Taiwan’s workers are overworked, yet the economy is still in a slump. Workers demanded an increase in the minimum wage, but the government still chose to heed the advice of economic and financial ministries and overturned a decision by the Council of Labor Affairs (CLA) to first increase hourly wages and then gradually increase monthly salaries.
Government officials justified this by saying that now is not the time to raise the minimum wage because the economy is so sluggish. However, will the economy really bounce back as a result of lowering workers’ pay and making them work overtime?
Assigning overtime and overworking employees actually do nothing to help boost productivity and they are also very unlikely to help improve the economy.
The way Taiwanese workers are overworked is not only evident from the hours they work, which always top international rankings, but also in the countless tragic stories of people becoming ill or dying because of overwork often reported by the media.
While these problems have caught the attention of the government, it has yet to take any effective action to counteract them.
If one delves further into the reasons why Taiwanese employees work overtime and are becoming overworked, one can see that these problems are mostly related to the structure of national industries, the government, the attitudes of employers and government policy.
In the past, Taiwan relied on labor-intensive industries to achieve growth and many people worked overtime.
The nation’s industrial structure is founded on small to medium-sized enterprises, with the heads of such operations also being workers who did everything they could to make money. When a boss of a company works his or her fingers to the bone for profit, it is only natural that they will expect the same from their employees.
However, Taiwan’s industries have since been transformed and labor-intensive output is no longer the main focus in high-tech industries. There is a pattern of companies either engaging in original-equipment manufacturing or in more ferocious international competition and this has an impact on workers, such as engineers and technicians, who must work even longer hours than other professions.
The government now places more emphasis on economic growth than business leaders and, although the CLA tried to do something about this, it basically ignored the root problem of long work hours and overwork among workers.
At the start of this year, medical staff hit the streets to protest how hospitals have become like sweatshops and the government is doing little to improve the situation. The hourly pay given to workers in convenience stores has also for a long time been extremely low — so low as to be exploitative — and the government has likewise shown no intention of offering any assistance.
Taiwanese work hard and are bound by the structure of industries and government. Working overtime has become the norm, even to the point where some die from working too much — a phenomenon often referred to by the Japanese term karoshi.
However, working overtime and having employees being overworked will not guarantee economic growth. The government and business leaders should instead change their policies and attitudes and discard the methods that have allowed them to exploit labor for so long. They should focus their attention on how to truly maximize productivity and give workers the respect they deserve.
Chiu Hei-yuan is a research fellow at Academia Sinica’s Institute of Sociology.
Translated by Drew Cameron