Wed, Dec 07, 2011 - Page 8 News List

Despair in store for Taiwan’s workers

By Chang Feng-yi 張烽益

At a time when workers are worried about being forced to take leave without pay, the government lobbed a bomb into the labor market, saying it is thinking about legalizing the practice. Capitalists have long gotten away with this tactic although the practice is in violation of the labor law. Now the government is even trying to take away that safeguard.

How have capitalists been able to get away with treating labor laws as if they do not exist?

For these laws to be implemented properly, the government needs to have both the resolve and the manpower to enforce them. Unfortunately, Taiwan has Premier Wu Den-yih (吳敦義), who has said that whoever invented unpaid leave deserves a Nobel prize, and President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), who half-heartedly pleaded with the heads of the companies at the Hsinchu Science Park not to violate the law.

Having the government say it will legislate the practice of unpaid leave is just sugarcoating a very bitter pill that Taiwanese workers are being made to swallow.”

Codifying the practice into law will not prevent companies from abusing unpaid leave, which goes against the very spirit of the labor law and will add to workers’ worries over job security, like they did during the financial crisis of 2008 and 2009.

What is it about legalizing unpaid leave that has drawn strong opposition from labor rights groups?

Everlight Electronics, a leading LED manufacturer, in October attempted to get its employees to take unpaid leave. Although the government intervened and persuaded it to cancel the plan, this incident demonstrated one thing: Capitalists in this country — who should be entirely responsible for their companies’ operating costs — are quite prepared to let their own employees shoulder the burden when the going gets tough.

If it had not been for the government’s intervention, the heads of companies nationwide would have followed suit and that would have opened the floodgates: Everyone would be calling on their workers to take unpaid leave. It is precisely for this reason that unpaid leave is illegal.

The labor law includes provisions for extending unemployment benefits and wage subsidies, but the qualifying thresholds are set so high that workers know they have little chance of ever achieving them.

After 2008, the Council of Labor Affairs also offered a cumulative salary subsidy as an incentive to keep workers in unpopular jobs, but regulations prohibiting the abuse of unpaid leave were still not enforced.

Clearly, the government was satisfied that the labor market would not revisit the woes of the 2008 financial crisis and took a rather indifferent attitude when it came to the difficulties faced by workers in this country. The result is a feeling of fear and hopelessness among workers.

How long are workers to be subjected to the arbitrary application of labor regulations by capitalists and the government’s indifference to addressing the problem?

Working conditions in the country are getting worse by the day: Working hours are going up, not down, and wages have stagnated and are even starting to fall. All of this is a result of the government being soft on big business and corporate interests.

If Ma fails to come up with an effective economic stimulus package or refuses to address workers’ concerns, things are going to be very tough for average Taiwanese in the future.

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