During the recent Sunflower movement against the government’s handling of the cross-strait service trade pact, many “democracy lectures” were held on the streets around the Legislative Yuan by students, professors and even business owners.
Among them was 44-year-old Taiwan Association for Victims of Occupational Injuries secretary-general Huang Hsiao-ling (黃小陵), who made daily speeches to the crowd about the nation’s working environment and how its labor environment might face great changes if the pact is signed.
Huang has devoted herself to various social and labor movements over the past 20 years, fighting for the basic rights of blue-collar workers, especially in the neglected area of workplace injuries.
She often helps workers communicate with their employers or file petitions to the Council of Labor Affairs (now the Ministry of Labor), and has helped hundreds of workers gain their deserved rights.
About 10 years ago, cases of “death from overwork” began making headlines, stirring fear among the public and prompting many whose family members may have died of overwork to ask the association for help, she said.
That inspired her to learn more about issues concerning occupational health and workplace risks, and she started challenging the labor council on these issues. The council eventually included death from overwork as a kind of occupational disease. It recently also listed depression as a type of occupational disease. Both in part were the results of Huang and the association’s long-term efforts.
Huang was the daughter of a technician and a worker at a garment factory.
She said she remembers her parents fighting over rent, tuition fees and the cost of living.
“I have always brought these family experiences with me as I grew up,” Huang said.
She later discovered that many blue-collar workers like her parents faced the same problems — long working hours, low salaries, heavy pressure, not understanding their rights and financial difficulties raising a family.
“This is a problem of class struggle, the labor system and of course a political problem,” she said.
Huang began devoting herself to the labor movement after she graduated from university, first working at the Federation of Taiwan Warehousing and Transportation Union in Keelung for more than 10 years, where she learned about the working conditions of drivers — often driving container trucks on the freeway for long hours, tired and at high risk for accidents, and sometimes having to sleep for an entire day after work.
The work conditions of drivers are usually very poor, and sometimes cases of death from overwork occur, Huang said.
There was the case of a nearly 60-year-old driver who was diagnosed with a stroke after he felt very uncomfortable while driving on the freeway, she said.
It took about a a year before the company accepted his demand for compensation for occupational injury, she said, adding that some of the cases she worked on took even longer, like two or three years.
“There is still a long way to go to improve workers’ rights and work environments in Taiwan,” she said.
Three years ago, Huang ran for election as a legislator in Keelung and asked for input from voters. She signed a contract with the voters, and pre-signed a resignation letter, promising that: “If I do not fulfill my promises to you, then my resignation letter will become valid, and you would not have to bother recalling me.”