EVA Airlines strike could be a watershed moment for Taiwanese workers’ rights

Low wages and poor working conditions are common for Taiwanese workers. Could the EVA Airlines strike spark a sea-change?

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(By Wikimedia Commons)

TAIPEI (Taiwan News) -- The ongoing EVA Airlines strike looks set to become a watershed moment in the history of workers’ rights in Taiwan. And so it should.

At the time of writing, EVA Airlines is expected to lose at least 2,400 flights to the strike. With no deal in sight, the number could rise even higher.

The loss of so many flights is going to cause considerable damage to the company’s finances. It is currently estimated that they have lost around NT$1.75 billion so far. This is another figure we can expect to increase.

But the PR disaster that the strike has turned into is likely to have a much more significant long-term effect on the company.

The sorry state of EVA Airlines

While the strike has been in the pipeline for months, EVA seems to have made little effort to prepare for it. The result is that passengers have been left stranded and delayed for hours, if not days, while the airline scrambled to try and get as many flights airborne as it could.

This strike is the longest and biggest to ever hit a Taiwanese airline. Yet, remarkably the EVA Airline management is showing no sign of wanting to bring things to a conclusion. Quite the opposite. They have dug their heels in and taken some actions, like seeking to punish staff over so-called ‘strike retaliation,’ which have only made matters worse.

Perhaps this should come as no surprise. Their record on staff relations is lamentable as this excellent post from blogger Tricky Taipei illustrates. As the author, Kathy Cheng, highlights, EVA currently only have female cabin crew and have a long record of objectifying them.

Astonishingly, the company only introduced a sexual harassment policy in 2015 and claim to have only had one incident reported since. Coming from the company which was mired in scandal when it was revealed that one of their flight attendants was forced to wipe one obese American passenger's bum for him, this is hard to believe.

The way that the company turned on their staff rather than supporting them tells you everything you need to know about how the company values its workers. This same attitude appears to have been at the forefront of negotiations with the Taoyuan Flight Attendants Union to end the strike given how little progress has been made.

As negotiations have continued, EVA Airlines have tried to sue the union and sue staff directly for striking, while the union have made any agreement dependent on a promise not to punish striking staff once a compromise is finally reached.

Why this strike matters

Amid all the snipping and name-calling it is easy to forget just why EVA Airlines staff have felt the need to go out on strike in the first place. Striking is not an easy decision for anyone, especially in a country like Taiwan, where there is an ingrained culture of obedience.

The reasons for the strike were the appalling pay and conditions which many staff had to endure. The main complaints were over low pay, long working hours, and excessive overtime.

These are all legitimate complaints and things which staff have every right to strike over. Yet, the belligerence of both the EVA Airlines management and many ordinary Taiwanese citizens towards the airline's staff has been quite shocking at times.

EVA Airlines staff are far from the only Taiwanese employees to suffer in this way. The corporate culture in Taiwan is one of ‘work till you drop.’ There is pressure put on staff not to be the last one to arrive in the morning or the first to leave at the end of the day.

As a result, Taiwan has a chronic overworking problem and Taiwanese staff have the sixth longest working hours in the world.

Perhaps this wouldn’t matter so much if they were well remunerated for their efforts. But wages have been fairly stagnant for years, with the average annual salary in Taiwan being just NT$470,000 (around US$15,100).

With the cost of living and prices of houses rising at a significantly faster rate than wages, it is no surprise that employees are starting to push for rises.

However, Taiwan’s business culture is even further behind the curve than its wages. There is still a belief, particularly in older generations, that young Taiwanese should be grateful for any work they can get. There is a culture of not questioning authority or asking for more money but waiting your turn and respecting the decisions of your elders.

This would be fine if young Taiwanese workers were being dealt a fair hand. But as the current situation at EVA Airlines shows, they clearly aren’t.

It is a shame that the Taiwanese government hasn’t shown more inclination to step into the EVA Airlines strike saga and support the workers in their quest for better pay and conditions.

This situation offered them a fantastic opportunity to show ordinary Taiwanese workers that the Tsai Administration was on their side. It could even have ushered in a chance to promise legislation to improve workers’ rights, either in this parliament or after the 2020 presidential election.

Sadly, such support has not been forthcoming, with the Tsai administration seemingly concerned about alienating EVA Airlines, one of the biggest companies in the country.

It is not too late for them to step up to the plate. But regardless of whether they do or not, it is to be hoped that the Taiwanese people can back EVA Airlines staff.

They are taking a stand that could ultimately benefit all Taiwanese workers. They could well be pioneers of a movement to strengthen employees’ rights across all sectors. But for that to become a reality, Taiwan’s working class have to stick together.