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The Age of Precarious Employment

Temp Work - Trap, or Springboard?


Taiwan has a temporary workforce 150,000-strong, bouncing between short-term positions. How can temps protect their rights? And how can they avoid sliding into a lifetime of odd-jobbing?



Temp Work - Trap, or Springboard?

By Sherry Lee
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 416 )

Over the past three years, Taiwan's temporary workforce has swelled from 120,000 workers to 150,000, and temp agencies have been sprouting like bamboo shoots after a spring rain, as companies have become hooked on temporary labor.

How might temp agencies provide an ultra-responsive temporary workforce to meet the needs of contracting clients?

Reluctant to expand their fixed payrolls and looking to cut back on labor and health-insurance expenses, more and more companies (contracting clients) are signing contracts with temp agencies to meet their workforce needs. Through "help wanted/positions sought" websites like 104 and 1111, temp agencies act as a bridge between contracting clients and labor, collecting a per-head service fee.

Temping is a peculiar sort of triangular relationship; although the contracting client determines the job description, it is the temp agency that actually employs the worker. As for the contract period, there are a number of options including short-term contracts of three days, two weeks and even up to a year.

A Temping Opportunity

Anyone nosing around an ordinary temp agency will customarily find less than 100 people directly employed in their offices, yet they have thousands of employees – almost all of them out of sight, working at the premises of the contracting clients.

According to Dr. Cheng Chih-yu, professor with National Chengchi University's Institute for Labor Research, the development of Taiwan's temporary manpower industry is troubling to both the Council of Labor Affairs and labor groups. Concerns have been raised, as European Union regulations now stipulate that temporary employment periods must be no less than six months and no greater than 24 months, further restricting such "supplementary workforce" positions to employees on special projects and those with special skills. Yet Taiwan has reached a point where omnipresent temping has supplanted long-term, stable career opportunities.

For example, a staggering 41 percent of the workforce at Taiwan's state-run enterprises are temp workers. And with the economic downturn, private companies are also making extensive use of temporary employees.

One human resources manager in the Hsinchu Science Park privately said temping has somewhat supplanted the old ways of recruiting new talent, with those who perform well brought on full time and those who under-perform denied a contract extension, dramatically reducing hiring risks.

The thing is, while a flexible temporary workforce is good for companies, is it a bane or a boon for individual careers?

Turning a Stumbling Block into a Leg Up

Actual temp worker case studies reveal that a minority do indeed move from temporary positions to full-time staff positions.

Candy Lin, who handles recruiting for Intelligent Manpower Corp., ran into nothing but closed doors when she began looking for a job after graduating from Ching Yun University with a degree in international trade. But after she started temping, she ended up in the customer relations department at Chinatrust. An agreeable sort, she was often assigned to work the graveyard and swing shifts, and after a year Chinatrust offered her a full-time staff position. She subsequently returned to the original temp agency that assigned her to Chinatrust to supervise recruitment for the financial sector.

The 28 year-old Lin says her temping experience in a big company helped her better understand the qualities and capabilities each financial sector department requires, boosting the efficiency of newcomers.

A 29 year-old graduate of National Taiwan Ocean University's Department of Shipping and Transportation Management, Chen Li-fei signed on with Adecco, Taiwan's biggest temp agency, while still a student. She worked days in the human resources department of a financial institution to earn money for tuition and expenses while she studied at night, earning just NT$20,000 per month on a one-year contract.

Of the five temps then working in the human resources department, she was the only one ultimately retained on the full-time staff. Chen believes the main reason is that many temp workers see themselves as "dayworkers" that won't be around for long, and thus their work ethic and willingness to learn is somewhat lacking.

However, those who can succeed in being plucked from the huge pool of temps are the select among the few.

Not long ago, Lee Chien-hung, an assistant professor in Chinese Culture University's Department of Labor & Human Resources, interviewed a recent graduate who has since been having trouble in the job market. At first the former student took a part-time job at a gas station, later temping as a nightshift factory worker before moving on to a position as a fishmonger in a local hypermarket.

Adding to the complexity of conditions are the numerous smaller temp agencies throughout Taiwan that don't take labor contracts too seriously. Many temp workers are contracted out under the guise of "consultants," undermining the rights of the workers.

Controversies surrounding temp employment have also recently surfaced in Taiwan, including an incident in which Chi Mei Optoelectronics Corporation informed around 3,500 temp workers of their dismissal via cell phone text messages, and a labor-management dispute between Cosmos Bank and around 150 of its temp employees. Both incidents stemmed from inadequately specific severance pay clauses in the three-party labor contracts in question.

The key is in dealing with a reputable temp agency. As for how to gain experience temping without the setbacks, Chinese Culture University's Lee recommends: "When you change vocations or switch jobs, you need to have accumulated similar experience."

In addition to accumulating market-recognized human capital, you can't go wrong with a professional, diligent work attitude.

In his book How Starbucks Saved My Life, Michael Gates Gill describes how he was laid off when nearing retirement as a top executive at an international ad agency and then landed a job at Starbucks, donning a green apron and brewing up espressos. His first day on the job, he found that the work was far more demanding than he had imagined, and he began to buckle down and start life anew, learning new things.

In a job market with an extreme supply-demand imbalance, jobseekers must do their utmost to project positive signals.

Lio Monchi, an assistant professor at National Sun Yat-sen University's Department of Political Economy who has done extensive research into employment conditions, says many core capabilities can accumulate from otherwise unremarkable work experience; even just working the graveyard shift or sweeping floors can provide a kind of practical experience. He cites as an example one diligent worker who started as dishwasher and floor sweeper and gradually worked his way up to restaurant manager.

Temping is a double-edged sword. Everyone wants an opportunity at stable employment, but times have changed. All an individual can do is find a way to stand out in a field of different flexible employment markets.

Translated from the Chinese by Brian Kennedy

Chinese Version: 派遣也可以累積就業資本