The Taiwanese working class has begun to move with mass demonstrations and the rise of new trade union organisations. Recent anti-worker legislation passed by the government has proven to be the whip that has driven them to action.
Tsai Ing-wen（蔡英文) of Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) was elected the president of Taiwan in January 2016, and her party gained 69 out of the 113 seats in the Legislative Yuan, Taiwan’s parliamentary body. Prior to her election, she and the DPP attempted to differentiate themselves from the KMT, another bourgeois party, by promising that they were in favor of “substantially implementing two-day weekends.” This was clearly aimed at gaining the favor from the working class and the youth of this country known as the “island of overwork.”
In the two years since Tsai took office, however, the DPP has already initiated two major attacks against the working class. The first was the “One Rest Day and One Flex Day” legislation passed at the end of 2016, which was in reality a disguised attempt to continue the KMT’s plan of further cutting seven national holidays for workers without actually giving them a two-day weekend.
Among longest hours in the world
For the Taiwanese working class, which on average works 2,104 hours per year, the fourth-longest hours in the world, this undoubtedly exacerbates their daily burden. This legislation led over 3,000 members of workers’ organizations to surround the Legislative Yuan, resulting in physical clashes with the police.
At the end of 2017, the DPP used the excuse that the previous legislation denies Taiwanese workers’ the right to overtime to propose a counter-reform that would roll back all progress on workers’ rights that were won over the last 30 years. This bill is truly draconian in nature. It includes relaxing the rule of “1 rest day per 7 work days”; it allows bosses to make the workers work 12 days straight; it increases the number of overtime hours that bosses can make workers take; and it lowers the minimum rest hours between shifts from 11 to 8, among other things. All of these measures were fully supported by President Tsai, Premier William Lai（賴清德), and the vast majority of DPP legislators.
Despite having an economy larger than that of Sweden, the conditions of Taiwanese workers are appaling. In Taiwan, one overwork-related illness is reported every five days, and one overwork-related death is reported every ten days. The latter is known as Karoshi, or “death by overwork.”
The DPP’s indifference to the horrific conditions faced by Taiwanese workers – coupled with several gaffes blurted out by DPP leaders that reveal how out of touch they are with the lives of ordinary working Taiwanese – have increased the ferment in society.
Premier Lai made the reactionary remark that the previous legislation “obstructs the rights of workers to work overtime,” and that workers who are compelled to work longer hours should see the additional work as “doing good deeds for good karma”. Anonther legislator, Chiu Yi-ying（邱議瑩） has ranted against all opponents of the bill, on one occasion even claiming that roars of protests outside the Legislative Yuan building were “pre-recorded tapes,” and that “real workers would be at work right now”. President Tsai, after a meeting with high ranking DPP politicians to decide on enforcing the bill, even had the gall to gather together young party workers and claimed that she considers herself to be “quite left-wing.”
The DPP’s disconnection from reality, as revealed by these gaffes, as well as their subservience to the bosses’ organisations, such as the Seven Major Industrial and Commercial Organizations（七大工商團體）, run in tandem with their attacks on the working class. This blatant insult towards workers contributed to the ferment that expressed itself in the demonstrations of 10 December in Kaoshiung and 23 December in Taipei.
These demonstrations reflected the real mood in Taiwanese society. First, the 30,000 strong march in Kaohsiung was mobilized by 13 major trade unions and some NGOs, drawing participants from Tainan and Kaohsiung. These two cities and the surrounding Southern Taiwan area have traditionally been the DPP’s strongholds, as reflected in the fact that the DPP gained 66.39 percent of the votes in the 2016 presidential election there. Yet this massive mobilization directly challenged this political norm and reflects that politics there is beginning to split along class lines. Furthermore, according to Taiwan’s Ministry of Interior, Kaohsiung City has rarely had any gatherings or rallies with more than a few thousand participants since 2,000. The fact that 30,000 people marched in a single demonstration expresses the deep dissatisfaction that the workers there have against the DPP and the establishment in general.
The protest in Taipei, although numerically smaller than that of Kaohsiung's at around 10,000, still expressed a reawakening of sections of the working class. Given Taiwan’s low rate of trade unionisation, at 6.3 percent, past labor rights-related protests have rarely gathered more than a few thousand people. The size of this protest is well above that average. Significantly, new forces participated, such as the two-year-old Airline Workers’ Union – that was formed after the high profile China Airline strike that received widespread support. There were also many student groups from all over the country, many of them from the Sunflower Movement that led to the downfall of the previous KMT government. There were also many young workers who have only recently joined a union. There is a growing realisation that the struggle of the youth and the students must link up with the working class.
Growing mistrust of establishment
The DPP, for its part, seems to believe that its control of the presidency and huge parliamentary majority means that it has a mandate to do as it pleases. However, it is clear that the DPP is losing its popular support. The 2016 election that brought the DPP to power saw a turnout of 66.27 percent, the lowest since direct presidential and legislative elections were introduced in Taiwan in 1996. (The highest turnout was in 2000 at 82.69 percent, but this figure has progressively dropped since then, reflecting the growing mistrust of the establishment and the political system). During the Sunflower Movement of 2014 the DPP was already shunned by the students who led the movement, and who pointed out that they were not a viable option to defeat the KMT. But because the movement failed to base itself on a revolutionary party and programme, the DPP was able to step into the vacuum left by the collapse of the KMT. The recent series of large protests reveals that none of the contradictions have been solved and the masses are beginning to move once again.
The KMT, on the other hand, is also failing the reap any benefit from this recent series of social tremors. Although they were the original architects behind the plan to slash holidays, the KMT has demagogically been attempting to take leadership of the movement and have been pretending to support to the workers. But they have failed to deceive the workers. Right now a minority of KMT politicians are still trying to intervene in the workers’ movement. The most prominent of these is legislator Chiang Wan-an (蔣萬安), who tried to feign solidarity with the workers by filibustering the legislative committee reviewing the counter-reforms. This direct descendant of Chiang Kai-shek and total opportunist, however, is failing in his attempt to gain support from the working class.
Marxists have enthusiastically supported the mass movements in Taiwan in the past four years. These have increasingly been displaying a clear class character. Especially notable are the worker mobilisations such as the China Airline Strike, the March against Holiday Slashing, the recent two large protests, as well as the call to surround the Legislative Yuan on 8 January. These all indicate that the Taiwanese working class is beginning to move, to formulate its own demands and, faced with capitalist crisis, to organize for struggle.
Need to build and strengthen labour movement
However, the leaders of these mobilisations now have the responsibility of building on the militancy of the rank-and-file workers. As in the past, the present strategy of those organising these mobilisations is still limited to street protests and trying to mobilise “public opinion against the government.” This strategy may have worked when the Taiwanese economy was booming and the capitalists could afford to give small concessions. However, the present widespread and ongoing attacks against the workers carried out by the DPP reveal clearly that Taiwanese capitalism is entering into a crisis. The low levels of investment, stagnating productivity, and lowering of living standards are all proof of this. The Executive Yuan’s Directorate of Budget, Accounting and Statistics projects that private investment in Taiwan will only grow by 1.55 percent next year, and private consumption will only grow 2 percent. Under these conditions, the bourgeoisie will be forced to maintain its position by attacking the working class. That is the reason why the government will not easily back down in the face of so-called public pressure.
In the face of the attacks by the ruling class, Taiwan’s workers need to step up their struggles beyond street demonstrations or isolated strikes. Eventually, the labour leaders must prepare to take on the ruling class with more powerful measures such as a one-day general strike, which would reveal to the whole of society that it is in reality the workers who have the power to change things.
Considering the nature of their leaders, the Taiwanese workers will have to face in the future will not be resolved in mere days or months. It is therefore important to learn from the experiences and draw lessons from working class struggles all over the world. Many union leaders are moving to the left, but it is not enough to have this or that left-leaning leader. What is required is a transformation of the unions from top to bottom, with real control in the hands of the rank and file membership. Furthermore, a big drive to unionise non-union workers is an urgent task.
However, even with a militant fighting union leadership the job is not finished. What is needed is a mass party of the working class that can offer an alternative to both the KMT and the DPP. Such a party can only be a mass socialist working class party.
For a mass workers’ party
At the moment, the Taiwanese workers have no party of their own. That has been the basis for the rule of both the DPP and the KMT rule in the past period and why they have been able to push through many counter-reforms. However, the workers are learning that they cannot trust these parties, that they can only trust in their own forces. While the capitalists are forced to attack the workers to defend their position within the global economy and their system as a whole, the workers can only achieve their aims by overthrowing the capitalist system, not tinkering with it here and there.
The KMT and the DPP are electoral machines that mobilise certain layers around elections and they are run tightly by different factions of the ruling class. The working class, on the other hand, needs a party where it can democratically discuss, debate and decide on all fundamental issues. It needs a party which will educate it in the ideas of socialism and analyse current events from its own class point of view. Only in this manner can the wider layers of the workers be brought into political activity.
These words of Vladimir Lenin – written in August/September of 1917 – are very relevant to modern day Taiwan:
“In capitalist society, providing it develops under the most favourable conditions, we have a more or less complete democracy in the democratic republic. But this democracy is always hemmed in by the narrow limits set by capitalist exploitation, and consequently always remains, in effect, a democracy for the minority, only for the propertied classes, only for the rich… Owing to the conditions of capitalist exploitation, the modern wage slaves are so crushed by want and poverty that ‘they cannot be bothered with democracy’, ‘cannot be bothered with politics’; in the ordinary, peaceful course of events, the majority of the population is debarred from participation in public and political life.” ( The State and Revolution, Chapter Five )
It is the task of the labour leaders to build a party that stands for the interests of the workers and the poor. Taking its starting point as the fight against the attacks of the ruling class, this party must explain that the only way for the workers and the poor to achieve their aims in the long run is by expropriating the capitalists, to nationalise the banks, monopolies and big corporations, under workers’ control and management and to run the economy on the basis of a democratic plan based on need and not profit.
At the same time it needs to link up with the international working class, starting in East Asia with workers in China, Korea, Japan, the Philippines and beyond. The struggle of the Taiwanese workers is part of a wider struggle against capitalism, which is at the root of the problems they are facing today.
The fact is that new trade unions are being formed and workers in different sectors are beginning to seek new solutions to their problems. It is clear that in the present conditions of capitalist crisis the workers’ demands cannot be met within the capitalist system.
Each step forward in terms of organisation of the working class, each new mobilisation, is part of a general awakening of the Taiwanese working class. Marxists support every forward step of this working class. They should welcome every new trade union that is formed. They must enthusiastically support every strike, every mobilisation of the workers and youth and they must participate shoulder-to-shoulder with them. At the same time, however, they should use every movement to raise the general level of understanding to a higher plane. And in the day-to-day struggles they must point to the future and explain that the only way to permanently realize and materialize workers’ demands is through socialism. The first step in this direction is to build a tendency steeled in the ideas of Marxism within the Taiwanese workers’ and youth movement.
This article was written prior to 8 January - Ed.