INTERVIEW: KMT Legislator Jason Hsu on Tech, Labor and the Singapore Model

Credit: Office of Jason Hsu
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As protests against Taiwan's labor laws rage outside government buildings in Taipei, KMT legislator Jason Hsu talks about a future in which technology can help solve Taiwan's public policy problems.

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When autonomous cars hit the road, what do we do with the displaced labor? How do we think about truck drivers? It’s not even about hours – they will have no hours to even check.

As Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan continues to debate proposed amendments to the Labor Standards Act (LSA), The News Lens spoke with Kuomintang (KMT) Legislator Jason Hsu (許毓仁) after the Jan. 9 morning session. Having offered a speech recalling President Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) election campaign promises to protect labor rights, and amid ongoing protests outside Taipei's government buildings, Hsu expanded on the issues underpinning the labor law debate, including how in future technology can play a greater role in solving Taiwan’s public policy conundrums.

The News Lens: What’s your sense as to whether there will be any concessions from the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) on the labor law given ongoing pressure from the protests?

Jason Hsu: Two of the biggest controversies are shortening shift rest time from 11 hours to eight hours and changing from one rest day every seven days to two every 14 days. From the last 36 hours, it looks like there has not been any consensus. This morning we were in the negotiation room; representatives from each party could address issues with the amendments, and the labor minister was there, but there seemed to be no compromise. I think they will pass the amendments that they want. It’s a shame as most labor [representatives] consider this a regression from what they had stood for, and that’s why you see all the protests outside.

But all of this addresses a wider problem that Taiwan faces, which is low wages and an export-driven economy, as well as strenuous labor and employer relations.

TNL: Do you think we will be here again in a year’s time facing yet more revisions to the labor laws?

JH: One of the most commonly mentioned points is that we just had amendments a year ago and they were not fully in practice yet and now we are amending the very articles passed in such a forceful way. We are worried as to whether the ruling party has clarity as to what their labor policy is, or if they had any clarity when they first amended the law. I think they don’t because they have faced a lot of pressure from the corporate sector.

TNL: Would it not make sense to have a review period for the most controversial amendments, especially those requiring permission from either an industry union or a government supervisory body in order to enforce so-called exceptional working conditions [which will be monitored by local governments]?

JH: A review period is one thing but people are gradually losing patience with trusting the government. They have come up with several contingency measures, for example to re-enforce labor inspections and to organize labor unions or to intervene in labor-employer conflicts. Looking at the government apparatus, the labor ministry lacks the know-how to implement those measures. I worry that when the law is in effect they will contract out companies to carry out these inspections and it becomes an even bigger problem. I think that’s dangerous.

Also, for particularly high-risk [shift-work] professions, like truck or tour bus drivers and heavy machine operators, they already face a difficult economic situation so they can’t afford to set aside time or money to go to an agency to pursue intermediation. I feel all of this leans to the corporate sector.

In Taiwan, a large concentration of the wealth is with employers, and the money is not shared fairly to labor. We are in a vicious cycle.

TNL: Do you think the minimum wage increase that came into force Jan. 1 this year (from NT$133 (US$4.49) per hour to NT$140 per hour) is sufficient?

JH: A set of things need to be figured out. The minimum wage should be paired against categorized professions. Some knowledge workers – for example startup companies – take stock options, and laborers at the bottom of the pyramid should all be taken into the design of the wages. For the knowledge and shared economy, some sort of outsourcing employment guideline should be set up. Employers deliberately avoid hiring full-time staff to avoid increasing their welfare burden. The most important thing is to help the workforce transition and receive skills that are needed for future age.

Singapore has a plan that I highly recommended –­ a re-skill program [SkillsFuture] – where they look 10-20 years [ahead], [and ask] how will their labor age and transition, to help them re-skill by giving them credits and incentives to study and upgrade themselves.

TNL: We are looking into this as part of a series on how AI and increased automation will affect the workplace and while there are resources for students in Taiwan there is very little for those already in the workforce.

JH: There are 9 million people who qualify as laborers in Taiwan and over 1 million SMEs, and if you expect these mom-and-pop shops or SMEs to comply with the labor inspections – I think that’s impossible. Two of my legislative assistants’ parents have worked in the same company for 25 years, as that’s the only place they can find jobs and they have a family to support. It’s more than just fixing one article in the labor law.

TNL: I want to go back to what you were saying about the minimum wage – that actually the minimum wage and conditions of employment should have a baseline that depends on the industry?

JH: Exactly, this is also a trend. People are not looking for lifetime employment if you think about millennials or even younger people, so their conditions can further be improved.

TNL: I saw in a Facebook photo that you were reading “Lee Kuan Yew: The Man and His Ideas”, and you seem to have admiration for the way Singapore runs its government, do you think Taiwan can learn from Singapore’s governance model?

JH: To a certain extent there are elements that we can learn from Singapore, but we are very different societies. They are a somewhat one-party ruled society. When I had meetings with their members of parliament (MPs), they said they look 25 years and beyond. And when I met a MP, he said “I will be finance minister in five to 10 years – so I am on track!” But in Taiwan it’s a very dynamic and vibrant democracy. That’s also why it’s difficult for Taiwan to have a long-term policy. When you look at last year’s Forward-Looking Infrastructure Development Plan, nobody knows how to trace the results of this project, which are being outsourced to start building.

Taiwan needs to recognize that the last 20 years of democracy achievement is something we cherish, but we also as politicians [have a] responsibility to society in setting a good example. If we continue to run the country in this cycle we will end up with no long-term plan.

TNL: Looking at your own long-term plan, do you have a position in mind that would suit you in future, in government or otherwise?

JH: I’m interested in solving public policy problems with technology. This area is overlooked. Technology is often considered as an independent silo. We are not thinking about it in relation to the labor situation. For example, I had a conversation last night and I said, we are worried about these labor inspections, why don’t we don’t put all workers’ hours on a blockchain system? Then it will all be transparent and open. I am constantly thinking about how we rethink public policy with the support of technology.

When autonomous cars hit the road, what do we do with the displaced labor? How do we think about truck drivers? It’s not even about hours – they will have no hours to even check.

TNL: What will be your focus in the coming legislative session?

JH: The telemedicine bill is coming up, which will allow doctors to prescribe drugs and perform diagnosis online. That’s one way to mitigate the hospital workers long hours. The bill will also allow patients to have authenticated medical records on the blockchain. When you go to hospital you won’t need to do the same blood test every time. It’s a waste of resources.

The bill will also allow patients to have authenticated medical records on the blockchain. When you go to hospital you won’t need to do the same blood test every time.

I’d also like to think if I stay in politics I’d like to run for local office, to have a district or even a city to manage, and also to consider building a sandbox on a city scale. I was considered a potential candidate for Hsinchu City because it’s close to a high-tech park, for example.

I’ll also be assuming the position of convener of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee in the Legislative Yuan, so I will be thinking more broadly about how Taiwan’s democracy can have a breakthrough with startups or technology. Instead of building stadiums in African or Central and South American countries, we can deploy technology to help build 5G infrastructure.

TNL: I remember being in a meeting with some of Taiwan’s tech-based disaster response companies where this idea of widening their international reach was discussed.

JH: I am pushing a new, fresh way of thinking about an old trick like diplomacy. For this year’s UN Assembly Week, normally the Taiwan government will stage a protest or pay money for our diplomatic partner states to speak for us, but this year I would like to organize a big exhibition and forums for the Taiwan-originated companies, startups and figures to speak on the sidelines.

TNL: Finally, you wanted to right of reply on comments made in a previous interview with DPP Legislator Karen Yu (余宛) over designating credit for the fintech bill?

JH: I spoke to Karen and she thought she had to defend her own efforts. With all these bills, we end up passing a bill that is a joint version. I also want to clarify that I didn’t claim credit for passing the bill, maybe that was a way to rally support for the community and I was announcing it for the sake of celebration. [That interview] justifiably a Q&A and for you to represent what [legislator Yu] said but it is also important to acknowledge the context and the accuracy of the information. Basically, she said something that is not true – all legislators are allowed to present a bill. We should work hand in hand rather than condescend to each other. It’s a shame because I felt for the fintech bill, the foreign talent bill and the industrial innovation bill, these three were a joint effort between both parties.

In fact, with some of the more controversial issues it is all the more important that each legislator can and should speak on the basis of their own constituency. We are now facing the LSA amendments There are protests outside and we are making our statements and this shows at least that democracy can protect and prevail. The result will be the same but the words will be on the record.

READ NEXT: DPP Bows to Big Business as Tsai Fails to Uphold Pledge to Protect Workers

TNL Editor: Morley J Weston

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