Taiwan: Government cuts to workers’ holidays and indication of what is to come

In an unsurprising turn of events in Taiwan, the new government led by the bourgeois Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has begun its assault on the working class, by continuing the previous KMT administration’s policy of lengthening the working hours by cutting holidays, and refusing to legislate for a full two day weekend.

On October 25th, over three thousand union workers, as well as various labour rights groups from around the country, gathered in front of the Legislative Yuan (Taiwan’s legislative body) to plaster its gate with flyers and to throw eggs at the building. The more radical layer of the participants attempted to force their way into the building. Police responded with riot shields and physical repression, resulting in several injuries.

The working class of Taiwan has never enjoyed a legally accorded two-day weekend, and Taiwanese workers worked on average 2,104 hours last year, making Taiwan’s work hours the fourth longest in the world. On average in the past five years, Taiwan has one new case of overwork-related disease every five days, and one case of overwork-related death - also known as karoshi - every twelve days. The workers of Taiwan toil in absolutely inhumane conditions despite living in an industrially developed capitalist country. For years, labour activists have been campaigning for the institution of guaranteed two-day weekends for workers, which is a perfectly reasonable and modest demand.

Expected Assault from the DPP

Yet, instead of offering better conditions, the new reform is attacking the still poor working conditions the working class enjoyed before. The new “reform” legislation from the DPP accords the workers not two-day weekends but “one rest day and one flexible rest day.” The “flexible rest day” is in effect eight hours of break hours which the management is able to freely allocate throughout the working week, forcing workers to continue to work for 6 days out of 7. The legislation also cuts seven national holidays previously guaranteed to workers. Overall, this legislation actually increases working hours.

The preceding KMT administration was already pushing for the holiday cuts in 2015. Prior to its election, the DPP president Tsai Ing-wen had promised to discontinue this plan. Before the elections, we warned that by its nature it is not in the interest of the bourgeois DPP to advance the interest of the workers, especially during a time of global capitalist crisis. Tsai and the DPP would later completely reverse their position. The Executive Yuan, under the leadership of Premier Lin Chuan, would introduce the legislation to increase working hours to the Legislative Yuan, where the DPP’s overwhelming majority secured its passage to the parliamentary subcommittee. The DPP publically announced that it would complete the legislation by the end of September. However, when the bill was passed on for subcommittee approval, the country was undergoing a surge of massive strike actions with widespread public support, most significantly the victory of the China Airline flight workers’ strike on June 24th. The strike wave increased the pressure on the ruling class leading to the liberal New Power Party with the opportunistic support of the KMT, to force the DPP to temporarily stall the process.

Since September though, the DPP has resumed its push for the bill. Despite immediate reactions from labour rights activists, the DPP majority subcommittee approved the legislation within 17 minutes on October 5th. Apart from minor disturbances, the DPP continues to push the bill through the legislative process with its majority in the Legislative Yuan. The bill was approved by the DPP majority in the subcommittee in one minute. This is rich from the DPP, who criticized the KMT administration for approving a bill that would massively open the doors to Chinese capital into Taiwan’s service industry, known as the Cross Strait Service Trade Agreement (CSSTA) in only 30 seconds using the same undemocratic parliamentary technique.

The determination of the DPP under Tsai to attack the working class is not confined to increasing working hours. The concessions, that the state managed China Airline made to the workers after the June strike have since not materialised, prompting renewed protests and threats of future strikes.

The Organic Crisis of Capitalism

The attacks on the working class cannot be understood in isolation from the current capitalist crisis in Taiwan and globally. The annual GDP growth rate of Taiwan has sharply reduced from 3.9% in 2014 to only 0.7% last year, while a steep reduction in trade saw a 10.9% drop in export between 2014 and 2015, with a 15.8% drop in import values in the same period. Exports to the Chinese and Southeast Asian market have declined more than 10%, and exports to the US by 8.5%. Excess savings - i.e. uninvested funds in the bank accounts of the big companies - have grown to 14.62%, the highest in over two decades, while the overall investment rate has been on a steady decline since 2010. The unemployment rate of those between 20-24 is persisting above 12%. The most wealthy 10% of the population now own over 61.8% of all the wealth in the country.

This anemic growth, slowdown in investment, and rampant inequality is not unique to the economy of Taiwan. In 2014 the OECD published a grim report projecting the world economy would be experiencing slow growth for at least 50 years. The United States’ so-called “recovery” is growing at a rate that would typically be characterized as “growth recession”. China’s growing crisis of overproduction was signaled by turbulent stock market performance earlier this year, its inability to curb the decline in the growth rate, and the fact that export oriented jobs in China are coming under increasing threat. Europe’s acute economic crisis is exacerbated by events such as Brexit and the possible further crumbling of the EU, as well as bubbling banking crises in Germany and Italy. The so-called “emerging” markets that the world bourgeoisie had pinned its hopes to are all entering into crisis . All the so-called BRICS economies are in crisis: Brazil, India and Russia are in difficulties. In fact, Brazil and Russia are in a slump. The slowdown in the so-called emerging markets is set to be even sharper than in the advanced capitalist countries. The IMF predicts that their potential output, which continued to expand in the run-up to the crisis, is set to decline from 6.5% a year between 2008 and 2014 to 5.2% in the next five years. In 2014, reporting on the International Center for Monetary and Banking Studies (ICMBS) conclusions, the BBC stated:

“Since then [2008], it is the developing world, especially China that has driven the rise in debt. In the case of China, the report describes the rise in debt as ‘stellar’. Excluding financial companies it has increased by 72 percentage points to a level far higher than any other emerging economy. The report says there have been marked increases in Turkey, Argentina and Thailand as well.

“Emerging economies are particularly worrying for the authors of the report: “They could be at the epicentre of the next crisis. Although the level of leverage is higher in developed markets, the speed of the recent leverage process in emerging economies, and especially in Asia, is indeed an increasing concern.”

Everything points to the fact that the capitalist system is in decay, and to the growing possibility of a worldwide slump.

All of this underscores the reality that world capitalism  is entering into a new, sharp phase of decay. The previous crises have only led to the increased concentration of capital in the hands of a few monopolies, while there are no longer new markets to be expanded into and profits made. The only way for capitalists to continue the realization of profit is to expand their exploitation of the working class, while at the same time demanding the working class increase their purchase of commodities. This contradiction is increasingly exacerbating across the world.

This would explain why the Tsai administration in Taiwan has had such a short honeymoon. In less than a year it has resorted to open attacks against the working class while at the same time increasing its open defence of the ruling class as seen in the Mega Bank scandal, and its contemplation of reversing its position against the expansion of Nuclear Power Plants. Premier Lin Chuan has been under direct pressure from the “Seven Major Industrial and Commercial Organizations”, the semi-official body that negotiates with the government on behalf of a significant section of Taiwanese capitalists. The DPP’s past advocacy for de jure Taiwanese independence on the basis of capitalism - although in practice it is no longer really pursued anymore - has been considered by the bourgeois as antagonistic to China and therefore a hindrance for their class to invest in China. Their pressure on the Tsai administration has been markedly ramped up since July, especially with the upcoming conference of cross-strait business groups in early November.

Rising Class Struggle

The crisis of Taiwanese capitalism naturally leads to a rise in class consciousness due to the concrete need for the workers to defend themselves. This culminated in the China Airline strike which, in spite of involving no more than 2,000 workers, inspired widespread support from student groups, passengers, and other civil rights groups. There were also a series of actions such as the planned strike of the Taiwan High Speed Railway Corporation, a movement by  postal workers for adjusting unfair work evaluation schemes, and the protracted struggle of Nan Shan Life insurance workers to raise wages, which unlike in previous periods, received widespread support. The Taiwan International Workers’ Association (TIWA)’s campaign to end the laws forcing migrant workers to exit Taiwan every three years was widely supported and eventually legislated. The newly formed “123 League” for combating the Work Week bill has a previously unprecedented level of membership.

123 League_protest_-_Brian_Hioe123 League protest - Photo: Brian Hioe

The class struggle in Taiwan, and the world, will only intensify in the coming period, particularly in the context of the coming slump. The workers and youth of Taiwan have proven themselves to be energetic and self-sacrificing, but what else is to be done? How can we work towards ending this capitalist system that imposes unnecessary misery and suffering on the majority of the people?

No Capitalist Alternatives

While the present assault upon the working class is enforced primarily by the DPP administration via the state machinery of the Republic of China (or ROC, the official name of the Taiwan state), we must not have any illusion about any other pro-capitalist forces that opportunistically attempt to present themselves as the alternative. The KMT is now styling itself as the opposition party that fights for two-day weekends for the workers. This marks a new height in the KMT’s mastery in boldface shamelessness, perfected over the past century. It is a fact that the DDP’s plan is merely a continuation of the KMT’s policy. Not only that, we must clearly understand that the KMT’s outlook is shaped by its history of being the representative of imperialism. It was the KMT’s butchery of the Chinese working class which led to its expulsion from China by the Chinese Revolution in 1949. Its previous alignment to the US resulted in the longest period of martial law in the past century. The only difference now is that it is seeking to represent the interests of Chinese capitalism, which in turn needs to export its accumulated excess capital, in effect taking over Taiwan on a capitalist basis. No matter who you identify as, a Chinese worker or a Taiwanese worker, your interests as a member of the working class will not advance a millimeter no matter who is in charge of the capitalist government.

The same applies to the US, whom one wing of the DDP and New Power Party hopes to win over to combat China’s ambitions to dominate Taiwan. We must never forget that it was US imperialism that ensured the brutal dictatorship of Chiang and the KMT in Taiwan in the first place, and the anomalous international standing that Taiwan has at present is just as much a product of the US’s maneuvering as it is of China’s nationalist policies. One cannot find an instance in history where the US government advocated the improvement of the conditions of the working class of Taiwan. Instead it has cooperated with both the KMT and the DPP to pressure Taiwan into importing dubious American food products such as chemical-laced pork and into signing up to deals such as TPP which only serves to bolster the power of the multinational corporations. The US government also requires the ROC government to regularly purchase old weapons at high prices, using taxpayers’ money.

Furthermore, the past two decades have seen the weakening of the United States’ imperialist power along with tremendous internal social turmoil in a similar way to that of the class struggle in Taiwan. In the next period of crisis, the US ruling class would not rule out abandoning Taiwan to its fate in return for a deal with China, if it saw such a step as being in its fundamental interest. For them Taiwan and the Taiwanese people are just pawns in its schemes in East Asia The forces of capital, no matter who controls them, have nothing to offer the working class. The workers must take their destiny into their own hands.

Building A Mass Socialist Party of the Working Class

The recent struggles have led to increasingly large formations such as the 123 League, providing a glimpse of what the working class is capable of, its ability to work in solidarity and form a mighty force that could defeat the ruling class. Yet, the workers must clearly understand that the assault from the capitalist class will only grow in the coming period. Instead of working together for individual causes, there is an urgent need to form a democratically controlled mass workers’ organization with a programme to defeat the bosses, rather than trying to pressure them into conceding small reforms, which are no longer an option for the ruling class. Such a party would be able to pool together the small contributions of each member to build massive resources that could dwarf the size of the bosses’ organizations, and challenge the capitalist rule head-on.

We cannot have any illusions in simply reforming capitalism or the capitalist state even if such a party were to obtain political power. Marx explained in the Communist Manifesto that “The executive of the modern state is nothing but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.” We have clearly seen how the forces of capital have used the state machinery to enforce anti-worker measures and use state violence to crackdown on dissent in order to maintain the system of capitalism under both the KMT and the DPP administrations. The point we must understand is that the system of private property of the means of production is always antagonistic to the working class. It must be overthrown by replacing it with a workers’ state where the means of production would be under the democratic control of the working class. The revolutionary workers of Taiwan will not find a shortage of allies and comrades from around the world, and must actively connect with the increasingly conscious workers of China, Korea, Japan, the Philippines, and beyond to support each other in advancing revolution in their respective countries.

It may still be the case that a majority of the working class has yet to join the struggle. But the crisis of the system will inevitably push the working class as a whole to move. It is the duty of the most serious and honest advocates of the working class to carefully study the history of the working class movement and to study the Marxist classics to train themselves up into cadres that can in turn educate other workers and play a vital organisational role in the revolutionary times that are ahead of us.