by Brian Hioe

Photo Credit: 2016工人鬥總統/Facebook

Demonstrations Against Planned Labor Law Changes Continue

THE CAMP-OUT against the Tsai administration’s planned changes to the Labor Standards Act continues into its second day, with it being anticipated that the changes will see their third reading today within the Legislative Yuan after cross-party consultations broke down yesterday with the withdrawal of the NPP, which held a small rally outside of the Executive Yuan today. The camp-out has since grown in size, with several large tents set-up on-site, including a police rest station, but in the meantime, participants in the camp-out weather severe cold and rain. In the meantime, the razor wire barriers set up around government buildings in the Shandao Temple and NTU Hospital area remain extensive.

The camp-out is scheduled to continue until Friday. Yesterday, saw a number of dramatic forms of direct action, including clashes with police around noon, several hours after the start of the camp-out at 9 AM, as well as an attempt by student labor groups to block several major roads in Taipei at around 6 PM, including Civic Boulevard, Zhongshan South Road, Zhongshan North Road, Zhongxiao East Road, and others, by lying on the roads. This was not successful, due to lacking numbers of participants, as well as the fact that police seemed to have realized the action was due to take place beforehand. Students eventually dispersed, calling for future actions in the coming week.

Barricades around the Executive Yuan. Photo credit: Brian Hioe

Around 7 PM yesterday night, workers blocked the Platform 3 of Taipei Main Station, laying down on the tracks to prevent trains from leaving. This led to clashes with the police that went on for around an hour and a half before workers were eventually arrested. Further forms of direct action are possible later tonight or in the coming days.

DPP Hypocrisy In Attempting To Smear Labor Demonstrations

IN THE MEANTIME, the DPP continues to lash out at labor groups and the NPP for their resistance. Indeed, many of the labor groups demonstrating planned changes and members of the NPP were key participants in the Sunflower Movement, although those who eventually became members of the NPP and labor organizers were at odds over tactics during the movement, with members of the NPP mostly being within the Legislative Yuan during the movement, while labor organizers congregated in the Subaltern’s Liberation Area (賤民解放區) splinter group outside of the Legislative Yuan. Although bad blood between the both sides remains, cooperation between the NPP and labor groups may actually heal some of these past grudges.

But the DPP demonstrates how it only conditionally embraced the Sunflower Movement in order to create a public image that it was a party of hope and change during 2016 elections with its present actions. Ker Chien-Ming has lashed out at the NPP for “insincerity” and accused the NPP of secretly organizing labor protests. This evidences a rather undemocratic mindset on the part of Ker, seeing as Ker apparently cannot understand how passage of a labor law that can reduce resting time between shifts to as low as eight hours—meaning that workers may be made to return to work without even a full eight hours of sleep, could be made to work twelve consecutive days, and would have no set days off per week—would inspire protest on its own without a political party orchestrating it.

The encampment outside the Legislative Yuan today. Photo credit: Brian Hioe

Similarly, the DPP accuses the NPP of putting on a show with its previous hunger strike and occupation in front of the Presidential Office, or has attempted to smear the NPP with claims that this benefits the KMT. Such accusations are ironic and also evidence hypocrisy. Firstly, the DPP accusation that the NPP is putting on a show is ironic, given that the NPP’s playbook of protest tactics seems mostly drawn from the past actions of the DPP when the KMT was power, in which hunger strikes by legislators or street occupations by the party were not uncommon. Secondly, while the KMT has latched onto the issue opportunistically, one certainly did not see KMT legislators in any rush to join the NPP hunger strike or to undertake street occupations in demonstration of the labor issue.

If the KMT has latched onto the issue, the DPP would only be attempting to smear the NPP with guilt by association—ridiculous claims, seeing as the NPP certainly are not KMT turncoats, having emerged from the Sunflower Movement which was directed against the KMT’s attempts to facilitate the unification of Taiwan and China. Past attempts to redbait labor by pan-Green media outlets such as the Liberty Times, claiming that organized labor was acting on behalf of China, again points to this pattern of attempting to smear labor through guilt by association and, ironically, also gestures to the way in which the DPP has internalized the KMT’s frequent association of labor groups with its enemy, China.

Why Is The DPP So Intent On Pushing Through Labor Law Changes?

THE DPP’S MOTIVATIONS in trying to push through a set of labor law changes which would significantly worsen conditions for Taiwanese workers is indicative of how beholden the DPP is to corporate interest. The DPP is attempting to pass a new set of changes to labor laws at the behest of groups such as the Chinese National Federation of Industries and Chinese National Association of Industry and Commerce, major business groups which represent business leaders in Taiwan.

Rest station for police set up in the encampment outside the Legislative Yuan. Photo credit: Brian Hioe

Initial protests began last year, with protests by labor groups against changes to the Labor Standards Act last year which would have cut seven public holidays and made it so that workers have one set day off per week, but one “flexible rest day” in which they could still be made to work. Since this was shortly after elections, the Tsai administration still wished to retain the support of Taiwanese young people and post-Sunflower Movement activists and the Tsai administration suggested that it would back off from these labor law changes.

However, the Chinese National Federation of Industries and Chinese National Association of Industry and Commerce and seven major business groups indicated their displeasure with the DPP administration after this, threatening to suspend all wage negotiations unless the DPP continued with these labor law changes. After that, the DPP reversed course again, ramming the changes through legislature in a means which drew comparison to the thirty-second passage of the CSSTA without legislative review that prompted the Sunflower Movement, and claiming that labor was merely an interest group—never mind that labor is all working members of Taiwanese society. 

Yet even then, the Chinese National Federation of Industries, Chinese National Association of Industry and Commerce, and other business groups are still not happy with what they already secured from the DPP, which is the reason why the Tsai administration decided to further reduce labor protections for Taiwanese workers in the set of measures it passes now. In particular, the DPP fears that major business groups will move their business to China, given that costs are cheaper in China, and so making Taiwanese workers work more hours for less is the way to retain business groups keeping their business in Taiwan. One suspects that the Tsai administration’s lack of backbone in failing to stand up to business groups using its political authority has encouraged them to demand more from it.

Demonstrators lying down on the tracks at Taipei Main Station. Photo credit: CNA

While business groups cite that this is what they need to stay competitive, it was also the case that business groups sometimes used labor reforms last year as an excuse in order to raise prices. One also observes that through cost-cutting measure, this is reflective of the longstanding shortcoming of much Taiwanese businesses that they only really know how to increase profits by cutting costs—something which they now seek to do at the expense of the worker.

It is no coincidence that the DPP’s planned changes more or less undo the past thirty years of labor reforms, likely hoping to turn the clock back to a time in which labor protections were weak in Taiwan, and this attracted international businesses to Taiwan because of the low costs. Perhaps the DPP hopes vainly to compete with China in this way.

But in general, one suspects that this will not happen. Taiwanese workers already work the fourth longest working hours in the world and work the most while on vacation of any country in the world.

Both blue collar and white collar Taiwanese workers, in fact, would work less hours for higher pay if they went to China, or at least gain higher pay for the same amount of hours, and so one suspects that the outflow of Taiwanese workers to China or other locations would increase if the DPP passes it planned changes to the Labor Standards Act. Taiwan would become even more of a “ghost island”, that is, a place with such poor economic conditions that nobody wishes to live in Taiwan and instead immigrate elsewhere. One notes, for example, rising Chinese identification due to poor economic conditions in Taiwan as of late. And so worsening the conditions for Taiwanese workers in order to keep business groups happy and preventing them from shifting business or production to China is certainly not the way for Taiwan to compete with China.

Students attempting to block roads yesterday night. Photo credit: Brian Hioe

Likewise, the DPP’s fear of offending big business groups is ironic, since it points to how large business conglomerates dominate so much of Taiwan’s economy that they can influence economic policy. Terry Guo’s FoxConn/Hon Hai, for example, whose manufacturing is already mostly in China, constitutes 22% of Taiwan’s GDP, the same share of the GDP that Samsung comprises in South Korea. One can see how powerful business groups, whose business interests also extend to China, can thus influence policy.

In the case of powerful business groups which own media companies, this also has a severe effect on public perceptions of the Labor Standards Act or other policies. With smearing of demonstrations against the Labor Standards Act by media, one should keep in mind how major media outlets are owned by large business interests—on both sides of the political spectrum. The Liberty Times, the most widely circulated newspaper in Taiwan and the flagship media outlet of the pan-Green camp, is owned by the Union Bank group, for example, its founder having been Lin Rong-San, the seventh richest man in Taiwan when he was alive. The United Daily News, the flagship outlet of the pan-Blue camp, is owned by the KMT blueblood descendents of Wang Tiwu, a former member of the KMT Standing Committee.

This would be a way in which the DPP has been anything but democratic or progressive, in selling out the interests of Taiwanese workers to Taiwanese business interests. In this way, the DPP only differ from the KMT in being beholden to Taiwanese, rather than Chinese, business interests, as the party of the Taiwanese bourgeoisie rather than the transnational, cross-strait hopping bourgeoisie which constituted the basis of the KMT.

Photo credit: Brian Hioe

And while Taiwanese society has not yet risen up en masse against these planned changes, labor groups and the NPP notwithstanding, one generally suspects that this is because the law has not taken effect. The changes to the Labor Standards Act last year were already controversial, this outrage beginning after these changes took effect, but one expects public anger to be much worse regarding the present changes the DPP wishes to push through, given how much worse the present set of changes are. In this sense, labor groups and the NPP may be merely ahead of the curve; Taiwanese workers will need to experience the changes in the law for themselves.

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