Q & A about Labor situation in Taiwan

1. How dangerous is work in Taiwan (with concrete examples if possible) and in which sectors in particular?

The latest state statistics from Taiwan shows that in year 2000 alone, there were 56,927 people injured or dead due to unsafe workplace conditions. I suppose this can give one a rough idea of how dangerous work in Taiwan is: if the Government is right with its research, on average, in every one thousand Taiwanese who work today, there are more than four people injured or becoming ill, nearly one permanently disabled, and another one killed each year. The same statistics also shows that it is particularly dangerous for Taiwanese to work in manufacturing, mining and quarrying, and construction. In these three sections, the occupational injuries ratio per thousand is, respectively, 7.070, 11.902 and 13.402, all exceeding the national average 5.135.

These figures are, in my opinion, furiously high and utterly unacceptable. Many labor activists here also regard these state statistics as incomplete. They reflect something that is only the tip of the ice burger. The health and safety of workers in Taiwan has not been well guarded. They have built an economic "miracle" for this country with their blood and sweat, and what have they received in return? Well, apart from a minimized salary, many have earned a scarred face, a crushed limb, a failing lung/ heart/ liver, a shattered existence, and a traumatized family. That is an undeniable truth, and, yes, it is ugly. This much explains why the society tends to turn its gaze away from it. The victims of occupational injuries and death have been positioned as the blind spot of the society. In other words, for the Taiwanese society continues to see itself as desirable as a "miracle", the victims of occupational injuries and death have been forced to live on the margin of the society. They are marginalized. On the contrary, the TAVOI are here to stand against this tide of social hallucination. We will no longer allow this problem to gone unnoticed or in any way underestimated. We want the Taiwanese society to look, right at its blind spot.

2. Do you think that the level of health and safety at work is lower in developing countries?

I am not sure whether I could gather enough evidence to make this type of generalization. However, a state statistics I came across recently seems to suggest that this is the case in Taiwan: in 1998, the fatal rates of industrial accident per thousand in Taiwan was 0.094, a figure that was much higher than that in many "developed" nations, such as US (0.045), Canada (0.056), France (0.045), German (0.038), Japan (0.034), and Britain (0.008). Again, I must stress that there are many reasons for me to believe that the figure in Taiwan was much higher, and the situation much worse in reality. In this respect, I suppose one can also draw a comparison between Taiwan and other fellow Southeast Asian economic "miracles", only to find yet another similarity: Korean (0.2) and Singapore (0.142). As I said, I do not want to make any kind of simplistic assertion. For the time being, I only want to emphasize this: Taiwanese working class, like workers of many other "developing" nations, have paid a high, and even full price in this crude business of development.

3. What has been the effect of globalization on the healthy and safety of workers?

I consider the impact of globalization - I shall use the term here as we commonly understand it today: the opening of national boundaries and markets, the free flow of international capitalism - on nations such as Taiwan as being largely negative. True, Taiwan is still in the fever of celebrating its entry into WTO recently. Taiwan, however, has long been kissed by the power of globalization since the 1960s, when foreign capital down poured our economic processing zones to exploit the cheap labor, low taxation, and environmental "friendliness" of this country. And how much do these multinationals care about the healthy and safety of our workers? Well, let consider an example.

Before its closure in 1992,there were 20,000 to 30,000 people worked on the RCA (Radio Cooperation of American) production lines in Taiwan, and many have been diagnosed as developing certain forms of cancer. Even though the real cause of their illness is yet to be established, many former RCA workers believe it has something to do with the underground water they drank and showered every day in the factories. A serious of investigation has revealed that the underground water could have been polluted by the company that had systematically dumped toxic waste into its environment since its establishment in Taiwan in 1960.

No wonder many former RCA employees lamented: the RCA weights their lives less than dirt. Of them, if my data is correct, at least 216 have already died from cancer. This, unfortunately, is not an isolated incident. Examples such as this are countless. I understand how easily this kind of story can evoke nationalistic sentiments: good natives bulled by evil foreigners. However, I am not sure if one can extract anything out from this kind of simplistic assertion, apart from certain collective hatred. But a movement that aims to the society cannot be powered by hatred alone. We must see that there is a structure: capital will have its say, and it always flows into the place that is best for its reproduction. Therefore, cheap labor, low taxation, "friendly" environment, and the compromised health and safety of workers, sadly, they are all part of the package.

In this context, it is not surprised to see how the health and safety of migrant workers are compromised in this nation by their "evil" Taiwanese bosses, or how less they care about the lives of workers they have hired in other countries, such as Thailand, Philippine, Indonesia, Vietnam and China. Remember the fire in the Kader Toy Factory on the outskirts of Bangkok on May 1993, which killed 188 workers and seriously injured 469. Surely the Taiwanese/ Hong Kong investors of the company should be taken fully responsible for the perished Thai souls in the fire. However, to prevent more "Kader" from happening, there are more to be done.

4. How is TAVOI working to improve health and safety in Taiwan, can you give examples of encouraging results you have had?

In 1992, a small group of workers who had received various kinds of occupational injuries decided to establish a new organization to fight for the reorganization and compensation they always deserved. Soon, families of workers who were killed of the same reason joined. Since its establishment, TAVOI has grown into an organization that has more than 600 individual members, 15 group members, and a hotline that serves more than 2,000 persons every year. In TAVOI, our members give each other comfort and support. Yet, more importantly, there is a call for other workers of a similar traumatic experience to come out, to form a wider coalition, and most crucially, to fight. TAVOI is a demonstration of solidarity. In the past decade we have been engaging in the following activities to make this happen:

1) We have pressed the Government to adopt a new law to strengthen its health and safety measures for the protection of workers. Last year, under our efforts, the special act was passed in the parliament, which also makes April 28 a national day in Taiwan.
2) We have trained the victims and the families of the victims of the occupational injuries and death to become specialists in the field of labor health and safety. Many of them now deliver lessons in places such as hospitals and schools, and some serve as expert consultants in trade unions. They are unique in their ability to combine a thorough understanding of the relevant labor legislations with a hard lesson from personally experiences.
3) We have launched several individual campaigns to support different groups of workers and family of workers who died or injured in work. For example, a hotline for the young adults has been on service since 1997, in every summer break, when many youngsters work as part-time. Since 1999,we have been involved in working with the aboriginal people, calling social attentions to the fact that they often receive less protection in health and safety. A special campaign for the welfare of migrant workers, another less protected group in Taiwan, was also launched at the same year. In 2000, we filed a compensation lawsuit for the families of sixteen missing crews on a fishing vessel.
4) In some major cases, we have taken trouble to establish sub-organizations to coordinate the campaign, such as the one for the former RAC workers, which was established in 1998. It was under the pressure of these women workers that the Government finally agreed to subject breast-removal operation patients under its disability compensation scheme.
5) Since 1997, we have started another major campaign for the subway construction workers in Taipei who had caught what is commonly known as the "diver's disease". Finally, under their influence, a historical milestone was achieved when the violent construction practice that is known to cause this type of illness was banned in this country. The subway system also erected two memorials to pay tribute to those who have suffered in this incident.
6) Besides, since 1999, in every spring, we have held religious services for those who died on work. Console the dead, yes, but we also use it as a mechanism to reach out, encouraging more and more families to come out, and to call social attentions to this group of underprivileged people.
7) Finally, researches, photo collections, interviews, and memoirs of our members have been published in various forms. A art workshop has been set up to encourage our members to depict, or even to come to terms with, their traumatic experiences. For a similar purpose, a choir has been organized, and a concert was staged in the National Opera House in 2000.

5. What activities is TAVOI organizing around the 28th April?

Q: On April 17, a national press conference was hold to launch our activities this year. A simple ceremony was included in which bells were ringed, and prayers were delivered by a collection of religious leaders from some main different practices in this country. A series of services for the diseased workers will run throughout the April according to these different religious practices. An exhibition with paintings contributed by our members will open itself to the public from April 21. To accompany this event, a collection of these works will also be published, and a mini conference on the development of working class culture will be hold. On April 27, over a press conference hold specifically for them, our expert consultants in the field of labor safety and health will announce their plan to tour the country this year. In coordinate with many other countries in the world, on April 28, 04:28 PM, we will gather to light our candle of hope, which is to be accompanied by singing. We will also encourage people to wear a red rubbing on their thumb, in commemoration of those who injured or died on work. .