The Democratic Progressive Party government of President Tsai Ing-wen won its first major battle this week, but not without suffering major casualties.
Since it controls 68 out of 113 seats at the Legislative Yuan, it should come as no surprise that the DPP succeeded in pushing through its vision on amending the Labor Standards Act to reform the workweek and reduce the number of official annual days off for workers.
The main aim of the government has always been to introduce some level of uniformity and equality into a warren of rules different for every class of employees, with widely varying treatment of workers, farmers, civil servants, military personnel and teachers.
Tuesday’s vote at the Legislative Yuan was the logical outcome of that campaign, but the ruling camp’s handling of the issue left a lot to be desired, allowing the opposition to picture the DPP as the party oppressing laborers and taking away the holidays of the working class, in a reversal of traditional political roles.
The treatment of the issue at the Legislative Yuan also saw unexpected scenes. Top DPP lawmaker Ker Chien-ming was attacked in broad daylight with a water bottle and wrestled to the ground on the street by protesters. Inside the Legislature, politicians of the opposition Kuomintang were tussling, scuffling, moving about furniture, barricading doors and generally behaving in a way mostly used by the DPP when it formed the opposition.
Fissures even appeared within the green camp, with the New Power Party lambasting the DPP, though more on the issue of punishing employers who do not respect the law than on other issues. Ruling party lawmakers openly questioned whether the NPP, which finds its origin in the social movements which emerged as a counterweight to President Ma Ying-jeou’s pro-Chinese KMT policies, was still a friend or had become an enemy just like the main opposition party.
The small party, whose leaders played a prominent role in the Sunflower Movement, has been hoping to replace the KMT as the country’s main opposition party, and the workweek issue was a dream opportunity to try and overshadow its rivals.
Only when the conflict had lasted several months, did the DPP finally come up with a slate of concessions, including more days off for employees who stick with the same employer for a longer time.
However, by that time the protests outside and the clashes inside the Legislature had already consolidated the erroneous impression that the DPP was choosing the side of the employers and forcing laborers to work more days and longer hours.
The measures have now been voted and approved, paving the way for the reforms to be implemented beginning January 1, less than a month away. Because of all the attention for the protests, the government has seen itself forced to issue special explanations of how the amendments will affect the public.
The transportation sector is complaining about having to cancel some nighttime services and drop some special discount fares.
In the end, the changes left nobody happy. Employers made dark predictions about jobs being threatened, while labor activists accused Tsai of betrayal. The passage of the amendments might seem like a victory, but they are hardly likely to improve her opinion poll standings, which have been falling to reach the so-called “death cross,” the point where negative ratings outnumber positive ones.
The Tsai Administration cannot rest on its laurels and hope the workweek controversy was just an accident unlikely to be repeated. The government will see other contentious issues pop up, with one of the most immediate examples same-sex marriage, listed for discussion by the Legislative Yuan on December 26.
Other reforms on the launching pad include the ill-gotten assets of the KMT, social security and pensions, the judiciary system, imports of certain categories of food from Japan and the United States, and a higher military budget. On all of those topics, the government will need to be clear about what it wants to do.
Its priority will have to be to tell the public why its proposals will increase the efficiency of the country and the quality of life of the citizen.
The lessons from the workweek confrontation need to be learned for the future. Be clear, list your aims, by all means hear both sides of the argument and listen to complaints, but explain your final decision, make certain that the public understands what you are doing and why.