The latest amendment to the Labor Standards Act (勞動基準法) on Monday cleared a critical legislative committee review amid heated opposition, but the repercussions from the contentious legislative proceedings and the proposed changes to working conditions might not have an overly negative effect on the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).
The bill would modify the “one fixed day off and one flexible rest day” five-day workweek scheme by exempting some industries from the maximum of six consecutive working days and from increasing the minimum rest time between shifts from eight to 11 hours.
It would also raise maximum monthly overtime hours from 46 to 54, but cap the three-month total at 138 hours.
The Executive Yuan has claimed that the measures, proposed to address wage stagnation and industrial workloads, would increase work hour flexibility and ensure workers’ “right to overtime,” allowing them to earn extra income and businesses to meet seasonal staffing needs.
However, they have been criticized as “backward legislation” by labor rights advocates, who have protested against the amendment since it was announced on Nov. 9.
Social Democratic Party convener Fan Yun (范雲) said the overtime flexibility the amendment offers would perpetuate, if not worsen, the nation’s long-hours, low-salary work conditions, a predicament the DPP pledged to improve.
As only 7 percent of the nation’s workers are represented by a union, such flexibility could be damaging to those who are unrepresented, because there is little legal protection to allow them to refuse to work overtime, which would expose workers to the health risks associated with overwork, Fan said.
The amendment would turn the act into a “business flexibility act,” with workers asked to “boost the economy” by working overtime, she said.
National Taiwan University politics professor Hsin Ping-lung (辛炳隆) said that in extreme cases, the amendment’s easing of overtime rules, coupled with an existing four-week flexible work schedule, could result in workers being legally asked to work a maximum of 24 consecutive days.
The measures are an “overcorrection” of the “one fixed day off and one flexible rest day” scheme that creates more flexibility than business groups have asked for, Hsin said.
The bill aims to increase workers’ overtime income by raising the monthly overtime cap and the maximum number of consecutive work days, which can be helpful in view of the nation’s persistent wage stagnation, he said.
However, some of the proposed articles were apparently not designed for that purpose, but rather for employers to cut costs, he added, citing the proposed scrapping of a rule that gives workers four hours of overtime pay for working between one and four hours on rest days.
The legislation fails to create a mechanism to protect workers from being overworked, or to ensure meaningful employer-employee negotiations, Hsin said, adding that it does not include punishment for businesses that refuse to negotiate with their workers.
National Taiwan Normal University politics professor Fan Shih-ping (范世平) said that opposition to the amendment would have short-term implications for the DPP, but long-term ramifications are unlikely.
Public opinion on the measures is divided across generational, occupational and regional lines, as younger, white-collar and urban voters are more likely to oppose the amendment than their older, blue-collar and rural counterparts, Fan Shih-ping said.
“Due to the complexity of the issue, it is unlikely that a homogenous public sentiment can be formed as was the case with the Sunflower movement [in 2014],” he said.
“Public division over the issue has prevented labor groups from successfully launching large-scale protests,” he added, suggesting that the legislation, while mired in criticism, would not have a lasting impact on the DPP.
The Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and the New Power Party (NPP), which have led the opposition in the legislature, have a limited ability to reap the electoral benefits from their confrontation with the DPP, Fang Shih-ping said.
Labor groups and young people have no intention of working with the KMT, whose close affiliation with interest groups belies the party’s opposition to the amendment, he said.
The NPP, which received considerable media attention after NPP Legislator Hsu Yung-ming (徐永明) single-handedly filibustered a committee meeting to block a review of the bill, will likely have difficulty in converting that exposure into actual votes, because the general public is indifferent to legislative proceedings, he added.
Taiwanese Public Opinion Foundation chairman You Ying-lung (游盈隆) said the amendment would only have a limited effect on the DPP’s approval rating.
More than half of respondents to the foundation’s past four surveys supported the government’s efforts to modify the “one fixed day off and one flexible rest day” scheme, You said.
Even among those younger than 30 — the demographic that has registered the greatest opposition to the legislation among all age groups — more than 50 percent of respondents wanted the scheme to be amended, he added.
“Despite a visible generational difference, there is no indication of an obvious fall in the DPP’s approval rating. Its disapproval rating might increase, but the approval rating should only increase,” because the amendment is in line with the public’s expectations, You said.
Protests against the legislation have been led by labor rights advocate inspired by a more progressive and leftist philosophy, but they might not be representative of the public, he said.
Support for the KMT and the NPP remains at a low level, and the KMT, whose supporters generally approve of amending the workweek scheme, is executing a political maneuver that apparently runs contrary to its support base and is unlikely to win over labor groups, despite the opposition it has led, he added.
The “one fixed day off and one flexible rest day” scheme, with a leave and overtime system designed to limit work hours, has proved to be the DPP administration’s single most unpopular policy, and it seems that it is convinced, and arguably correct, that overtime is the only immediate solution.
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