STAFF at National Cheng Kung University (NCKU), being the most powerless and marginalized group on the campus, have been put in a situation of extreme financial vulnerability. Cleaning staff are made to work on weekends and national holidays without overtime pay while receiving scarce salaries under burdensome workloads. As the attendance records in Figure 1 show, workers even worked consecutively for over 30 days without a day off in August 2016. This situation became the driving force behind the 2016 labor dispute at NCKU

Figure 1: The attendance records of cleaning staff in August 2016

In October 2016, the NCKU 02 Student Club, a student club whose members have actively participated in social movements, revealed the disadvantageous situation of cleaning staff at NCKU and started disputing with the NCKU administration over this labor issue in a manner that shocked NCKU students. After months of spreading word about and negotiating this issue, the student club reached an agreement with the university in the beginning of 2017 and solved the labor problems to some extent.

Besides revealing the labor conditions of cleaning staff at NCKU as well as explaining the progression of the dispute, this article aims to ascertain and analyze how the ‘outsourcing’ (also known as ‘contracting out’) system—designed to lower cost, improve service quality and raise efficiency—has become catastrophic for laborers within it.

The Situation of Cleaning Staff at NCKU

IN 2016 NCKU contracted He-Mei Environmental Corporation and Dong-Fang Zheng-Yang Corporation to deliver cleaning services on campus in an arrangement where He-Mei was responsible for cleaning dormitories and Dong-Fang was responsible for other areas. The contracts between the university and these two corporations was conducted under the supervision of the Office of Student Affairs and the Office of General Affairs at NCKU respectively.

According to the data collected by members of NCKU 02 Student Club through interviews, questionnaires, field observations, as well as examining the attendance records and salary slips, the characteristic that both corporations share is that the labor conditions of their employees are highly exploitative. As Table 1 denotes, cleaning staff from both corporations were deprived of their rights to non-fixed term contracts, [1] leave for national holidays, annual paid leave [2] and double payment for working during regular leave and national holidays. Specifically, cleaning staff, in 2016 alone, were dispossessed of their rights to at least NT$ one million and 1000 days off between all of the workers. In addition, He-Mei did not follow legal instructions to allow regular leave, while Dong-Fang did not keep legal attendance records. Furthermore, workers’ full-day salaries were illegally deducted for sick leave, in which they should have received fifty percent of their salaries based on legal regulations for worker’s vacations It was under this kind of circumstance that some of the cleaning staff worked consecutively for over one month without any day off or overtime pay in 2016.

Table 1: The labor conditions of cleaning staff at NCKU

To sum up, cleaning staff at NCKU were unable to take days off except for typhoon days or Chinese New Year, while simultaneously they were receiving low salaries under heavy workloads, which made their work a daily struggle.

The Historical Background Of Outsourcing

REGARDING THE exploitative labor conditions faced by cleaning staff at NCKU, not only should the NCKU administration and the two corporations be held accountable for the dispute, but in order to resolve the labor issue, outsourcing must be identified as the leading cause of the problem. In order to better understand the reason why outsourcing has had such a negative impact towards cleaning staff at NCKU, we must place it into the historical context in which it arose.

Since the 1980s, the governments of Thatcher and Reagan, under the popular philosophy of ‘small government’ and ‘privatization’, began a trend toward privatizing public services (Van R. Johnston, Paul Seidenstat, 2007). These types of policies have been put into effect by almost every member nation of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Being one of the OECD members, Taiwan, since the 1990s, has also been increasingly implementing privatization policies (OECD Policy Brief; Mo, 2004; Liu, 2015; Ho, 2009).

Among several methods of privatization (such as load shedding, coproduction and deregulation), outsourcing (contracting out) has served as one of the most dominant strategies by governments on the national level, and Taiwan is no exception (Mo, 2004; Van R. Johnston, Paul Seidenstat, 2007; OECD Policy Brief). When outsourcing is implemented, the government retains ownership, responsibility, overall control and oversight while relying on private sector to actually deliver public services (Savas, 2000; Van R. Johnston, Paul Seidenstat, 2007). Take NCKU as a concrete example. In the past, NCKU hired cleaning staff directly but now implements outsourcing strategies that contract private corporations to provide cleaning services. As indicated in Figure 2, within the outsourcing system, cleaning staff have been hired by private corporations rather than by the university.

This is exactly how outsourcing works: the role of government has shifted from being a public service supplier to a service buyer (Kettl, 2000).

Outsourcing is promoted with the aim of lowering cost, improving service quality and raising efficiency (AMSCME; Van R. Johnston, Paul Seidenstat, 2007; OECD Policy Brief). However, since outsourcing policies have been implemented in Taiwan, numerous controversial labor disputes have broken out. For instance, labor disputes took at NCCU in 2007 and 2013-2016, as well as at National Taiwan Museum, the Taipei city parking management and development office, the Taichung Veterans General Hospital and so on. It seems that while the government and private companies achieve their goals of saving money and earning profits, their profits never trickle down to laborers. Instead, laborers’ conditions have been worsening ever since the outsourcing policies were implemented in their workplaces and the benefits which should belong to laborers are often replaced with  low-wages, over-fatigue and imminent layoffs.

The Impact Of Outsourcing On Cleaning Staff At NCKU

CLEANING STAFF at NCKU are working within the outsourcing system, wherein theoretically the university retains ownership, responsibility, overall control and oversight, while relying on private corporations to clean the campus. The outsourcing policy has been implemented by the university to save money, which inadvertently has a negative impact on laborers inside the system.

One of the negative effects is that laborers within the outsourcing system are generally dispossessed of their rights to annual paid leave and severance pay. Many of the cleaning staff at NCKU, based on the interviews with them, have been working consecutively at NCKU for several years in which they should have received the right to annual paid leave, severance pay, and even year-end bonuses. Nevertheless, it is because they have been working within the outsourcing system that every time the university changes the corporation providing cleaning services, their seniority comes to naught. That is to say, as long as the outsourcing system is in place, it is impossible for laborers who have been working at the same institutions to acquire corresponding seniority, annual paid leave or severance pay, creating something of a Sisyphean situation for the outsourced laborers.

Figure 2: Outsourcing at NCKU

Likewise, the university never plays a role in providing oversight over outsourced laborers’ rights. Based on NCKU’s Labor Services Procuring Contract, it is the responsibility of the university to visit the cleaning staff once every month to check whether their rights are protected or not. In cases of a violation of the Labor Standards Act, the university can demand accountability from outsourcing companies by implementing penalties or even suspending the payment of the contract price to these outsourcing corporations. Although the two outsourcing corporations did violate the Labor Standard Acts in 2016, the university’s inaction on activating this oversight mechanism allowed the outsourcing corporations to keep working their employees into the ground.         

Last but not least, outsourcing is a system of two-tiered exploitation. The first level of exploitation signifies that the university contracts out their services with the lowest tender method of procurement so that they can limit the payment of contract price to outsourcing corporations. By receiving a smaller contract price, outsourcing corporations tend to offer cleaning staff subnormal labor conditions so as to earn larger profits. Furthermore, as in the case of NCKU, if the university imposes penalties to outsourcing corporations because of their dissatisfaction regarding the cleaning, the corporations will shift their cost by directly deducting salaries from cleaning staff.

By clarifying the problems behind the outsourcing system, including the dispossession of seniority, the lack of oversight and multi-level exploitative operation, this article demonstrates that inside the outsourcing system, laborers are destined to be the most disadvantaged individuals, who are more than likely to absorb the cost of both the university and the corporations.

The 2016 Labor Dispute At NCKU

SINCE THE end of 2015, the NCKU 02 Student Club has been involved in the intervention of the labor issue of cleaning staff at NCKU. After nearly a yearlong effort in investigating, complaining about, and negotiating the issue, the 02 Student Club has reached an agreement with the NCKU administration which in effect solved some of the labor problems. We might elucidate the progression of the 2016 labor dispute and analyze its advantages as well as the limitations the dispute had on the overall labor climate at NCKU.

The Progression Of The Labor Dispute: The Investigation Phase (December 2015 to October 2016)

IN THE PRELIMINARY stages of the investigation, between December 2015 and October 2016, the NCKU 02 Student Club collected evidence that cleaning staff had been exploited through interviewing; questionnaires; field observations and the examination of attendance records, identifying problems regarding cleaning staff’s rights to national and regular leave. However, without accessing the salary slips of cleaning staff, they could not confirm that cleaning staff were being stripped of their entitled double payment for work done during regular leave and national holidays.

Figure 3: The official document sent from the university to the students

Figure 4: The official document from the Ministry of Education to the legislator

It was challenging for members of 02 Student Club to access the salary slips due to the university’s discriminatory unwillingness to share the information with them. In order to check the salary slips, members of 02 Student club, some of whom were also representatives of the Office of General Affairs Conference, sent out an official document to the Office of General Affairs following which the office responded that, “It was not the business of the university to save the salary slips of laborers within the outsourcing system and the rights of cleaning staff at NCKU are well protected” (see Figure 3). Ironically, after members of 02 Student Club submitted another official document from a legislator to the Ministry of Education, the university immediately provided the legislator (see Figure 4) with all of the information which proved that cleaning staff were being dispossessed of their double payment for working during regular leave and national holidays. Finally, the NCKU 02 Student Club was able to gather all of the pertinent information which allowed them to move through the next stage—spreading word about and negotiating the issue.

Public Campaigning and Negotiation (October 2016 to January 2017)

IN THE PUBLIC campaigning stage, several aims were set by the 02 Student Club, including: (1) Terminate the outsourcing corporations’ violations of Labor Standards Act; (2) Recover the rights of cleaning staff to receive double payment for work done during regular leave and national holidays; (3) Improve oversight mechanisms regarding the protection of labors’ rights within the outsourcing system; and (4) Enhance the rights of cleaning staff by amending the outsourcing contracts.

On October 17th, the 2016 labor dispute at NCKU erupted, as the NCKU 02 Student Club released an open letter to the President of NCKU claiming the right to negotiate with the NCKU administration. They also generated enormous publicity through a petition, public lectures, and the photo advocacy campaign, of which a picture can be seen in Figure 5. Under public pressure, as galvanized by the 02 Student Club, the NCKU administration accepted the request and proceeded to undertake negotiations with the 02 Student Club.

Figure 5: A photo from the public lecture and the photo advocacy campaign

The first two negotiations reached the following agreements : (1) The university should forbid outsourcing corporations’ violations of the Labor Standards Act; (2) The university should establish a framework for grievance procedures; (3) The Dong-Fang Zheng-Yang corporation and the university should recover the double payment for employees hired to work during national holidays; and (4) The university should amend outsourcing contracts so that laborers’ rights, including their right to annual paid leave, can be protected.

Despite the achievements during the first two negotiations, the NCKU administration took a exceedingly passive attitude dealing with two of the major cause in this movement: (1) The university should establish an oversight mechanism by organizing a committee composed of student members, representatives of the Secretary General, the Personnel Office, the Office of Student Affairs and the Office of General Affairs, that will be responsible for overseeing the protection of labors’ rights within the outsourcing system as well as evaluating outsourcing contracts; (2) The NCKU administration and students should be eligible to attend the outsourcing corporations’ labor-management meeting.

In order to meet this demand, members of 02 Student Club collaborated with a legislator to get the budget of the university frozen, which became a successful means in pressuring the NCKU administration in changing their stance from outright inertia on the issue. It is at this definite point that the NCKU administration was forced to make concessions which led to the achievement of the aims set by 02 Student Club and ended the 2016 labor dispute at NCKU.

Analysis Of The Dispute: Factors For Success

THE “POLICY Window of Opportunity” theory as presented by John Kingdon can be adapted to analyze the reasons as to the success of the NCKU 02 Student Club for the 2016 labor dispute at NCKU. This theory deals with the factors of a successful policy-making process which requires the convergence of three streams: (1) The problem stream; (2) The policy stream; and (3) The political stream. The problem stream is related to how an issue can be perceived as a crucial problem in order to get enough public attention. The policy stream, on the other hand, deals with the actual policy that can be used to resolve the problem. The political stream is concerned with utilizing the political power of different groups so as to influence the policy-making process. When the three streams converge together, the policy window will be opened and the policy can thus be implemented.

Figure 6: The three streams that opened the policy window in the 2016 dispute at NCKU

The three streams that open the policy window can be found in the 2016 labor dispute at NCKU as displayed in Figure 6. The problem stream is exemplified by members of 02 Student Club conducting surveys on the labor conditions of cleaning staff and publicizing the labor problems through an open letter to the President of NCKU, the petition, public lectures and through the photo advocacy campaigns. The policy stream is exemplified by the 02 Student Club proposing concrete policies and measures in resolving the labor problems. As for the political stream, having held the photo advocacy campaigns and received the petition support of 40 organizations, the 02 Student Club tried to utilize the public opinion in pressuring the NCKU administration, but the university still denied some of their major causes. It was during this stage that the student club, having collaborated with a legislator, was able to get the budget of the university frozen and effectively influence policy-making. As propagated by Kingdon’s theory, the three streams working together proved to be strong enough in opening the policy window, therefore allowing the 02 Student Club to achieve their aims in this movement.

The Advantages And Limitations Of The Dispute

THE ADVANTAGES brought about by the 2016 labor dispute at NCKU are the recovery of cleaning staff’s basic rights to regular leave and leave for national holidays, as well as the establishment of the framework for dealing with grievances and overseeing the protection of laborers’ rights.

In spite of the breakthroughs in the labor environment at NCKU, the dispute had its limitations. One of the major limitations is that the dispute could not resolve the core problem of outsourcing, which is designed to be a system of two-tiered exploitation that takes away the seniority, annual paid leave and severance pay from laborers. In addition, the dispute has its limitation in executing oversight because the college bureaucrats in charge of the oversight are likely to be indifferent about the rights of laborers. Although students being part of the members in the oversight committee can allow the oversight mechanism to serve as a form of ‘check and balances’, their college life is limited. In short, the two factors that are mentioned above may be hurdles to ensuring the proper protection of outsourcing laborers.


THE EXPLOITATIVE conditions faced by cleaning staff at NCKU is not only an individual labor issue but also a symptom of general labor problems caused by outsourcing. Although outsourcing is promoted with the aim of reducing costs, upgrading service quality and improving efficiency, it is actually a two-tiered exploitative system that has been utilized to dispossess laborers of their seniority, annual paid leave, severance pay and even job security.

In 2016, the NCKU 02 Student Club raised a dispute with the NCKU administration over the unfavorable situation of outsourced cleaning staff. By raising the dispute and negotiating with the university, the 02 Student Club indeed solved some of the labor problems through ensuring cleaning staff’s rights to regular and national leave as well as establishing an oversight framework. However, the core problem of outsourcing, which has been identified as a two-tiered exploitative system that deprives laborers of their seniority, still operates at the university. In order to resolve the core problem behind outsourcing, we do well to take note that laborers, activists and researchers must be organically connected to struggles for labor rights and further reform the outsourcing system or develop alternative frameworks (e.g. cooperative system) in a manner that will lead to the empowerment and unification of workers. [3] The labor dispute at NCKU is a case in point.

[1] According to the Labor Standards Act, labor contracts can be divided into fixed term contracts and non-fixed term contracts. Fixed term contracts are for temporary, short-term, seasonal or specific work, while non-fixed term contracts are for continuous work.

[2] In Taiwan, laborer’s annual paid leave increases as their seniority increase. Employers in Taiwan, however, tend to illegally hire workers who work continuously under fixed term contracts so as to prevent their seniority from accumulating and avoid the responsibility of giving annual paid leave.

[3]「合」氣生財 工人團結共創另類經濟(2017/6/12),政大大學報

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