Several factories closed down 16 years ago without providing severance pay or pensions to their workers. After workers defending their rights battled their employers, unsuccessfully, the Council of Labor Affairs (CLA) appropriated money from its Employment Stability Fund to pay them what they were owed — until their employers would do so.
Now President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) government claims that the payouts were just loans and has filed lawsuits against the workers to reclaim the money. This is not much different from the attitude of an employer who says that “I am just exploiting workers a little.” In a move rarely seen elsewhere in the world, the council, an organization meant to represent workers’ interests, is now suing laid-off workers, who are once again taking to the streets.
The government should have written off the “debts” these workers owe based on the fact that the funds were considered their severance pay and pensions. However, the Ma administration does not care about the workers’ rights and instead demands that these several hundred people repay the money — which amounts to more than NT$300 million (about US$10.2 million). The demands have forced the workers back out onto the streets, blocking trains and launching a hunger strike, thereby putting their lives on the line to fight the government’s demands.
The huge social costs created by this abuse of workers’ rights are a clear reflection of the incompetence of the Ma administration.
Before these laid-off workers paralyzed the Taipei Railway Station in early February, the council proposed a “relief plan” for old, poor and disabled among them, completely ignoring the fact that workers’ rights have nothing to do with whether they are old, poor or disabled.
Goaded by the council’s offer, some workers caused a sensation by lying down on the station’s tracks on Feb. 5.
Despite this, the Ma administration has continued to allow the council to pretend that it is sincere about negotiating with workers by proposing its relief plan out of “charity.”
When some of the workers held a hunger strike in front of the council’s headquarters between April 28 and Monday, Council of Labor Affairs Minister Pan Shih-wei (潘世偉) never visited them. The council even locked its doors and refused to allow the protestors to use its restrooms. Meanwhile, it issued a shameless press release, claiming that it would do its best to negotiate with the workers and take care of them. What a shame.
The press release even included the workers who were staging a protest at a public hearing held by the council among those who attended the hearing and accepted the relief plan.
There is a word for using such tricks to confuse the public: deception.
In addition, during the hunger strike, the council’s local employment service stations sent representatives to the homes of the hunger strikers and used threats of a lawsuit to intimidate their families into accepting the relief plan.
Council staff said that if the workers did not apply for the new plan immediately, they would have to repay their loans to the council in the future, with interest. This is a mixture of harassment and threats.
The laid-off workers belonged to the first generation of workers who created Taiwan’s economic miracle, transforming the nation from an agricultural society into an industrial one. Did they benefit from this economic development? Have today’s workers benefited from it?
Lu Chyi-horng is a consultant and economic researcher at the Taoyuan County Industrial General Union.
Translated by Eddy Chang