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Does the Taiwanese Working Class Pose a Threat?
Whenever the democratisation of the nationalist regime in Taiwan is brought up, the role played by society at large in the process is hardly ever mentioned. Since the transition to democracy in Taiwan was led from above, by the same people who yesterday ruled as autocrats and now govern as democrats, it is frequently discussed in institutional terms. Such discussions assign a leading role to the progressive flexibility in governmental procedures, and, in tandem with this, the holding of more genuinely competitive elections. Looked at in this way, the external factors threatening the legitimacy of the nationalist regime (1) assume larger proportions than the internal ones, even though everyone recognises the importance of the influence of the liberal intelligentsia, (firstly from the mainland, followed by native Taiwanese), on the formation of democratic opposition groups, referred to collectively as tangwai (outside the party).
And yet, over the last few years, a number of studies have shown that the different segments of society could no longer be confined to a purely reactive role, which would imply that the emergence of a dynamic civil society was the result rather than a cause of political development (2). It had already been observed that society in general, and particularly the middle classes, were favourably inclined towards a progressive liberalisation of the regime, but still the calm atmosphere of the kid glove reforms in Taiwan made people forget that without the pressures exercised by society at large, the authoritarian regime could not really be expected to reform itself on its sole initiative.
Attention has focused principally on the mobilisation of the so-called new middle classes (3)an imprecise topic if ever there was onewithin the wider social movements (4). The leading Taiwanese sociologist, Michael Hsiao, believes that the emergence of these movements testifies, for the first time, to the ability of civil society in Taiwan to organise itself. Owing to the repressive character of the Kuomintang (KMT), the first wave, beginning in the early 1980s, was largely apolitical (5). Leaving aside the fundamentalist Christian groups, particularly the Presbyterians who were more political, the first wave mostly espoused issues like consumer protection, anti-pollution, ecological conservation, and womens rights. There was also a weak students movement. It was not until the lifting of martial law in July 1987 that wider sections of the population moblised their forces within distinctly more politicised social movements, although this also took a more segmented form, in defence of workers rights, the rights of agricultural labourers, and the rights of the handicapped etc. Michael Hsiao argues that these social movements played an instrumental role in undermining the authoritarian rule (6), even suggesting that they were its direct cause. But what is meant exactly by their being instrumental in fissuring authoritarianism? And if indeed they were, which seems highly probable, what were its limits?
I have chosen to study the workers movement in this article because, although it was the social group which had nothing to lose but its chains in the earlier Marxist revolutions, it played a less pivotal role in the democratic transitions in the last quarter of the twentieth century, being somehow absent from the transformations in the Republic of China. It is, therefore, of considerable interest to re-assess its importance and to suggest certain ways of considering its current situation.
The modest levels of its contribution during the 1980s can be explained as much by the economic and social forms of the Taiwan miracle as by the particular nature of the KMTs authoritarian rule before 1987. But what is its situation now that democratisation and the economic revolution in the service sector is on the order of the day?
Civil society and democratisation
The idea of a civil society is often invoked without being clearly defined, which leads to a certain confusion. Since it is not a self-explanatory term, an attempt at clarification is needed.
It is a term which has only recently re-acquired a recognised legitimacy, above all because of its capacity to describe the rebirth of increasingly autonomous societies in Eastern European countries before the demise of the communist regimes. In those countries it meant particularly the mobilisation of a section of the population, which could even be a majority, as in Poland, putting the legitimacy of the state into question and advancing the claims of the citizens to popular sovereignty. As Guy Hermet has written, What was specific to the expression civil society in the East was the adjective, synonymous with civic, conveying the demand for full citizenship and absolutely repudiating the legitimacy of existing state power. It was only later that the term acquired other meanings, the first, defining a society in which market forces could act within a pluralist and therefore consensual framework, and the second, expressing Tocquevilles vision of the need for intermediary bodies to guarantee freedom against the power of the state (7).
Leaving aside the interest in tracing the expression back to Hegel, or even further to eighteenth-century English thought, I would like to explore one definition in particular, to clarify the relationship between the state and society, which maintains that society itself cannot be a civil society unless its autonomous members are citizens. To pursue this line, I will pick up on one of the definitions given by Victor Perez-Diaz in his work on Spanish civil society (8).
According to this writer, civil society denotes a set of socio-political institutions including a limited government or state operating under the rule of law; a set of social institutions such as markets (or spontaneous extended orders) and associations based on voluntary agreements among autonomous agents; and a public sphere in which all these agents debate among themselves and with the state about matters of public interest and engage in public activities.
Perez-Diaz justifies giving priority to involvement in the public sphere, in contrast to private interests, on the grounds that an individual cannot be autonomous unless he can always defend his autonomy and freedom in public debate. It is true that this author prefers a stricter definition than my own, decsribed as a sense lato of civil society. According to him, the civil condition of the citizens is itself underwritten by the states non-intervention in their affairs and thus civil society within a limited state cannot exist without a prior development of civil society outside of the realm of the state power.
Nonetheless, he notes that once a civil society within a limited state is established, civil society outside the state gains in strength and autonomy. That enables in turn an increase of voluntary associations (interest groups, social movements, oppositional movements etc.), as well as markets, and activities in the public sphere.
It is precisely this dynamic which to a great extent has sustained the development of civil society in Taiwan. In the particular case of the workers movements, they were rather more the beneficiaries of democratisation than its initiators. The totalitarian claims of the nationalist party-state in the early 1980s did not allow them any space for autonomous development before the middle of the decade, and even then only within limits which remain very restrictive right up to the present day.
From control to surveillance: the corporatist state retains its restrictive laws
Drawing on the painful experience of the collapse of its governemnt on the mainland, where the trade unions were won over to the communist cause and did in fact play a condiderable role, the Kuomintang quickly set up its apparatus for controlling the working class.
Several factors explain the weakness of any truly independent trade unionism. The first, of course, was the promulgation of martial law in 1949, which only ended in July 1987. The second was the involvement of the party-state in the unions. Even in the early 1990s about 30% of the union leadership, sometimes at the highest level, were members of the KMT (9). As one observer says, the trade unions thus rapidly became at best the admistrative or even party arms of the KMT state (10). Finally, the villainous labour laws imported from China and still mostly in force, have legally enshrined the domination of the KMT. Of these three factors, it is the latter restrictive laws that nowadays represent the final barrier standing against those union organisations which have broken free from establishment power structures. The most significant of the laws are the Labour Union Law (LUL) and the Settlement of Labour Disputes Law (SLDL) (11).
The Labour Union Law has not substantially been amended since it was promulgated in 1929, except in 1975 when the election of delegates was re-established. Consisting of 61 articles, it provides for measures which are not only archaic but extremely inhibiting. Certain categories of employees are denied the right of association, namely state functionaries, teachers, and workers in the arms industries (article 4). Union membership is obligatory wherever a union exists (article 12), and failure to comply means suspension (article 13, Enforcement Rules of the LUL)although in practice the last two measures are largely ignored. There can be no more than one union per firm or professional regional constituency (article 8). The conditions for establishing trade union federations are also extremely restrictive (articles 47 to 51). To give just one example, the establishment of a national general federation (article 49) requires endorsement from at least seven provincial federations, whereas the whole of Taiwan includes only three regions of this size (the province of Taiwan, and the special municipalities of Taipei and Kaohsiung)! That is how the Chinese Federation of Labour, brought over to Taiwan by the KMT in 1949, still retains its monopoly. And lastly, the right to strike is extremely limited, since it cannot be used to demand improvements in working conditions and is, moreover, not permitted until efforts at mediation by the authorities are concluded (article 26). Since 1988 these have been the major points raised in support of a demand for changes in the law, but a number of union organisations go further, demanding greater rights of legal protection for union leaders, particularly from their employers, since quite a few of them continue to pay the price for their high profile activities.
The Settlement of Labour Disputes Law, first passed in 1928, shows the same outdated approach, although its more recent amendment, passed in 1987, was considered the surest means of containing the growth of collective conflicts after the lifting of martial law. This law prescribes a whole range of proceduresmediation, conciliation, arbitration, and finally the courtsintended to resolve all conflicts, whether they concern the non-fulfilment of existing rights, or demands for improvements in working conditions. Official statistics provide record levels of labour dispute resolutions (more than 98% in 1995!), but the few unresolved cases (see table 2) and the views of the autonomous trade unions give quite a different picture. Firstly, employees have little faith in the mediation and arbitration measures which depend upon local administrations with close links to the employers in their district. And secondly, wage earners lose all their own negotiating power, since they are legally required to delegate it to a third party to bring about a peaceful settlement. A far-reaching reform of this law has been on the agenda since 1991.
Trade union structures
With the exception of some trade unions in large public sector firms, the trade union structure, under KMT law, has not permitted the development of a really independent and effective trade union movement.
Trade union membership in Taiwan is particularly high, being officially estimated in 1996 at over 45% of the work force, that is 3,082,000 individuals belonging to 3,074 unions (12). However, these high membership rates, which date back to the late 1970s and underwent rapid growth after the lifting of martial law in 1987, reaching a record of 49.53% of the work force in 1993, have suffered a slight decrease of about 4% to 5% per year since then. In several other respects too, such figures should be treated with caution (13).
There are two kinds of trade union in Taiwan. The first kind, called industrial unions (chanye gonghui), bring together members of different occupations within the same enterprise. The second, called craft unions (zhiye gonghui), bring together members of the same occupation across different enterprises (14). It must be noted that this second type is numerically far superior to the first. Industrial unions total 586,000 members of 1,204 unions (19%), as against the 2,496,000 members of the 2,412 craft unions (81%) (15). And this imbalance has greatly increased since 1987. Obviously, such a disproportion corresponds to the KMTs original intention to contain the workers activities within organisations set up by itself on both a corporatist and a regional basis. It was facilitated by the Labour Union Law, which lays down that there can be no competing unions in the same enterprise or region, and that only work places with over 30 employees have the right to form a union. Since 64% of workers in the private sector actually work in firms with less than 30 workers (even leaving aside independent labourers and unpaid family members), the virtual monopoly of the professional unions is obvious. All experts in trade union matters agree that this kind of union has less power at moments of conflict. It does not have the power conferred by the ability to occupy a firms premises, which is enjoyed by the industrial unions. (This power is actually exercised by unions in medium-sized firms in Taiwan, which lack the large human and financial resources to withstand it.) So it is not surprising that the large majority of Taiwanese trade union members have little confidence in their representatives, and prefer other, more personal channels, to express their grievances (16).
The high levels of officially reported union membership in Taiwan should also be questioned in the light of the non-monetary benefits that such membership brings with it, as distinct from the power to unite collective interests in the face of employers, who hold all the cards when it comes to negotiations. First among these benefits is workers insurance (17). Thus the recent decrease in union membership can be partly related to the introduction of a national health-care insurance scheme in March 1995, which is supposed to take over the workers insurance schemes (18), partially relaxing the institutional link with the unions.
The piecemeal structure of the official unions, their intimate relations with the KMT, their lack of idependent resources, and the low confidence in them by the workers limit effective trade union power to a few big war machines like the telecommunications union (36,000 members), the electrical workers union (33,000), the oil workers union (26,000), the postal workerss union (28,000), and in the private sector, the Datung union, whose president is also president of the Taiwan Workers Front, the main independent workers defence organisation (19). This power was amply displayed in February 1997, by the different demonstrations organised by the big public sector unions, particularly the telecommunications union, which were mainly concerned with the conditions arising from the liberalisation and privatisation of the large state monopolies (20). Further confirmation is provided by the fact that most of the collective agreements were adopted in the big enterprises, which is particularly striking in Taiwan, since only about 3% to 4% of wage earners are reckoned to be covered by them (21).
The emergence of an independent workers movement
Nonetheless, more autonomous organisations, capable of really defending workers interests, did develop within certain official union organisations, and even more so on their margins. But their power remains limited.
It would be wrong to assert that all the official unions are structurally subordinated to the KMT. For example, although information is scarce, it is known that more than a hundred independent unions already existed by 1988, (out of a total of 2,957). Among these, the large majority was based in heavy industry (eg. Far Eastern Chemical Fiber Co., and Nanya Plastic Co.) and in transport (eg. Taoyuan Transportation Co.) (22). Since then, the trend seems to have spread, but the extent is unclear and the leading figures are difficult to identify (23). It should be noted, however, that independent unions based on the service industries like banks and hotels have made a modest appearance, and that most of the official independent unions are geographically concentrated in the industrial xian of Taipei, Kaohsiung, Ilan, Taoyuan, and Tainan (24).
Wishing to break free from what some Taiwanese call beancurd unions, the equivalent of scab unions in the West, a number of autonomous organisations arose in the mid-1980s, and continued their activities into the 1990s. Bypassing the Labour Union Law, they organised themselves even before 1987 as civic associations, adopting the words for fraternities (tongdaohui) and alliances (lianhe). They gained legal status after the law reintroducing the freedom of association was passed in 1989. But still, these associations do not enjoy the legally assured status of a trade union. In particular, they cannot engage in collective bargaining on company property. So they have little room for action in the work place.
By cutting across the geographical and sectoral constraints which bind the official unions, these organisations, consisting largely of trade union militants, are nonetheless able to claim a real freedom of association within the enterprises. And, as a corollary to the logistical support which they bring, they act as federal intermediaries linking the different social conflicts throughout the island. Taking a further step towards political action, in November 1987 some of them decided to set up a Labour Party (Gong dang), headed by several opposition figures, including Hsu Ching-lee and Wang Lee-hsiung from the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). The defeat of the Gong dang in the elections for district leaders and to the legislature in 1989 did not, however, lead it towards ridding itself of the handicap weighing on all such associations, namely their lack of a large constituency in the general population. This is shown by the present situation of the oldest of them, the Association for Legal Assistance to the Workers Movements (Taiwan laogong falü zhiyuan hui) which became the Taiwan Labour Front (Taiwan laogong zhenxian) in 1992, after several intervening changes of guise. Born in 1984, out of the passing of the Labour Standards Law, this association now has several thousand adherents, whereas it numbered 180 in 1989. It is undoubtedly very visible at national demonstrations, as at the last May Day rally against the governments decision not to ratify a raise in private sector wages, and in its network of offices throughout the island. But, it openly recognises, to quote the words of Kuo Kuo-wen, its general secretary and former student activist, that it is disappointed by the dearth of participation by wage earners and by the weakness of the social movements in Taiwan (26). Since it is for the most part financed by membership fees, the Taiwan Labour Front mainly carries out informational activities, sporadically interspersed by media stunts. Among its achievements can be numbered the publication of the only Taiwanese monthly dealing with union affairs, The Workers (Laodong zhe), the publication of an annual independent report on working conditions in Taiwan, the Report on Workers Rights (Taiwan gongquan baogao), and the organisation of seminars on trade union activity. To be fair, it should be acknowledged that this association never had any ambition to become a mass organisation, and that it can nonetheless justly boast of its unique status as a link between the wage earners of Taiwan and a certain political class, mainly the labour-oriented deputies of the DPP, whose labour legislative programmes it greatly influences.
Labour conflicts and demonstrations
Despite the legal restraints, the workers have never ceased to express their discontent in public. Although collective disputes already took place before the early 1980s (27), the lifting of martial law in July 1987 was the occasion for an enormous increase. This date also marks the beginning of the first strikes and street demonstrations.
The collective disputes give a good indication of the problems confronting wage earners in general. The present deputy of the DPP, Lin Chung-cheng (28), has pointed out that 90% of the disputes between 1982 and 1986 were concerned with a violation of labour laws by employers, and furthermore that only 13 out of 208 were called by official unions, whereas 167 were initiated by the employees themselves. So, although the majority of the cases arose from malpractices on the part of employers, the very fact of independent mobilisation by the workers reveals a great deal of mistrust towards the official unions. Since 1987, the number of labour disputes has increased enormously, rising from 1,609 cases (involving 15,654 participants overall) to 2,659 in 1996 (with 21,654 participants). Although the number of participants has decreased overall since 1989 (the record year, with 62,391 participants), the motives and the distribution pattern largely confirm the tendencies observed above. They represent a defeat of 13 years application of the Labour Standards Law. At present, collective disputes present a striking picture of the forces at play and the problems being addressed. More than 50% take place in the large cities and their suburbs (Taipei, Kaohsiung, Taoyuan, and Taichung), where the independent organisations are strongest. Fifty-three per cent are in the manufacturing sector, which is the most affected by the present changes in the Taiwan economy. Finally, 47.8% arise from the breaking of agreements, 33.5% from the non-payment of wageslargely linked to relocations abroad, which has in turn led the authorities to pass a more precisely worded law on factory closures9% from retirements, and only 10% from accidents in the work place (29). This latter low figure reflects both the authorities increased willingness to apply the Labour Safety and Health Law, which was amended in 1991, and the modernisation of the Taiwan economy.
The first great strike movements go back to February 1988, which in many respects like 1987, was a veritable year of demos. It should be recognised that despite the lingering collective memory of the great transport strikes in Taoyuan and Miaoli in 1988, or of the Far Eastern Chemical Fiber strike in Hsinpu in May 1989, the time of great expectations is over. Now the independent unions advise against strike action, seeing it as largely counter-productive within settlement by arbitration, because it too easily allows the authorities to annul legitimate claims whenever it is used (30).
Finally, since the first great demonstration demanding changes in the Labour Union Law, organised on May 1st 1988 at the instigation of the Labour Federation of Independent Unions, street demonstrations have on the whole become banal to the point of being little more than minor displays of licensed transgression. May Day has again become a national holiday, and the avenues leading to the government offices and the Legislative Yuan are open to all sorts of organisations. And at the local level, it is not uncommon to come across cases of the transformation of collective disputes into mere rowdy displays, as happened in Taoyuan in December 1996, when 400 employees of the bankrupt Nienfu factory blocked the railways for over an hour (31).
The authorities response
Faced with the well-organised rising wave of discontent, the authorities and the KMT were forced to react. Although the majority of measures adopted were certainly a move to greater liberalisation, they were nevertheless imbued with a very timorous, and even sometimes wilfully conservative spirit. Some examples will serve to illustrate this point.
The passing of the Labour Standards Law in 1984 marks the beginning of the KMT-state reaction. This comprehensive law on the regulation of labour contains no less than 86 articles covering all aspects of the wage earners lifefrom overtime pay to the various extras to be paid at the major Chinese festivals. It covers seven economic sectors, which amounted to no less than 43% of the work force in 1985 when it was first introduced. Greeted as an extremely progressive document by international experts, who even adduced it to explain the low number of collective agreements reached in Taiwan, it was a response both to the recurrence of social conflicts after 1981, and to the need to rationalise the existing scattered legislation, which did show some measure of good will on the authorities part. At the same time, it allowed them to respond to pressure from the United States, particularly from the Congress and the big union guns of the AFL-CIO and the UAW, at a time when Taiwan was the largest beneficiary of the richest nation on earth. The only drawback was that this law has hardly ever been obeyed by the employers, and the authorities still seem hesitant to alienate the support of the employers organisations by enforcing it (32).
Reacting to the unexpected victory of two labour representative candidates supported by the DPP in the 1986 legislative elections (33), the government decided not to delay the introduction of a more structured policy on labour issues, and in August 1987 it set up the Council of Labour Affairs. This organisation has ministerial rank, and it has played a major role in improving working conditions and in peacefully resolving various social conflicts, particularly in the 1990s, but it still has not achieved the status of a ministry, with all the prerogatives that entails. To protest against his lack of responsibility and adequate means, its director from 1994 until April 1997, Hsieh Shen-san, temporarily resigned in July 1994. His motive at the time was that he did not believe that the government really intended to amend the Labour Union Law (34).
In July 1995, the Legislative Yuan passed a new law on the teaching profession, at last allowing it to form independent associations. But this law still did not permit the setting-up of trade unions, and therefore forbade all strike action and all collective bargaining on working conditions. And while state functionaries, teachers, and certain workers in the armaments industries are now allowed to form associations, they are still the major elements excluded from the right to form unions.
Even more recently, the amendment of the Labour Standards Law, on December 6th of last year, is another example of the curse of half-measures. In spite of some excellent new rulesnotably the extension of the coverage of the law to the whole of the working population before the end of 1998, and stricter controls on overtime and lay-offsthe law still retains an exclusionary clause for certain economic sectors, which, however, must never exceed one fifth of the total work force. Furthermore the law cannot be applied retroactively in cases of retirements and lay-off compensations. With regard to these points, the president of the Chinese Federation of Labour, despite his close links with the KMT, remarked that on the one hand, it gave the employers too much time to devise ways of evading the law, and on the other, that numerous beneficiaries of retirement payments made on a deferred basis would suffer a great loss because of this new provision (35).
Despite the disturbances of the 1980s and the stark inadequacy of some of the reactions on the part of the authorities, the latter were not confronted by an uprising of the toiling masses. A sufficient explanation of this persistent acquiescence is not to be found in the effective vigilance of the government alone.
A classless society in Taiwan?
The structure of the Taiwan economy, and more exactly, the large number of small and medium enterprises which have sustained its dynamism, have not favoured the formation of a real class consciousness in the working class.
Firstly, the structure of Taiwans working population gives a clear indication of the wide differences of status and the division of collective interests. Out of an active population of 7.4 million individuals in 1985, 25.1% were employers or self-employed workers, 10.8% were unpaid family members, and the remainder made up the main body of wage earners. But nearly 70% of these were employed in enterprises with less than 30 workers. There is admittedly a slight levelling-off in this distribution, but still the respective percentages for 1995 were 22.3%, 8.5%, and 64% (36).
Secondly, entry into the work force was, and still is, largely conceived as a temporary state. A large proportion of employees in the secondary sector are women (who in the 1960s already made up a third of the active labour force), often of humble origin, who only make a brief incursion into the work place before getting married. And that already presupposes a rapid turnover of workers, and a very weak sense of belonging, which is also to be found among young male factory workers, for whom such employment is merely a stop-gap before undergoing a long period of military service (37).
Thirdly, and most importantly, Taiwan has a large cultural investment in the model of social success through free enterprise. This is the view of many anthropologists and is summed up in the words of one who writes that if many young families formed by family division often begin their independent life in the working class, they are nevertheless driven by a strong cultural emphasis to become their own boss (dang laoban) (38). Seen from a political perspective, this cultural dimension was probably reinforced until the early 1970s by the Kuomintangs desire to prevent the entry of the Taiwanese elite into positions of political responsibility, thereby directing their energies even more into economic activity in pursuit of social recognition. If this is the case, it has to be admitted that numerous Taiwanese family histories have turned this model of social success via the humble family store, sometimes even up to the level of industrial giant, into more than a folktale, making it a practice in the shared fabric of a society in perpetual self-renewal.
Socio-economic difficulties at the present time
Certain economic indicators, like the levels of unemployment, factory closures etc., are now tending to strengthen the idea that workersself-defense movements are about to arise again. With the end of the so-called growth with equity model, it is thought that workers will be quicker to organise themselves. Yet, considered more closely, these causes of anxiety give rise to contrasting interpretations.
While it may well be necessary to recognise that economic growth has slowed down, amounting to 5.7% in 1996, which is a far cry from the double digit figures of the 1980s, we should also take cognisance of the predicted figures for 1997, which put it at 6.4%, rising even to 6.7% for 1998, according to the Directorate General of Budget (39). Although rising unemployment is often linked to a slowing in economic growth, in the case of Taiwan this explanation is not altogether satisfactory. The rate of unemployment rose from 1.79% in 1995 to 2.6% in 1996, and it seems to be settling around 3% for 1997 (2.97% in February, and 2.79% in March), but this low level of structural unemployment seems to have reached an equilibrium at the moment when Taiwan invested massively in the service industries (40). One of the priorities of the Council of Labour Affairs has been to encourage ongoing training and re-education programmes, wherever it does not run them itself, in order to make this transition to the tertiary sector as smooth as possible.
The growth of social inequality in Taiwan, which would seem to have deepened since 1980, also provides an example of this recourse to misleading favourable statistics. In fact, in 1992 the richest 20% of households showed an income 5.24 times bigger than the poorest 20% (the same figure as in 1966), whereas this gap was only 4.17 times bigger in 1980. In a recent article, Rudy Hung (41) sets out to explain the end of the fair share in the growth model by three determining factors: firstly, the transformation from small labour-intensive to large capital-intensive production; secondly, the redeployment of production abroad; and thirdly, the shift of employment towards the tertiary sector. After a subtle argument, the author shows that in retrospect the shift to the tertiary sector has proved to be the decisive one, taking the deepening wage differential produced by this shift as the determining variable. However pertinent this argument is, it needs to be put in another perspective by considering the statistics on individual and not just household income. According to the American economist and demographer Paul Schultz (42), the gaps between individual incomes remained constant throughout the 1980s, and the deepening of the differences between households seems to arise from changes in the constitution of the family, of which the main element was the separation between different generations who formerly lived under the same roof. The issue of inequality would therefore be a question of age rather than class, and this implies a different set of questions and different remedies.
In reality, the main economic problems that are likely to reinvigorate discontent among wage earners are the privatisation of the large public sector enterprises and the redeployment of Taiwan firms to the mainland. Since the government launched its privatisation programme in February 1996, the conditions governing it have not been clearly spelled out, and this lack of transparency feeds the uncertainty of hundreds of thousands of workers, concerned over their future. That is what lay behind the complaints of February last year, mentioned above.
The relocations overseas, which were the main cause for about 48,136 closures in 1996 (43), produce a large number of rejects, as is shown by the main collective conflicts of last year (see tables). Most of the cases were from high labour-intensive sectors (toys, light electronics, cothes and fabrics etc.), in which workers get low pay and have low qualifications. When those employees, who have small chances of re-employment, are faced with employers who do not respect the law on working conditionslay-off pay and retirement benefits mostlythe situation becomes critical. And the same authorities who allow an influx of foreign labour (mainly from Thailand and the Philippines), further underline their failure to resolve these conflicts by undertaking to cover the debts of unscrupulous employers through loans from public funds (44)!
A future for the workers movement
In an economy which is daily getting further away from manufacturing, it is a safe bet that the workers defence movements will become increasingly transformed into movements for the defence of all wage earners. Such movements can only increase in scope, despite the obvious weakness of the present leadership. There are three major reasons for this.
Firstly, the continuing existence of a legal apparatus that is both out of date and ineffectual implies a contradiction with the increasingly transparent rules of the game in the political sphere. The Labour Union Law, broadly described above, should obviously be categorised as obsolete. Although its amendment is on the agenda for the Autumn session of the Legislative Yuan, the leading progressive deputies express many reservations over any rapid conclusion to the redrafting (45). The Council of Labour Affairs proposed revision dates back to 1988! But even if this last delaying tactic is not likely to provoke massive demonstrations like those in Seoul in January last year over similar issues (46), it could certainly cast a shadow over the governments claims to be carrying out rapid reforms. Another aspect of the situation is that the authorities good intentions are thrown into doubt by the fact that 70% of company bosses still do not abide by the Labour Standards Law with regard to lay-off compensation and retirement benefits (47), and in the meantime the various agencies and their inspectorates under the Council of Labour Affairs are completely unable to enforce the provisions of that law. The businessmen may well have a perfect right to consider that law particularly restrictive and counter-productive in an increasingly competitive world. But the fact that the Council of Labour Affairs, with a staff of only 300, is not equipped with all the means necessary to enforce respect for the letter of the law suggests a certain ambiguity on the governments part.
Although it is more difficult to describe precisely, largely because of the lack of qualitative research, the transformation towards an increasingly service-based economy is fostering a change in outlook among Taiwanese wage earners. It may still be considered appropriate to harp on the docility of the labour force in Asia, where the conjunction of Confucian values with the cult of work continues to provoke admiration and envy in the West, but it is also the case that the under-30s age group expresses desires quite different from those of the earlier society based on production. This younger generation of Taiwanese, who are highly educated and employed largely in the tertiary sector, wish to benefit from all the advantages of a new open society based on information and increased leisure time. The evidence for this recent change is not only to be seen in the extraordinary vitality of group activities in Taiwan, as in the excessive visits to Karaoke and KTV lounges or in the explosion in tourism abroad. It is also to be found in the work place, where service industry management methods appeal increasingly to group involvement, and of course in the political sphere. The present generation is capable and desirous of establishing a distinction between the right to workfor a long time guaranteed by the Kuomintangand the rights of workerswhich currently calls for reflection by all parties concerned. And if these new demands are not channeled through the unions, they are quite apparent in behaviour patterns which are both explicit and difficult to quantify, like taking working conditions into account when choosing a job, a certain militant political concern with the quality of life, or again, the development of the trend for unpaid leave, which cannot fail to impinge upon the paid leave laid down by the law: seven days per year with one additional day for each year in employment (48)!
To speculate a bit further: with the ability of the regime to democratise itself reaching exhaustion, it seems reasonably certain that despite the remaining obstacles, all the parties are going to have to reflect seriously on what we might loosely call the transition to social democracy. It has been pointed out that the KMT has always proclaimed the well-being of the people, one of the three principles defended by Sun Yat-sen which is also the best way of guaranteeing the social pact on which the nationalist regime has long based its claim to legitimacy. As for the DPP, until 1993 the only true oppositional party, it remains as before the necessary path for the most dynamic militants from the social movements who wish to move into politics. Consequently, its current electoral platform consists of a number of social proposals on the defence of womens rights, recognition of the rights of the native Taiwanese, the establishment of a fairer national health insurance scheme than the one set up in March 1995 etc. (49) Yet the DPP, like the KMT, only proposes real political measures to address the various social problems in Taiwan when they are of immediate urgency, responding to demands rather than anticipating them. The entry into the Legislative Yuan in 1995 of several DPP legislators close to the workers movements, and their role in speeding up the passing of the revised Labour Standards Law in December 1996 (50) may perhaps indicate a changing trend. This is all the more significant as it concerns the rights of workers which, together with the environment, have been one of the most neglected of the social questions.
Even though it is reasonable to conclude that the workers movement, or more broadly the defence of all wage earners, has been rather more the beneficiary than the initiator of democratisation, and of the consequent establishment the rule of law, it would be quite wrong to underestimate its present and future role. It is closely linked with the three great challenges confronting Taiwan at the present time. These are: the completion of the democratic transition, the changeover to a liberalised service economy, and the handling of its increasing economic dependency on the Peoples Republic of China. So, in many respects, without going so far as to predict the emergence of a peoples power in Taiwan (see box insert), it would be impossible to give an assessment of the consolidation of Taiwanese democracy without underlining the increased role played by civil society in determining the agenda for reform. Democracy can only be conceived as rule for and by the people. It is not solely bestowed by the good will of this or that politician, however providential, magnanimous, or consensual he/she may be. Nor is it arrived at by following the relationship between the moderates in the different parties. In a recent issue of Asian Survey (51), Lucian Pye, a leading figure of the culturalist school, sets out to show that the great revelations of political corruption in various Asian countries, including Taiwan, have a quite beneficial democratising effect. He argues that the realisation that politicians are capable of openly appropriating public funds for personal gain, and are therefore fallible, changes the citizens traditional perception of authority, which has hitherto enjoyed a privileged rank, raised above that of the common subject, whether the latter is an elector or a simple member of a particular political clientele. The activism emanating from civil society in Taiwan, in all its manifestations, partakes in this demystification, which signals also the foundation of a true democratic culture.
Table 1: major closures in 1996
Table 2: labour disputes and outcomes
1. Particularly the discrediting of the desire to recapture the mainland, the diplomatic reversals of the 1970s, and the democratic pressures from the USA that begun with the Carter administration.
2. See particularly Michael Hsiao, Emerging Social Movements and the Rise of a Demanding Civil Society in Taiwan, Australian Journal of Chinese Affairs, July 1990, pp. 1-7.
3. New because they arise from the economic expansion of the 1960s.
4. But Chang Mau-kuei, a research fellow in the Academia Sinica, shows that the middle classes, despite their progressive participation in the social movements, could not have been a driving force without the progressive opening of the electoral system. Chang Mau-kuei, Middle Class and Social and Political Movements in Taiwan: Questions and Some Preliminary Observations in Hsiao Hsin-huang, Michael (ed.) Discovery of the Middle Classes in East Asia, Taipei, Institute of Ethnology (Academia Sinica), 1993, pp. 121-176.
5. Michael Hsiao and Hagen Koo, The Middle Classes and Democratization in East Asian NICs: Taiwan and South Korea Compared, a paper for the conference on Consolidating the Third Wave Democracies: Trends and Challenges, August 27th-31st 1995, Taipei, Taiwan, p. 10.
7. Hermet, Guy, Les Désenchantements de la Liberté, Paris, Fayard, 1993, pp. 165-166. In Democracy in America Tocqueville defines these intermediary bodies as voluntary organisations (to build a hospital in a small town, or to put an end to wars at the federal level) whose increase is guaranteed by the freedom of assembly.
8. Perez-Diaz, Victor M., The Return of Civil SocietyThe Emergence of Democratic Spain, Cambridge, USA, Harvard University Press, 1993, pp. 55-58.
9. Lin Chung-cheng, The Development of the Labour Movement and Labour Disputes in Taiwan in Edward K. Y. Chen, Russel Lansbury, Ng Sek-hong, and Sally Stewart (eds.) Labour-Management Relations in the Asia Pacific, Centre of Asian Studies, University of Hong Kong, 1992, p. 44. Two members of the Standing Central Committee of the KMT, Hsieh Shen-san and Ho Tsa-feng were recently still highly placed members of the Chinese Federation of Labour.
10. Michael Hsiao Hsin-huang, The Labour Movement in Taiwan: A Retroperspective and Prospective Look, in Dennis Fred Simon and Michael Y. M. Kau (eds.) Taiwan Beyond the Economic Miracle, 1992, p. 156.
11. All this information comes from Labor Laws and Regulations of the Republic of China, Council of Labor Affairs, August 1994, and from Chiao Cing-kae and Hwang Yueh-chin, The Transformation of Industrial Relations under Democratization in Taiwan, 1987-1996, presented to the colloquium on International Industrial Relations Association, 3rd Asian Regional Congress, September 30th-October 4th 1996, Taipei, Taiwan.
12. Monthly Bulletin of Labor Statistics, Taiwan Area, Republic of China (Laogong tongji yuebao), Council of Labor Affairs, January 1997, p. 42. In France it is around 10%.
13. Furthermore it should be noted that if the whole of the working population is taken into account, and not just those able to join a union, union membership in 1996 falls to 33%!
14. Labor Laws and Regulations, infra p. 114.
15. Note also that in 1995 trade union membership was 25.41% in the industrial sector, and 58.24% in the craft sector: Monthly Bulletin of Labor Statistics, infra, p. 43.
16. Joseph S. Lee, Is There a Bona Fide Labor Movement in Taiwan?, Discussion Paper Series, no. 9403, Chunghua Institution for Economic Research, p. 14.
17. ibid., and Chiao Cing-kae and Hwang Yueh-chin, op. cit., pp. 82-83.
18. Presentation booklet by the Council of Labor Affairs.
19. Interview with Kuo Kuo-wen, General Secretary of the Taiwan Labor Front (Taiwan Laogong Zhenxian), April 8th 1997.
20. China News, February 25th 1997.
21. Chiao Cing-kae and Hwang Yueh-chin, op. cit., p. 83.
22. According to Chao Kang, Labor, Community and Movement, University of Kansas thesis, 1991, and Laodong zhe (The Workers), no.5, 1992, quoted in Chu Yin-wah, Democracy and Organized Labor in Taiwanthe 1986 Transition, Asian Survey, May 1996, note 5, pp. 498.
23. Taiwan Report on Human Rights Practices for 1996, U.S. Department of State, January 1997, section 6-a.
24. Interview with Kuo Kuo-wen, April 8th 1997.
25. Michael Hsiao Hsin-huang, The Labor Movement in Taiwan ... in Simon and Kau (eds.) op. cit. p. 156.
26. Interview, April 8th 1997.
27. Lin Chung-cheng, op. cit. pp.43-53.
28. ibid. note 27.
29. Sun You-lian, Xiao juren de kunjing yu beiai (The overthrow and destruction of the little giants), Laodong zhe, May 25th 1997, p. 13.
30. Interview with Kuo Kuo-ren, April 8th 1997.
31. The China Post, December 21st 1996.
32. Joseph S. Lee and Wu Hui-lin, The 1984 Fair Labor Standards Law and Its Impact on Industrial Development in the Republic of China on Taiwan in Joseph S. Lee (ed.) Labor Standards and Economic Development, Chung-hwa Institution of Economic Research, April 1996, pp. 147-171. This exhaustive study is based on an enquiry into more than 44,000 companies carried out in 1991. The very biased conclusions of these economists, however, tend to justify those employers who do do not respect the law, arguing that the law increases production costs.
33. These candidates were Wang Cong-song for the Legislative Yuan and Xu Mei-ying for the National Assembly, who were elected against the opposition of the KMT candidates who enjoyed strong backing from the partisan apparatus at a time when professional constituencies still existed.
34. The China Post, March 3rd 1997.
35. The China Post, December 7th 1996.
36. The Monthly Bulletin of Labor Statistics, Taiwan Area, Republic of China (Laogong tongji yuebao), Council of Labor Affairs, January 1997, p. 26.
37. Thomas B. Gold, State and Society in the Taiwan Miracle, M.E.Sharpe, 1986, p. 89.
38. Susan Greenhalgh, Networks and their Nodes: Urban Society on Taiwan, The China Quarterly, September 1984, p. 541, and Hill Gates, Chinese Working Class Lives: Getting By in Taiwan, Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 1993, p. 73. In addition see also, Small Fortunes: Class and Society in Taiwan in Simon and Kau (eds.) op. cit. pp. 169-185.
39. Agence France Presse, July 30th 1997.
40. This is shown in the recent surveys by the Council of Labour Affairs. Interview with Lin Jenn-yeu, director of labour relations, April 1997.
41. Rudy Hung, The Great U-Turn in Taiwan: Economic Restructuring and Surge in Inequality, Journal of Contemporary Asia, vol. 26, no. 2, 1996, pp. 151-163.
42. T. Paul Schultz, Income Inequality in Taiwan 1976-1995: Aging, Fertility and Family Composition, Conference in Memory of John C.H. Fei, Academia Sinica, Taipei, August 1st-2nd 1997.
43. Economic Statistics Indicators, Directorate General of Budget, March 1997, p. 38. It should be noted that more firms open (67,592 in 1996) than close. But on the one hand, the employees dismissed from some do not necessarily find work in others, and on the other hand, the gap is narrowing, since in 1994 68,717 opened while 35,457 closed.
44. For the Lucky case, see China News, February 1st 1997.
45. Interview with Chien Hsi-chieh, April 21st 1997.
46. Under highly debatable conditions of openness, on December 26th 1996, the Korean government pushed the new labour laws through the National Assembly when only the deputies of the governing party, the New Korea Party, were in attendance. This was to accede to the new flexibility rules demanded as a condition of entry by the OECD, allowing employers to limit the right to strike. More importantly, it put off until the year 2000 the legalisation of the main autonomous trade union organisation and the still illegal Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, and until 2002 the right to set up more than one union per enterprise. The big strikes which followed, called both by the KCTU and by the more docile legal Federation of Korean Trade Unions, involved more than 250,000 people and forced the government to promise to renegotiate. Korea Letter, January 16th 1997,@Bruce Grants.
47. China News, February 14th 1997.
48. By way of comparison, in France there are on average about 140 days off per year (week-ends, holidays, paid leave), whereas the Taiwanese have to make do with 102, at least officially: Laodong zhe, May 25th 1997, p. 26.
49. Give Taiwan a Chance, Minjindang, 1996, p. 95ff. It is moreover surprising to find that this political programme contains no special mention of the rights of wage earners, either in the English or the Chinese version (Gei Taiwan yi ge jihui, Minjindang, 1995).
50. Xinxinwen (The Journalist), December 8th 1996, pp. 76. The deputies are Lin Chung-chen, Liu Chin-hsing, and Chien Hsi-chieh.
51. Money, Politics and Transitions to Democracy in East Asia, Asian Survey, March 1997, pp. 213-228.
An End to Apathy
There are certain times of the year, usually in Spring and especially in May, when the political side of things is not left in peace. This year in Taiwan, there was such a time.
On May 4th and May 18th, two large demonstrations organised by independent organisations, first brought out a crowd of 50,000 demonstrators, and then nearly 100,000, who took over the main streets and avenues of Taipei. The most common slogan to be heard from these two Sunday protests was a demand for the sacking of Lien Chan, the Prime Minister and vice-President of the Republic. The immediate motive for this expression of popular discontent was a rising feeling of insecurity and general decline in public ordersince November 1996, three major scandals involving bloodshed had become rolled into one by the newspapers (1)and this feeling was further enhanced by the governments inability to take appropriate action. So far none of these cases has been settled, and at the very least the executive has committed major blunders in public relations management.
These events cannot be dismissed as a passing shock wave of justified emotion whipped up by media sensationalism. They are all the more noteworthy as the public in Taiwan has had little recourse to street demonstrations to express discontent since 1986, and certainly not in such large numbers.
By picking out these disturbances in May, my intention is not to make an overall judgement on the state of social order in Taiwan, nor to lead up to conclusions full of sound and fury about the relations between state and society there. The two demonstrations focused on an issue which easily unites peopleinsecurity. They brought together ordinary townspeople, of every age and class, who are very concerned with the fight against criminality in the streets, whether in the form of petty delinquency or organised crime. The discontent is therefore limited in scope, and both the show of spontaneous feeling and the mood of the gatherings served rather to give notice to the present government than to reject it out of hand (2).
Nonetheless, just as in the case of the limited strengthening of the workers movement, these demonstrations (irrespective of the claims of this or that political group behind them) show that the various sections of Taiwan society are coming more and more to demand accountability from the authorities. Increasingly aware of the need to defend their rights and their role as upholder of institutions, henceforth to be based on their sovereign will, the people are showing that they can vote with their feet, not just at the great electoral rituals, but whenever the government does not live up to their expectations. And correspondingly, the government reshuffle on May 14th, Lee Teng-huis public apologies on May 15th, and a bit later Lien Chans commitment to resign from the premiership in the Summer, which did actually happen, would tend to suggest that the executive is to a certain extent sensitive to the feelings on the streets.
In parallel with the development of what I call the social movements in Taiwan, this Springtime burgeoning testifies, on another level, to the growing independence of civil society there. Debate over issues of general concern is no longer monopolised by the political establishment and its stable of experts, but is being spread outward into an enlarged public sphere. This sometimes acts in concert with the government, as in the preparatory hearings for the Conference on National Development held last December at the initiative of President Lee, and sometimes in competition with it, of which these demonstrations are the latest example.
1. The collective murder on November 21st 1996 of Liu Pang-you, who was KMT district leader from Taoyuan and a man of doubtful honesty, together with seven other local figures at the formers home; the sordid murder of Peng Wang-jun, a leading figure in the fight for womens rights and a member of the central committee of the Progressive Democratic Party, on December 3rd; and the kidnap, rape, and murder of Pai Hsiao-yen, the 17 year-old daughter of a famous Taiwan television star, whose body was found on April 28th 1997. Although other murder and rape cases strengthened the feeling of a general rise in crime levels in the early months of 1997, the three cases mentioned above clearly underline the fact that, firstly the celebrity status of those involved offers no protection, and secondly, that the current violence can strike the malefactor, the morally upright, and the uninvolved innocent alike.
2. An opinion poll by Lianhe bao (United Daily News), May 7th 1997, showed a record in the low level of popular support for Lien Chan (30%) and Lee Teng-hui (48%). Most of those questioned were in favour of Liens resignation.