Taiwan vs. Vietnam
Who Treats Workers Better?
Labor groups in Taiwan have been up in arms recently over the government’s labor policy. And there’s good reason for that, argues professor Hong-zen Wang, who says that workers in Taiwan have even fewer rights than those in less-developed Vietnam.
Who Treats Workers Better?By Hong-zen Wang
Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party government has recently moved to revise the Labor Standards Act, purportedly to give “both labor and management” greater flexibility on working hours.
But any observant person knows that the revisions clearly favor employers. The logic behind the DPP’s thinking reflects recognition of the “blood and sweat economy” defined by low wages and long working hours – using the fresh blood of labor to rescue companies fighting for survival. How is that any different from the mindset of the Kuomintang (KMT) of the past?
So we have to ask: Do we really want to rely on even lower wages and poorer conditions for workers to compete with the likes of Vietnam?
Then again, Vietnam’s labor conditions have long been better than Taiwan’s. A simple comparison of various factors shown in the chart below indicates the dire straits Taiwan’s workers find themselves in. And now, the “Business Progressive Party” will make their plight even worse with these revisions.
In what ways are Taiwanese workers worse off than their counterparts in Vietnam?
It’s actually embarrassing to make the comparison. Just randomly choose any clauses from the two countries’ labor laws, and one finds that Taiwan cannot even get the best of a third-world country.
Based on those many indicators, isn’t it obvious that Taiwan is also a third-world country?
Protecting Workers vs. Kissing Up to Employers
The Vietnamese government requires that all new companies form unions within three months of their establishment to protect worker interests. If a company obstructs the process, the government will dispatch somebody to get the union formed. As a result, Vietnamese workers often go on strike to protest unreasonable working conditions and wages and demand improvements.
But it is almost impossible for Taiwanese unions to strike. And even when China Airlines employees used a strike in 2016 to negotiate better terms, their employer – the government – was still able to renege on the commitments made.
One can only draw the conclusion that big Taiwanese companies exist simply for their shareholders (i.e. big capitalists), while employees are like disposable chopsticks, to be discarded after being used.
In this round of revisions to the “Labor Standards Act,” Mr. “Merit” – Premier Lai Ching-te – declared without the least bit of shame: “People who want to work overtime can work overtime, and those who don’t want to work overtime won’t have to.”
[Ed. note: Premier Lai Ching-te was widely mocked for commenting that caregivers should not be overly concerned with their low salaries and should treat their jobs as a way to “earn merit” by doing good.]
But if five people on a production line want to work overtime, can the other five on the line say no? Who is it that likes working overtime? Taiwanese companies in Vietnam are constantly complaining that Vietnamese don’t like to work overtime, while Taiwanese do. But one female Vietnamese worker in Taiwan I interviewed completely rebuffed that mindset.
“At its roots, it’s not a question of whether or not we want to work overtime. Rather, with wages so low, we have to work overtime,” she says.
The Taiwanese government has now interpreted the problem of low wages as workers wanting to do overtime rather than actually solving the real problem of overworked employees who “have no choice but work overtime” because of low pay. It’s putting the cart before the horse.
In Vietnam, if workers are forced to put in too much overtime, they will join together and go on strike, and the government will stand with them. Yet, I’ve never heard anybody describe Vietnam’s investment environment as “terrible.” In fact, Taiwanese factories operating there for more than a decade have grown accustomed to the “strike” culture and have made efforts to improve labor-management relations. They have also gradually developed ways of working and communicating with their unions.
So does the so-called “Merit Yuan” [Ed. note: a sarcastic reference to the executive branch of government – the Executive Yuan – led by Lai Ching-te] have any supporting measures aimed at getting all companies in Taiwan to have unions?
Taiwan remains stuck in the Martial Law era labor system of 40 years ago. We lag so far behind that South Korea’s improvements in working conditions have left us in the dust, and we would do well to get on our knees and beg to learn from Vietnam – a country that even Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je looks down upon – rather than thinking that being wealthier than others means being better than them. We simply have no way of matching the speed with which their society is progressing.
Translated from the Chinese article by Luke Sabatier
Wang Hong-zen is a professor of sociology at National Sun Yat-sen University and a distinguished research fellow with the university’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies and a columnist of Opinion@CommonWealth.
Opinion@CommonWealth website is a sub-channel of CommonWealth Magazine. Founded in January 2013 with its main focus on social, humanity and policy issues and opinions, Opinion@CommonWealth is dedicated to building a democratic, diverse platform where multi opinions can be presented.
Currently, there are approximately 100 columnists and writers co-contributing on Opinion@CommonWealth to contemplating and exploring Taiwan's future with the Taiwanese society.