EDITORIAL: Better unions can solve labor woes

Thu, Dec 07, 2017 - Page 8

The government is plowing ahead with amendments to the Labor Standards Act (勞動基準法), but making the same mistakes the last round of amendments sought to address. It needs to step back from the fray and rethink its approach, and ask how it can really achieve the goal of improving workers’ conditions while also satisfying employers’ genuine need for flexibility according to their specific needs.

The key phrase here is “according to their specific needs.”

The government and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) are tying themselves in knots trying to find a precise formulation for work hours and consecutive work days within a defined period, shift length and rest time between shifts. They are moving the goalposts to satisfy labor groups and workers’ interests, on the one hand, and employers and corporate interests, on the other.

In last year’s amended act, the government introduced a flexible five-day workweek, with “one mandatory day off and one rest day” system, which has proven unpopular with employers.

Now it has found itself having to tweak these changes, but judging from the way it handled the legislative review of proposed amendments this week, the DPP has apparently not learned that rushing through amendments can be dangerous.

The problem lies less with the speed at which the DPP is trying to push the changes through, and more with the underlying assumption that rules can be applied globally, or even broadly, across the sectors.

The current approach assumes that regulations can be universally applied to the duties and job responsibilities of every single worker in every single department in every single office of every company in a given sector.

Take catering, for example. Are the same rules to be applied to chefs as to wait staff? That does not even begin to make sense.

Generalizing about rules defining the rights of employers and employees alike pits the two against each other. Each is fighting for their respective interests, without being able to tailor the discussion to the precise nature of the job. It is no wonder the two sides are suspicious one another, with no satisfactory conclusion in sight.

Perhaps a better approach would be to facilitate negotiation mechanisms between employer and employees, on a company or sector level, within wide parameters devised by the government.

This, of course, would mean that employees would need organized representation. This would be in the form of an effective union.

It is one thing for the government to tell employers what they should be doing; it is another to enforce it. Too many workers are under pressure from their employers to work overtime or on their days off to complete tasks they were expected to have completed within legally defined work hours. These workers need stronger representation. Unions would be the answer.

A ridiculously small percentage of workers in Taiwan — just 7 percent — are represented by a union. If workers are to have more leverage in negotiating with employers, this will need to change.

In addition, it is worrying that the underlying principle informing the government’s stance is that more overtime is the key to improving workers’ conditions.

How about higher salaries and better benefits, so that workers do not feel the need for more overtime just to make ends meet? Employers might complain, but it seems a more equitable solution.

Instead of trying to tweak broad brushstroke regulations, the government should strengthen the negotiating position of workers by encouraging stronger unions and greater union membership.