“Do they only have the employers’ interests at heart?” – Taipei City Confederation of Trade Unions Director Cheng Ya-hui

Labor rights organizations and union members gathered outside the Legislative Yuan from Monday, Jan. 8, as lawmakers commenced cross-party negotiations over the contested revisions to the Labor Standards Act (LSA). The protests continued through today and are set to run "indefinitely" in line with continuing negotiations over the laws that are set to run until at least Wednesday.

Protesters have one plea: for the ruling and majority Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) to hold back passing draft amendments that include controversial changes that will allow companies to compel employees to work up to 12 days in a row, as well as reduce their minimum rest time between shifts from 11 hours to eight. Activists contend this would worsen already unfavorable working conditions. The current rule requires one mandatory day off in any seven-day period.


Credit: Chao TIng-yu

Protestors hold a sign reading, "Take back the bad regulations" at a protest on Jan. 8, 2017.

Early in the day, Taipei City Confederation of Trade Unions Director Cheng Ya-hui (鄭雅慧), citing the unfavorable revisions, claimed that President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) and Premier William Lai (賴清德) were not listening to the voices of workers, experts and scholars.

“Do they only have the employers’ interests at heart?” she asked.

In the morning, scuffles broke out between protesters and police officers as the former pushed against the law enforcement. Later on in the afternoon, as lawmakers prepared to begin negotiations over the draft amendment, the protesters took to the streets and marched around the vicinity of the Legislative Yuan despite heavy rain and cold.

Opposition Kuomintang (KMT) lawmakers such as Lin Wei-chou (林維洲), Huang Chao-shun (黃昭順) and Tseng Ming-chung (曾銘宗) stepped out from the Legislative Yuan into the rain on Qingdao East Road to speak with protesters in the early evening. On Tuesday morning, KMT legislators continued to voice opposition to the laws within the chamber, donning flight jacket uniforms in a show of solidarity with labor groups.

KMT legislators Legislative Yuan workers uniforms

Credit: Chen Yi-min (陳宜民)

KMT legislators sit cross-legged sporting flight jacket uniforms to demonstrate their opposition to the passage of the most recent round of labor law amendments. Their headbands read, 'Labor rights are dead, shame on democracy.'

Huang said cross-party negotiations are still ongoing, and that each amendment will likely see hours of negotiations late into the night. Lin said that the KMT is in clear opposition to relaxing rules mandating one day off in any seven-day period and shortening of rest time between shifts. He said they will do their best to block the their passage.

A protester broke rank and told the lawmakers that there shouldn’t be any revisions made at all, saying that they should maintain the status quo instead. He shouted, “Why waste taxpayers’ money by making worse revisions?” Others in opposition to the current round of amendments have pointed out that there has not yet been time for the most recent changes — introduced in November 2016 — to be assessed.

Taoyuan Confederation of Trade Unions Secretary General Yeh Jin-yu (葉瑾瑜) lambasted the ruling DPP government for employing excessive numbers of police officers, wire barriers and barricades to block the protesters from nearing the Legislative Yuan. “How will the lawmakers hear our pleas?” Yeh asked.

Chen Hsin-hsing (陳信行), a member of the Taiwan Higher Education Union and one of the protest’s organizers, told The News Lens by phone that he, along with other unions, hoped to raise awareness of labor rights in the long-term through their protests and to create a stronger structure for union organizations.

He said that 93 percent of labor workers in Taiwan are not affiliated with labor unions. Labor activists understand that relying solely on the government to protect labor rights is unfeasible, he said, adding, “Only having unions in place will allow more protections for workers.”

Chen also said that they hoped the government would revise the act to its form prior before the Tsai administration, specifically returning the seven national holidays that they had removed in a previous revision of the LSA.

A protester surnamed Chang said in his field of work in the internet communications industry, there are no union groups that could negotiate terms with employers.

“All terms are decided by the employers,” he said, adding that under such conditions, workers are more likely to be asked to work overtime. The amendment that was the biggest problem in his field of work is the relaxation of resting time between shifts.

Chang said that he would not be able to rest enough between shifts, especially during periods where workers are burdened by writing proposals, hosting events or making shipments. If revisions to the rule that mandates one day off in any seven-day period are made, he said it was likely that the time frame of working under such conditions would be exacerbated.

As protesters marched through the streets, traffic was stalled and obstructed as police scrambled to set up perimeters and impose traffic controls. Onlookers peered through their vehicle windows or paused on the sidewalks as the protesters marched. After the march, the protesters returned to their original spot on Qingdao East Road, where they sat on their stools in the rain. The protesters have said they will continue their actions, as DPP lawmakers intend to force the draft amendments through in the next two to three days.

The DPP government has defended their latest revisions as a way to allow Taiwan’s working environment to keep up with the needs and demands of the present era, suggesting existing regulations cannot effectively account for diverse industry models and working conditions, particularly as cutting-edge technologies such as artificial intelligence begin to make themselves felt in the workplace.

Multiple DPP legislators did not respond to requests for comment, saying that the revisions were still being negotiated.

Labor rights activists, protesters and opposition politicians have accused the DPP government of standing with the corporate side by refusing to listen to the demands of the workers while making revisions that would worsen working conditions, instead of fulfilling manifesto promises made during President Tsai's election campaign.

President Tsai and the DPP rose to power by overthrowing the KMT-ruled government and legislature in 2016 and promising labor reforms, a response to poor wage-growth and unfavorable labor rights. Back then, the sentiment was that “anything related to the KMT should be overthrown,” union leader Yeh said.

When asked what their plans would be if the ruling party passes the contested amendments, Yeh said she hopes the electorate will punish the DPP in the local elections this year. She admitted that would be hard, as the DPP and KMT parties are not any better than one another, and that local elections would have limited effect on nationwide policies.

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TNL Editor: Morley J Weston