During a recent question-and-answer session on the legislative floor, Premier Jiang Yi-huah (江宜樺) used a popular catchphrase created by Japanese writer Haruki Murakami when asked to consider increasing the number of public holidays, saying he looked at the issue positively because people would enjoy “a little happiness in hand” with more work holidays.
Jiang then told lawmakers that he already had three proposals in mind. Without delay, officials at the Ministry of the Interior and Directorate-General of Personnel Administration soon gave several reasons to support Jiang’s stance.
The government’s response was expected when New Taipei City Mayor Eric Chu’s (朱立倫) criticism that the six-day Lunar New Year holiday this year was relatively short appeared to resonate with the public and prompted lawmakers to vie to make nine-day Lunar New Year holidays mandatory.
Leaving aside immediate opposition from leaders of business groups, who tend to bemoan the effects public holidays have on productivity and production, any increase in public holidays is attractive to most constituencies, which is why Jiang tried to get a step ahead of lawmakers by declaring his support for the issue with his three proposals.
This might enable the embattled premier to score some short-term political points, but it is actually of little help in improving the labor market in Taiwan, which is characterized by long working hours, low pay and informal working arrangements, each of which is a hindrance to “a little happiness in hand.”
The problem of long work hours alone no doubt deserves government attention more than the number of public holidays, especially for people who are not covered under regulations passed in 2001 mandating a five-day workweek, which apply to civil public servants, military personnel and teachers.
According to a report released by the then-Council of Labor Affairs, now the Ministry of Labor, in December last year, Taiwanese in 2012 worked an average of 2,141 hours, which was the third-highest annual average among 30 countries. The study did not include Hong Kong, which is also known for its extremely long working hours. Taiwan followed Mexico and Singapore, where people averaged 2,402 hours and 2,226 hours that year, respectively.
Taiwan’s average is much longer than the average of 72 countries — 1,915 hours per year — surveyed by UBS, a global financial service firm, and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) average of 1,776 hours.
Taiwan is among the few Asian countries lacking a mandatory five-day workweek across all sectors, as set out in the “Forty-Hour Week Convention” adopted by the International Labor Organization in 1935.
The Directorate-General of Budget, Accounting and Statistics has found that about 90 percent of employees worked more than 40 hours a week in 2012 and about 10 percent worked more than 50 hours a week that year.
Along with the 2001 implementation of the five-day workweek in certain sectors, the then-revised Labor Standards Act (勞動基準法) reduced regular work hours to 84 hours every two weeks, compared with the original 48 hours a week provision.
What does “a little happiness in hand” mean?
Murakami, a marathon runner, once suggested: “a cold beer after a hard workout.”
“If we don’t have this kind of a little happiness, life would be like a dry, arid desert,” Murakami said.
A little happiness in hand could be that simple.
In work-hour rankings, Taiwan was followed by South Korea, with an average of 2,090 annual work hours, according to the labor ministry study.
Same difference? However, it is worth noting that South Korea has the fastest-declining work hours in the OECD. Since 1991, 571 hours have been trimmed.
During the same period, there was a reduction of just 220 hours in Taiwan.
The government could expect more of itself.
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