The coronavirus outbreak is devastating Taiwan’s tourism industry, despite the relatively low number of confirmed infections. As tour operators in Taiwan are dealing with business interruption, local workers have become more vulnerable to unfair employment practices.

To alleviate the impact of travel cancellations, the Ministry of Transportation and Communications (MOTC) has proposed to subsidize tour agencies and offer training programs. While the tourism sector awaits financial rescue, some travel agencies have asked their employees to take unpaid leave without government authorization.

Kane Chang, a former administrative staff at a local tour agency, told The News Lens that her company notified her of unpaid leave of absence at the end of January. Her managers explained that they would not file a request with the labor department because it would result in a massive layoff.

“The labor department told me a different story,” Chang said. “If our company got government approval for unpaid leave, we would be entitled to a minimum monthly salary, but our boss is unwilling to bear the costs.”

When a company offers employees unpaid leave or reduced work hours due to significant economic impact, it is responsible for paying each person a minimum salary (NT$23,800 per month), according to the Labor Standards Act.

The Ministry of Labor has approved an NT$4.12 billion budget on March 5 to subsidize furloughed or dismissed workers impacted by the coronavirus outbreak. Workers on unpaid leave can receive financial subsidies up to NT$11,000 per month for three to six months.

Chang eventually asked to be laid off early February in order to apply for unemployment benefits. She has been on a job hunt ever since, but the current travel job market is not in her favor. "If we don't do something for ourselves now, the government will only listen to the capital owners, and we will only keep being exploited as workers," Chang said.

Winnie Lu, 26, a travel agency staff who has requested a pseudonym for anonymity, said that her company asked all employees to sign a document agreeing to take four days of unpaid leave every month. The company management did not return any countersigned copy to the employees as required by law, Lu said.

“Our company asked us to keep quiet about the unpaid leave to avoid stirring up customer fears and causing further business interruption,” Lu told The News Lens.

Local tour agencies are not alone in this exploitative practice, Lu said, European tour operators based in Taipei have also allegedly put their employees on partial unpaid leave.

“Our workload is not any less. We still have to deal with the cancellations and follow-ups,” she said. “If my coworker takes a day off, then my workload that day is doubled.”

Ho Hung-cheng (何洪丞), the secretary director of the Taipei’s Department of Labor, said both employers and employees must agree upon any pay reduction or leave of absence. By law, businesses should consult their workers and submit an official request to the labor department. The Ministry of Labor also encourages employees to report illegal labor practices to their local department of labor.

As of March 5, the Taipei Department of Labor has received 65 requests for reduced work hours from tourism businesses and restaurants, with about 1,700 workers affected.

The growing impact of the coronavirus leaves the tourism industry scrambling to survive. “It’s understandable for companies to enforce unpaid leaves because they’re not making any profits,” Lu said. “But this should be done legally.”

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TNL Editor: Jeremy Van der Haegen (@thenewslensintl)

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