Yet another employee has committed suicide at a plant in China owned by Taiwanese company Foxconn. The issue has been discussed at length in the media, with some saying that modern production puts too much pressure on workers. Chinese academics blame an unfair society and labor system.
One crucial factor has been missing from the discussions — labor relations. This is a thorny problem in any capitalist system and one that inevitably touches on the right of workers to organize.
Many Taiwanese high-tech companies say that their management systems provide employees with better welfare, in the same way that a patriarch grants favors to the younger generation in a family. This, however, is a matter of charity and runs counter to the rights of workers as equal citizens in a democratic society to freely organize labor unions to represent their interests.
In the past, it was said that applicants for jobs at one of Taiwan’s top 100 companies were asked: “If the conditions offered by the company were far better than what is required by labor legislation, would you still feel that there was a need to join a labor union?”
If the answer was “yes,” so the story goes, the candidate was rejected.
When amending the Teacher’s Act (教師法), the Ministry of Education and certain legislators thought that the conditions enjoyed by university professors were so good that they should be denied the right to form a union.
Employers are still guided by a dated view of management, namely: “What are you complaining about? I gave you the best.”
Foxconn’s management system is a microcosm of Taiwanese society. The firm provides a far better environment than other companies, paying salaries and making social security contributions in accordance with the law. Dormitories, canteens, holidays and entertainment centers are all provided. However superficially impressive, such a patriarchal mentality does not allow labor unions and cannot tolerate “disobedient” employees or external criticism.
This approach to management is not unique to Foxconn. The same situation exists at Young Fast Optoelectronics in Taiwan, where employees were laid off recently after trying to organize a labor union. When the government intervened and asked the company to rehire the fired employees, the firm’s leadership resisted, choosing to spend money on lawsuits instead.
It is also common to see companies organize their own “in-house” labor unions as a way of “taming” employees. Independent worker-organized labor unions do not exist in Chinese factories. The deputy factory director is often the union chairman and is also frequently sent by local government, with no interest in speaking up for the workers.
When employees at Young Fast Optoelectronics organized their 90-strong labor union, the company sent more than 400 other workers to join this young organization in an attempt to control it from within.
Research shows that Taiwanese factories in Vietnam claiming to provide better welfare, higher salaries and better working conditions than their competitors, in full compliance with government regulations, still experience serious strikes. In contrast, one Taiwanese factory in Vietnam paid slightly less than rivals, but its workers never went on strike. Why?
The simple answer is that this company allowed workers to organize labor unions. The election of union cadres followed democratic procedures. Whenever there was a dispute between workers and management, representatives from both sides sat down and talked to resolve problems in a mutually beneficial way. Issues addressed included foremen shouting at workers, unfair compensation and fights among personnel.
Taiwan’s high-tech companies are the product of a special type of labor system that has its roots firmly in the past. They provide welfare with a patriarchal mentality, but lower wages, suppress workers’ right of association and ask for preferential rental taxes to accumulate company capital.
Such policies create an environment which denies Taiwanese workers basic human rights.
The decision by so many Foxconn employees to commit suicide is not merely an issue of personal psychological problems. Neither hiring monks to bring benediction to the factory nor bringing in 2,000 mental-health counselors will solve the conflict between workers and the management.
The only solution to this dilemma is to allow dialogue on an equal footing between workers and management through the establishment of labor unions.
Wang Hong-zen is president of the Graduate Institute of Sociology at National Sun Yat-sen University.
TRANSLATED BY WU TAIJING
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