Even before the new government takes office, its economic policies have come under careful scrutiny, winning praise from investors and businesses but causing concern among advocates of workers’ rights.
In particular, plans for Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport were not only eagerly welcomed by the business community, but also won strong endorsement across party lines when first proposed in the legislature last October. But as the proposal to create an “Airport City” that became part of Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) and Vincent Siew’s (蕭萬長) “i-Taiwan12 projects” election platform develops, questions are being raised about its implementation.
On Labor Day, nonprofit groups gathered outside the legislature to highlight potential violations of workers’ rights in conjunction with the project. A major concern is that the bill proposed to create and govern the zone would exclude workers on the project from the Labor Standards Law (勞動基準法). Under the proposal, the airport and surrounding areas would become a special administrative zone with a free-trade port and tax breaks to attract businesses.
However, as that zone would be placed under the oversight of a board of directors, the Labor Rights Association is concerned about the implications for labor laws. Under the bill, it argues, the economic zone would fall outside the authority of labor laws regulating the treatment of foreign workers. That would open the door to any number of potential violations, such as underpayment and forced or unpaid overtime.
The problems labor rights activists highlighted are significant, but can be easily addressed in the bill by removing any ambiguity. There should be no doubt that every worker in this country will be afforded equal rights to limited working hours, adequate pay and recourse to the law in the case of broken contracts or other infringements.
Where concerns of abuses of the nation’s improving human rights record are raised, legislators and the incoming Cabinet have every responsibility to respond by assessing their legitimacy and taking measures to prevent such violations.
The progress that has been made on labor rights in Taiwan has come gradually and there is still much to be done. As long as the nation moves in the right direction, however, it can be proud of the principles it is pursuing.
If, on the other hand, the legislation for this project excludes workers from the protections that should be afforded them, it would compromise those ideals. That is a sacrifice no democracy can make without discrediting itself.
Also last week, the legislature passed an amendment preventing employers from abandoning their obligations to foreign workers in times of financial difficulty. Lawmakers should continue to show their concern for the rights of domestic and foreign workers alike by confronting the criticism leveled at the airport zone proposal.
While on March 22 many voters appear to have cast their ballots with their finances in mind, it would be underestimating the average voter to think he or she would do so at the expense of the rights this country has worked so hard to protect.