Worked to Death: Amend the Labor Laws
China Times editorial (Taipei, Taiwan, ROC)
March 11, 2011
Responding to recent incidents of death from overwork, Premier Wu Den-yih said he was "deeply ashamed." Workers have indeed been worked to death. Employers may be directly responsible. But the laws have also failed to provide adequate protection. The system is ridded with loopholes. The "competent authorities" are anything but. This all adds up to government failure. We hope the government will amend the laws, become more involved, and provide greater protection for workers.
The Labor Standards Law states that the work day shall not exceed eight hours, Workers shall not be required to work more than 84 hours over a two week period. Overtime hours plus normal working hours shall not exceed 12 hours a day. Workers shall not be required to work more than 46 hours of overtime a month. But Article 84 of the Labor Standards Law contains an enormous loophole. It makes exceptions for work classified as "monitoring" or as "intermittent." Employers may then obtain exemption from the Council of Labor Affairs reqarding working hours, holidays, vacation leave, and women's night work.
As a result, Article 84 of the Labor Standards Law is jokingly referred to as the "Overlord Clause." Of course certain industries have special requirements. They require greater flexibility in scheduling working hours. But employers exploit this flexibility and force workers to work overtime endlessly, without legal consequences. Either that, or the penalties have no teeth. As a result, some employers have no qualms about exploiting their workers.
Between capital and labor, labor has long been at a disadvantage. It has long needed the protection of the law and of unions. But some industries or companies lack trade unions. Either that, or the trade unions are not strong enough. For workers to keep their jobs, they must often endure exploitation. Citing a "system of accountability," bosses often treat workers like beasts of burden. Workers dare not protest, even when they are worked so hard their livers burst. The Labor Standards Law makes exceptions for 36 types of labor. Nothing protects workers performing these types of labor against unreasonable demands. Once their rights have been violated, once their health has been endangered, they lose the ability to work any longer, due to fatigue or even death. They are no longer even able to seek legal redress.
In the past death due to overwork usually referred to the technology industry. These industries adopted a "system of accountability." Workers were assigned to one project after another. Many workers were kept so busy they had no time even to sleep, Some slept in the office. Electronics industry recruiters would joke that "a fresh batch of livers has just come in." In fact many other industries have been exempted from the Labor Standards Law. Many of them also have a high incident of burst livers. One 29 year old security guard was forced to work 288 hours a month. He was allowed only 73 hours of leave a year. He eventually died of a stroke while on duty. Such victims of legal loopholes raise public concerns. If the law is not amended, if conditions are not improved, if penalties are not increased, such tragic deaths from overwork will recur.
Certain industries do have special requirements. But this means different rules for working hours, overtime and leave. It does not mean carte blanche. It does not mean allowing employers to do whatever they want. Certain industries may have special requirements. But this is no excuse to risk workers' health or even workers' lives.
Article 84 of the Labor Standards Law states that employers may request exemptions from the CLA regarding limits on working hours. It states that employers and employees may negotiate their working hours, then report their agreement to the local competent authority. But in reality, such "agreements" between employers and employees are unilateral decisions made by employers, which workers are forced to sign. Workers who refuse risk being blacklisted or losing their jobs. As a result, they almost always acquiesce. On the surface these are bilateral agreements. In reality they fail to reflect the views of the workers. They enable employers to exploit workers and to deny them their rights.
Better methods are available. Competent authorities should listen to both employers and employees. They should weigh industry needs, establish rules that enable the industry to remain in operation, but also protect workers by limiting their working hours and ensuring sufficient leave time. For example, security guards should be allowed to work in shifts. This would offer them relief from the pressure of long working hours. Unfortunately many local authorities have a negative attitude. They have no desire to increase the work load. They have no desire to offend important local industries. They may even be indifferent to their working conditions. Such officials have defaulted on their responsibility to protect the public.
Business owners should also realize that no one has the right to sacrifice other peoples' lives. No matter how much big the company, no matter how high stock prices might rise, no matter how much they might contribute to the GDP, nothing is as valuable as a human life. Working conditions for employees is the responsibility of employers. No matter how demanding the work, one must not violate the fundamental principles of humanity. One must not callously sacrifice the health and lives of employees. Any company that does so is immoral. It should be condemned by society, and penalized by law.
A string of deaths from overwork has occurred on Taiwan. The law is clearly riddled with loopholes. Government agencies have been lax in their duty. They have given employers carte blanche, allowing them to exploit their employees. Death from overwork is a black mark on a company. It is also proof of government malfeasance. Taiwan's economic growth must not be built on the sweat and blood of hapless workers. The government must not turn a blind eye to the lives of workers, merely for a bigger bottom line.