Although Taiwanese workers are used to pie-in-the-sky labor policies, it is still frustrating that they remain out of reach. Rather than continuing to call on employers to raise salaries, the government should set an example by immediately introducing a five-day work week, a policy that has been delayed for a decade.
The International Labour Organization capped working hours at 40 hours a week in the international “Forty-Hour Week Convention” in 1935, 76 years ago. The world’s advanced economies have maintained a five-day work week policy for years, and even Taiwan’s rapidly growing neighbors China and South Korea have capped legal working hours at 40 hours a week.
Back in 2000, Taiwanese workers launched a working hour revolution, which led to the introduction of 84 work hours a fortnight beginning in 2001, although they failed to achieve the goal of a five-day workweek.
According to data from the US Department of Labor, the hourly cost of hiring a worker in Taiwan’s manufacturing sector was only US$8.15 an hour in 2007.
This places Taiwan second from the bottom among the 21 industrialized countries in the survey. Mexico was the only country where labor was cheaper than in Taiwan. The cost of hiring a Taiwanese worker was only about half that of a Japanese or Hong Kong worker. From 1997 to 2007, Taiwan’s annual hourly wage grew a mere 1.4 percent, once again second to last, only ahead of Japan.
The US data also showed that before Taiwan reduced its working hours, its unit labor cost (ULC) in the manufacturing sector rose 0.2 percent from 1990 to 2000. After the cuts, the ULC dropped 3.8 percent from 2000 to 2007 and another 7.4 percent from 2008 to 2009. A comparison with the world’s 16 major industrialized countries shows that Taiwan’s ULC after 2000 is the lowest among all countries surveyed. Clearly, cutting the number of working hours did not raise labor costs as the industrial sector likes to claim.
Data from the Council of Labor Affairs show that about 60 percent of Taiwanese workers in the private sector work five days a week, enjoying two days off in accordance with company regulations. A look at the companies based on their size shows that 46.92 percent of workers in companies with 29 or fewer employees have two days off a week. In companies with 500 workers or more, more than 70 percent of all workers have two days off.
The implementation of a five-day work week policy can boost the leisure industry, increase economic mobility and allow workers to create a balance between work life and family life. It will also allow workers to recharge their batteries and make a greater contribution to their companies, reduce workplace fatigue and promote industrial upgrading — not to mention that it might boost the birth rate and therefore the future labor force.
During his election campaign in 2008, President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) pledged to reduce the number of working hours and to promote a balance between work and family. After more than three years in office, he has presented no such concrete plans, although the time is ripe for the nation to implement such a policy.
Since it is the right thing to do, why not launch it in the last six months of his presidency?
The five-day work week has already been delayed for 10 years. Will Taiwan’s workers have to continue lagging behind and wait another 10 long years?
Abbie Shih is the deputy chief of the policy department of Taiwan Confederation of Trade Unions.
Translated by Eddy Chang
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