Taiwan needs workplace reform

As another survey reveals the dire conditions endured by many Taiwanese workers, is it time Taiwan bit the bullet and kickstarted a complete employment overhaul


(Wikimedia Commons photo)

Yet another survey, published this week, has revealed the shocking conditions endured by many Taiwanese workers on a day-to-day basis. These surveys now seem to be a regular occurrence, yet no matter how troublesome the data might be, nothing in the real world ever seems to change.

The latest survey was produced by a Taiwanese recruitment firm, Yes123 job bank. It contains some staggering statistics which are well worth looking at a little more closely.

The headline statistic is that, of just under 9 million Taiwanese people who work in a salaried job, 5.41 million feel overworked. That means that 60% of the total workforce of Taiwan admit to feeling overworked. An astonishingly high number.

It is also worth bearing in mind, that with a culture of "grinning and bearing it" in the Taiwanese workplace, the actual figure could well be a lot higher.

It is hardly a surprise given that the average Taiwanese employee will work 2,116 hours a year. That means Taiwanese workers are the eighth longest working in the world. On average, Taiwanese employees will work almost 200 hours a year more than employees elsewhere in the world.

Those are the sort of figures you would expect in an emerging economy, but not in a modern developed economy like Taiwan. But what is most worrying is the impact these long hours will have on real people’s lives.

The alien concept of a work-life balance

The survey raises some of the health issues that employees have experienced as a result of being overworked, such as female employees suffering from abnormal menstrual cycles and auditory hallucinations. You could no doubt dig deeper and uncover increased risks of heart attacks, depression, and other conditions which can be directly triggered by excessive workplace stress.

But, even if your health is not being directly affected by overwork, one thing that definitely will be is your lifestyle. In places like the USA and Europe, a great deal of emphasis is put on the concept of work-life balance.

The general concept behind this is that people should work to live rather than live to work. Salaried employees should have enough free time to be able to relax and enjoy leisure pursuits, family time, and hobbies. The outcome of this is that employees are happier and less stressed and as a result more productive when they are working.

In Taiwan, it seems that the exact opposite is true. From an early age, kids are locked in cram schools until late in the evening studying. This seems to be conditioning them for a life in the Taiwanese workplace where the culture is that everyone strives to be the first person to arrive and the last person to leave, regardless of what work you have to do.

Many employees are also expected to undertake workplace training and personal skills development outside office hours, and often at their own cost. The result is that for most Taiwanese workers, their work-life balance is tilted very firmly towards work. As a result, their personal and families lives suffer considerably with a knock-on effect being felt by both their kids and even the grandparents, who have no choice but to pick up the slack when parents are not around.

The wider impact of poor working conditions

There are other ramifications of this culture as well. There has been much talk recently of the impacts of brain-drain on Taiwan, with many of Taiwan’s most talented young people choosing to work in the West, or even China, rather than at home.

There are two main reasons why they choose to do this. The first is the considerably higher salaries that they can earn overseas. And the second is the higher quality of life that they can enjoy there.

Successive Taiwanese Governments and many big Taiwanese companies have spoken about the importance of reversing this trend for the Taiwanese economy. Yet to date, little has been done to address the two main contributing factors to the issue.

Then there is the economic impact that the current working culture has. Low wages mean that many workers cannot afford to go out and spend money on products and services. But another thing which prevents them from doing this is that they simply do not have the time either. The knock-on effect of this is felt by shops, restaurants, and businesses everywhere and ultimately the tax man as well.

And employers suffer too. Overworked staff are far less happy and productive than those who have a good work-life balance. They produce lower quality work and make more mistakes, all of which ultimately costs businesses.

This is why in the EU, they have passed a working time directive which mandates that no one should work more than 48 hours a week. And in some developed countries, such as the Netherlands, New Zealand, and several Scandinavian countries, some businesses are even experimenting with a four-day working week and already seeing the benefits of giving staff three full days off a week.

Taiwan is yearning for workplace reforms

In Taiwan, if anything, the trend is moving in the opposite direction. Whenever companies encounter difficulties, the instinct is to demand that staff work longer hours and take on more work and responsibility. At the same time wages remain excruciatingly low, exacerbating the country’s cost of living crisis.

Something has to give, and I would suggest that now is the time for an urgent process of reform to get underway, which can act as a catalyst for significant change.

This is something the government needs to take a lead on. Domestic industry has failed to deliver improved working conditions over many years. This can be seen in the clear divide in both wages and working hours between employees of Taiwanese and non-Taiwanese companies.

If improvements to working conditions and wages are unable to develop organically, then regulation is needed to force them in. That means that the Taiwanese Government needs to look again at its minimum wage laws with a view to pushing salaries up, over a period of time, to reasonable levels.

They also need to look at introducing a working time directive which places strict limits on the number of hours a day, week, and month that salaried Taiwanese employees can work.

And most importantly of all, it needs to put an effective enforcement mechanism in place to ensure these new laws are being kept. That means a government body needs to be created with the sole task of enforcing workplace rules. It should have the power to carry out snap inspections on workplaces, issue fines, and also accept anonymous tip-offs and complaints from employees.

These changes would be seen by many in Taiwan as radical and would no doubt provoke strong opposition from traditional business leaders in the short-term. But ultimately, it would be they who would reap the benefits every bit as much as their staff, and the whole Taiwanese economy could take a giant leap forward.