OPINION: Taiwan or Vietnam – Which Has Weaker Labor Standards?

OPINION: Taiwan or Vietnam – Which Has Weaker Labor Standards?
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Wang Hong-ren argues that Taiwan's labor laws are regressing below those of its southern neighbor.

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Tsai Ing-wen's (蔡英文) Cabinet last month revised the Labor Standards Act on the grounds of “giving more flexibility to employees and employers” in terms of working hours. It is obvious, however, that this was only intended to give more flexibility to employers.

Under their logic, these new rules will push forward an economic model of long hours and low wages in order to save some businesses from their death throes. This represents a continuation of the same labor-punishing policies of previous administrations. One must wonder if people really want lower wages and more "flexible" working hours in order to compete with nations like Vietnam, whose labor conditions are already better than Taiwan’s in some aspects.

Who has more miserable laborers, Taiwan or Vietnam? It is shameful to even ask the question, as Taiwan should theoretically be so far ahead.

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Credit: Wang Hong-ren

Vietnamese workers can be compelled to work up to six days per week, eight hours per day with 11 national holidays. Including overtime hours, this is 2,616 - 2,716 hours per year, compared to 2,552 hours for Taiwan. After one year of work at a company, there is hardly any difference between the two countries: the maximum is 2,520-2,620 hours in Vietnam and 2,496 in Taiwan.

Vietnam has made even more progress in terms of maternity leave; Vietnamese workers get six months of maternity leave and can request more, though anything extra would be unpaid.

Protecting workers vs. licking the ass of capital

Under the regulations of the Vietnamese government, new companies must allow for the establishment of a labor union within three months in order to safeguard the rights of workers. If the company obstructs this process, the government will step in and help set up a union. Vietnamese workers will often demand improvements or go on strike if the company compels workers to do unreasonable physical labor for low wages. There are so many things holding back collective bargaining in Taiwan – though the China Airlines strike last year brought about some improved conditions, employees today are still left fighting over scraps.

Regarding the revisions to the Labor Standards Act, Premier William Lai (賴清德) even boasted, “Those who want overtime can work overtime, but those who don’t want to work won’t be forced to.” If one person on a production line wants to work overtime, will the others be allowed to rest? Who is actually enthusiastic about working overtime?

Taiwanese business executives in Vietnam always grumble that Vietnamese are lazy and don’t want to work, saying that Taiwanese workers cheerfully stay late. But it’s not a question of wanting to stay late – with such low salaries, workers have no choice. The government’s response to the problem of low wages is to let people work longer hours, but this merely transforms the issue of unlivable income into an issue of being forced to work.

In the past few decades, Taiwanese businesses have set up factories in Vietnam. They became accustomed to a certain type of labor relationship, worked hard to improve relations between labor and capital and established methods to communicate with workers. Taiwanese-owned factories in Vietnam have a labor union, shouldn’t this be a goal at home?

Taiwan is still using the same 40-year-old system of labor relations from the martial law era. How can Taiwan catch up with with places like South Korea while competing against countries like Vietnam? Taiwan had better learn from others and get out of this trap.

Wang Hong-ren teaches in the Department of Sociology, Sun Yat-sen University. This piece was originally published in Taiwan Street Corner. An unabridged Chinese-language version can be found here.

TNL Editor: Morley J Weston

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