by Brian Hioe

Photo Credit: 桃園市空服員職業工會/Facebook

RECENT LABOR ACTIONS in Taiwan touch on a number of issues, ranging from layoffs to gender equality.

The Taoyuan Flight Attendants’ Union demonstrated at the start of August in front of the Control Yuan, calling for an end to gendered uniform policy for female flight attendants. In particular, female flight attendants in Taiwan are required to wear pencil skirts, stockings, and high heels on the job, while pants and gender-neutral uniforms are not allowed.

The demonstration took place in front of the Control Yuan, seeing as the Control Yuan houses the National Human Rights Commission, Taiwan’s highest government institution on human rights. The protest highlighted that this policy violates principles of gender equality enshrined in the constitution.

Likewise, the protest called attention to the fact that airlines are clearly aware that the uniform for female flight attendants interferes with the job, seeing as flight attendants wear pants during training. Nevertheless, it was raised that airlines objectify female flight attendants and treat them as products, as seen in the design process for such uniforms.

The protest highlighted comparisons between Taiwan and South Korea, in that South Korea also has a National Human Rights Commission, which ruled requirements that female flight attendants wear skirts as part of their uniforms to be illegal in 2013. The protest brought up that the government frequently touts Taiwan to be a leader in gender equality and that international rankings of Taiwan’s human rights status often also frame Taiwan this way, but this proved to be a way in which Taiwan lagged behind South Korea.

The current Tsai administration has, in fact, called for the phasing out of gendered uniform requirements that require female students to wear skirts in the past. Nevertheless, the issue of flight attendant uniforms did not come up as part of this same discourse. The current call for changes takes place after increased labor organizing in the airline industry in past years, starting with the China Airlines strike in 2016, which was the first strike in Taiwan’s airline industry in history. The Taoyuan Flight Attendants’ Union played a major role in the strike, which was followed by strikes by pilots and other airline workers, as well as in other air carriers, such as EVA Air.

The protest also took place shortly before a controversy involving a TPP campaign event that involved dancers performing in sexualized flight attendant uniforms. The TFAU later criticized the TPP over this.

Livestream of the protest

In a similar timeframe, one has also seen plans for a strike among workers at Chemours, an American chemicals company that operates a factory in Guanyin District in Taoyuan. On July 28th, the company announced that it planned to close the factory on August 1st, and lay off 259 employees from September 30th.

In response, workers from the Taoyuan Confederation of Trade Union and Chemours’ union protested outside of the Ministry of Labor on August 1st, criticizing the company for the sudden announcement of a layoff. Talks between the union and the company management about severance and compensation had broken down the day prior, as a result of which the union has threatened a strike, which would affect Chemours’ ability to deliver its remaining products. At the demonstration, Ministry of Labor officials stated that they would help negotiate on both sides. The Chemours union has stated that it will strike if the company does not come up with a solution.

One notes that contention regarding Chemour could have larger implications going forward. Namely, union groups called for changes to laws about layoffs, so as to avoid mass layoffs with short notice by company managements in the future. Likewise, unions called for further discussion of how labor protections will be integrated into trade talks with the US. Indeed, the issue of how US companies treat factory workers in Taiwan is a historically sensitive one in light of significant labor cases such as that regarding RCA. The RCA case involved workers seeking compensation for the harm to their health from factory pollution and also involved an American-owned company. The case went on for decades and is still ongoing.

It is to be seen if this takes place, however. For one, if the Tsai administration were to take action on labor protections as part of trade talks, this would require significant public discussion of the issue, and the Tsai administration may be willing to compromise on this in order to secure a trade deal with the US. The aim of this would be in the hopes that stronger economic relations with the US would increase the political incentive for the US to militarily defend Taiwan against the threat of a Chinese invasion. Yet workers’ concerns may be sidelined in the course of this discussion.

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