[ LETTERS ]

Sat, Oct 01, 2016 - Page 8

Work-life balance

The debate over when local and central governments should declare cancelation of work and classes for typhoons is ostensibly about who is responsible for making the call to protect citizens’ lives.

A concurrent, but connected, labor laws debate is over how many and which national holidays should be declared and observed.

Recent efforts by President Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) administration to clarify this have been largely in vain, with various groups upset that too many or too few holidays are recognized or mandated.

There is an argument that the government should not involve itself with declaring or mandating which days are national holidays, leaving the decision largely to individuals and employers.

On the other hand, it is very clear that if the government did not mandate national holidays for more than a handful of days a year, too many employers would take advantage of this to pressure their employees into working as many days as possible, as well as denying or restricting requests for leave. There are at least two historical factors at play in such a dynamic.

First, traditionally Taiwan’s economy was dominated by agriculture and later manufacturing. For factory owners, the quality of work, especially in fairly simple manufacturing, was a distant second to the quantity of work.

The “science” of ergonomics that emerged after the Ford production line became commonplace reduced employees to production units supplying time to produce a calculated quantity of output.

Employees were not people, but disposable and easily replaceable components of the production line. Mechanization only reinforced this philosophy of base-value extraction.

For example, today McDonald’s restaurants, amongst many others, are built and run upon this model, regardless of extensive rebranding to convince consumers otherwise.

In Taiwan, many employers maintain a similar attitude toward their staff and their business model, hence the routine complaints that the government is offering too many national holidays and that production is hurt when typhoon days are declared, but the weather turns out to be less severe than anticipated.

Underlying these complaints is the assumption that work quantity is the only valuable metric.

Yet Taiwan’s economy has changed. It is now much more service-based than agricultural or manufacturing. In service industries, work quality is highly correlated with customer satisfaction, which feeds back into marketing and branding.

Poor service leads to poor customer satisfaction and negates investment in marketing and branding. For a nation where reputation can mean the difference between a business thriving or collapsing overnight, one might think Taiwanese service companies would be focused on constant training and staff education to improve work quality.

Sadly, this is not the case. Even in the service industry, quantity still trumps quality as the most important trait in an employee.

Second, during the Japanese and Republic of China occupation eras, national holidays were used as a crude instrument of nation building. This process was reinforced by schools, most of which functioned as mechanisms for instilling unquestioning respect for authority and discipline, both necessary for filling factories and fields with a compliant workforce.

If workers were given a day off, it was used as an opportunity to marshal people to observe either obedience, social conformity, fealty, or political hagiography. To this day, Taiwan continues to “celebrate” Oct. 10 as a national holiday marking the “birth of the nation” in addition to other holidays that pay homage to Chinese historical figures largely unrelated to Taiwan, such as Sun Yat-sen (孫逸仙) and Confucius (孔子).

It was not that long ago that many Taiwanese were mandated to annually mourn and remember perhaps the most brutal foreign overlord the nation has ever seen: Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石).

Today, with a slow process of decolonization accompanying democratic transition, a number of new holidays have been introduced, replacing those which have lost relevance or recognition.

The most notable of these is the 228 Incident. In contrast, one holiday that is slowly fading into obscurity is “Teachers’ Day,” or more accurately “Confucius Day,” soon to join “Constitution Day” in the annals of historical obscurity.

Some holidays have been adopted from abroad, such as US’ “May Day.” What seems apparent is that the current system for national holidays is somewhat confusing.

Further complicating matters, Taiwanese are still adjusting to the concept of a five day workweek, first introduced by former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁).

When I came to Taiwan to teach English language, my employer proudly said that he was graciously offering me six days holiday a month. I was gratified, then confused, and finally indignant when it became clear that by “holidays” he meant I had half the day on Saturday and the full day on Sunday off. I had wrongly assumed my contract stated the working hours that were the limit of my obligations. To him, all my time, day and night, seven days a week, belonged to school and it was by his generosity that I would be given time off.

That was my first insight into the mentality of some employers — they were to be regarded as minor deities demanding an employee’s unquestioning gratitude and loyalty.

Employment was their charity, salaries a necessary, but burdensome transaction. Thankfully, much has changed, largely owing to successive governments pushing against the factory mentality.

Unfortunately, it has also landed the government with the burden of mandating uniform national holidays in an economy and culture that is not productively uniform.

As more businesses open for 24 hours, the picture becomes more complex and difficult to administer.

Whatever system the government decides to implement it needs to be consistent, simple, easy to understand and administer and built upon the concept of quality of life and work, rather than just quantity.

It will remain the government’s responsibility until cultural values shift in such a way that employers can be trusted to not exploit their workforce for marginal profits, and then stories of people hurt or killed traveling to or from work or school on typhoon days might become a thing of the past.

When businesses regard protecting the lives and health of their employees as more than just an inconvenience then local and central governments would not have to decide when people take time off, for safety or otherwise.

Ben Goren

Taipei

Disaster reporting a disaster

First, I would like to express my deep concern and utmost sympathy for my Taiwanese friends who were affected by Typhoon Megi. The harrowing scenes depicted in the media during the last few days has caused me deep anxiety, despite the fact that I do not live there.

Reading and watching online in-depth reporting on the typhoon by Taiwanese media, it is clear that the way disasters are reported in Taiwan is quite different from Japan.

In Japan, reporting on disasters is mainly carried out by the national broadcaster, NHK. The primary focus of is not to show alarming or shocking imagery.

Instead, the priority is saving lives by providing reliable and prompt information, while issuing appeals for the public to evacuate disaster areas in order to ensure their safety.

In contrast, Taiwan’s mainstream media continually give prominence to terrifying imagery, while safety information on disaster avoidance is severely lacking.

Reporting on the disaster is even interrupted to give airtime to totally unrelated celebrity and entertainment gossip — is this really the most pressing information during a time of serious national disaster?

Worse yet, when the typhoon enveloped the nation in the early hours of Wednesday morning, every television news station in Taiwan was showing repeat footage, on a loop, from Tuesday evening.

There was no way to get up-to-date, accurate information and the public had to wait until 6am for live broadcasts to resume. As a result, people waiting anxiously for further information on the disaster — including crucial information on how to stay safe and keep out of danger — were kept completely in the dark for many hours.

It amounted to a total abrogation of the media’s responsibilities during a time of national disaster.

The conditions in Taiwan and Japan are clearly different and each country has a different media culture.

Nevertheless, while Taiwan’s media can indulge in tabloid gossip during normal times, if it so wishes, in its reporting on national disasters it would really benefit from studying Japanese media reporting style.

It is hoped that those in Taiwan’s media circles can come together and reflect upon this issue so that reporting during future disasters is improved for the benefit and safety of all.

Miyagi Eiji

Japan

Tyhoon make-up days

As in the past, there has been a clamor of angry protest following the typhoon over local governments’ decisions to declare only a half-day typhoon day on Tuesday.

If people continue to sound off over typhoon days, one worries about the nation’s global competitiveness.

Of course, you would have to have a heart of stone not to feel moved by images of a grandmother and child blown over on a scooter by strong winds, or elementary-school children sheltering from gale-force winds, but the decisions to issue a half-day off were made based on forecasts and predicted landfall times provided by the Central Weather Bureau the night prior.

It is difficult for forecasters to accurately predict the strength and location of a typhoon ahead of time. Even at a county and city level, timings and degrees of intensity can differ. Therefore, the question must be asked, what is the value of this data?

It has previously been suggested that if a typhoon is confirmed to make landfall, then a typhoon day should automatically be issued. If the typhoon does not hit, then the day can be made up at a later date. I would go further: whether or not a typhoon day is erroneously called, the lost day should still be made up. This would keep business losses to a minimum, remove the public expectation of getting something for nothing and prevent the nation from coming to a standstill.

If the government is able to issue a simple order to achieve this, then it should do so. If it requires the attention of the legislature, then pan-green legislators sitting on a thin majority should move fast to push it through.

Chang Shih-hsien

Taipei