KNOWING VIVTIMS OF OCCUPATIONAL INJURIES
Taiwan Association for Victims of Occupational Injuries
Everything for Safeness
"You guys can call me 'Safe' from now on", waving his heavily bandaged right arm that had lost half of its palm in a recent occupational injury, Mr. Wang Chingping announced abruptly.
His left hand was struggling with penciling down of what the others said, and his mind was over to the artificial limb shop that he was about to visit later on in the day. It was during a labor conference last winter, when we were having a short break during a heated debate on the disadvantages of the government's new labor pension system on the victims of occupational injuries, that he had his new name quickly advertised.
A smile from his wife then revealed why: "I was thinking, safeness is everything. This is already the fifth time that he suffered an occupational injury. I wish this new name can bring him safeness for the rest of his life; no more injuries". Right, the old name had brought him no luck, and now he could only wish to be sheltered by the new.
But I was burdened with the thought - something that was just confirmed to me through a call to the Labor Insurance Bureau - that he was not covered by any insurance scheme, that his boss had not had him insured! Not a penny was he about to receive for compensation after his injury. Anyway, the damned boss was absent again in yesterday's settlement meeting, but the government was there to take no action. Made redundant since for six months, that was why he had had to fed himself with buckets of information on relevant labor laws - he was on the move to get some compensation, but I could see that there was still a long way to go…
Wang "Safe" Chingping is a member of the Taiwan Association for Victims of Occupational Injuries (TAVOI). He was not alone in his suffering. His misfortune is only one of the 30 thousand occupational injury cases in Taiwan every year.
The statistics from the Labor Insurance Bureau tell me that those who applied for compensation are mostly suffering from being "clipped, hammered or crushed". A sense of sorrow immediately clouds my mind! Those crushed legs, those hammered arms, and those clipped upper or lower limbs, they have been paid for 40, or maybe 50 thousand dollars each, and that was all - a real bargain in the human market. But I know the where from of those crippled parts. I recognize them: they are from those young girls from night schools who work as part-times in plastic companies; they are from those pressmen who work overtime to meet the management demands; they are from those aged punching machine workers who are burdened by mortgage; they are from those aboriginal brothers who have the best lather and singing skills; they are from those contracted student-workers who have been ordered to clean the platforms of huge machinery. Of all those people, I know them.
People here are used to compare the status of the set of labor laws that we practice in Taiwan to that of a broken safe net. If this parable means anything at all, then I will say TAVOI is here to receive the victims of occupational injuries, those who have fallen from the broken net. They have lost either arms or legs, or have been paralyzed, burned, blinded or deafened, or rather, they have had the luck to keep all their parts but have suffered from a seasonal hemiplegia due to lead poisoning, or their blood capillaries have been frequently blocked by the chlorine that was trapped inside their bodies, which gives the "diver's illness", causing necrosis in their bones, or they have pneumoconiosis that has blackened one second of their lungs because it causes pants. Behind every victim of occupational injuries, there is a bloody, unsafe and unwell story.
On a Tight Rope
"I have heard that recently, another arm was lost in the same punching machine where I had lost mine", said Wang "Safe'" Chingping. A horrifying high rate of occupational injuries, that is the collective memory of Taiwanese workers for their working places. Punching machines, which are common sights in industrial parks, from 60 tones to 1 or 2 thousand tones in size, have continued to roar to produce daily items such as computers, automobile and office furniture parts. Workers, on the other hand, have continued to lose one or two of their fingers, or even a whole arm, on these machines. This is also commonly known.
What I want to say is this: most of those occupational injury cases were not "accidents" at all. In the relation of production that exists today, all visible and invisible management mechanisms leads to the same logic of competition through cost reduction and profit pursuing. The occurrence of occupational injuries, I think, has as its cause the usual structure of employment, "the profits of some means the sacrifices of the others". In Taiwan, to meet the management demands, workers are asked to conduct factory maintenance without unplugging their machines first. They are also expected to work on lathers that are always on the verge of breaking down, on fine grinding machines that are lack of any protection device, and on punching machines that only have them "for labor safety inspectors". Cases of compromised safety such as those are common in our working places, and our workers have been forced to walk on a tight rope for survival. In Taiwan, we describe someone as "investing his/her work with the whole life", or alternatively, "trade his/her life for work", because he or she is so hard working. But for the victims of occupational injuries, these expressions have stopped being mere allegories. Reality strikes. Many TAVOI members will tell you: "I knew it was going to happen sooner or later"! … But they had needed the pay, hadn't they? It is always a gambling on life one way or the other: forwards leaping into the trap of occupational injuries, or back moving to face the threat of unemployment and starvation.
On the issue of compromised labor safety of such a scale and frequency, mass media have been unified in giving us the same moral crap: the authorities have to strengthen their safety inspections; the managers have to abide by the law. But such logic simply does not work in the working places I have visited before. Let me put it in this way: workers in this capitalist system trade their labor for bread, and most of them give eight hours a day to their bosses. They are paid by hour, that is. But the truth is that there is no such a thing as a pure "hour-paid worker"! When workers conduct their collective laboring in factories, they are also conditioned by various working regulations and management mechanisms, which force them to work "efficiently and rapidly". In other words, in his or her working hours, he or she is never a "free will". As a matter of fact, the standardization, mechanization and temporization of labor can put a production line worker in a state of constant agony, because he or she will always be made to feel "having no time for toilet", or rather, "falling short on management demands". I do not have to remind you how easily cases of overtime working can lead to those of occupational injuries.
The authorities that are responsible for labor safety inspection always violently categorize cases of occupational injuries as events of "unsafe labor conducts". In plain language, this is to point the accusing finger at the workers: "how unvigilant you are"! All the time, occupational injuries have continued to happen. But we must ask ourselves: are they really "accidents"? I say, Taiwan's workers have been forced to stay in an environment that makes "every factory look like a battlefield", having to fight for their life.
A Rose Traded with Occupational Disease
"Last month we worked so hard that the production of our line broke the world record. The managers decided that it was such a great honor that they must celebrate our achievement with a cake. Each of us also received a rose". Shaking her head, Mrs. Wang laughed at her memory. She was a worker on the basic level of a notable multinational, earning less than 20,000 dollars per month.
It was spring. I sat in their tiny but neat, rented flat. The kids were out for school, or part-time work. But the youngest one, who could not attend the evening school with all his classmates, was here with us, doing his homework in a corner of the living room. It had been more than one year since Mr. Wang lost his job. He had filed a lawsuit for compensation while having learned how to drive a crane and having had the license to operate the machine now. But no employer wanted a worker who aged more than 45 and had only one functioning arm.
Later, these thoughts about multinationals, hard-working Taiwanese women, cake and roses have continued to haunt me. All working class families in Taiwan tell the same story. The burden of living has forced both the husband and the wife to trade themselves in the labor market. In the factory with punching machines where Mr. Wang sweated, blood-splitting occupational injuries are always present. But isn't a clear danger also waiting to prey on the production line in the electronic factory where Mrs. Wang worked? I know that many rose-wearing female workers like Mrs. Wang have been suffering from hearing problems, spur, low back pain, and even urocystitis ("having no time for toilet"), because they are constantly forced to work in a condition that is monotone, repetitive, and intensive. Long-termed occupational diseases are bombs waiting to explore. They do not show on any statistics, but their side effects will haunt you forever.
The multinational that Mrs. Wang worked told her that her production line was on a race with all the others in the same enterprise all around the world, that this is a global competition. When her production line broke the world record, the manager was so amazed: "You have beaten our head-quarter in Holland"! Mrs. Wang, however, told me quietly that "But it is all the same; no raise"! Her experience reminded me of a labor struggle I had attended many years ago, which exposed an unusual high percentage of miscarriage in another multinational. Those female workers who had participated in the battle, heavily pregnant into the sixth month but forced to take the mid-night shift, were they also a chain in the global production competition of female workers?
Cake and roses, which the workers have to trade with their lives, flows unobstructedly beyond the national boundaries. Who is slaughtering our workers, and their kids?
In the past eleven years when I have participated the independent labor movement in Taiwan, I have witnessed the realities of the life of those who workers on the basic level, and a system that have rationalized its suppression of the workers by relevant laws and regulations. In TAVOI, together with a group of victims of occupational injuries, we have tried to organized ourselves nationwide, so as to move forwards together, finding ways out. This is what I always in mine mind: those victims have witnessed with their bodies the economic transformations of a whole generation of Taiwanese. Under the shining cover of so-called "economic miracles", the ugly fact is that there already have been 50 thousand workers died of occupational injuries, and more than 20 thousand disabled for the rest of their lives. I will say this is an economic civil war, a war without a gun or a cannon fired, a war in which causalities have yet to be recorded.
In this society, all these success stories of the "disabled but not deficient"
are about individual disable people who have managed to achieve something for
themselves. But those individual announcements have been made against the background
of the silence of the majority of disabled people who have not. In TAVOI, individual
victims of occupational injuries have organized themselves together, so as to
use their collective strength to change the system, in the expectation of building
a "Safe" new world that is truly by workers, and for workers.