Taiwan’s Workers’ Movement

The China Academy is pleased to publish the following interview with Ms. Wang Juanping, Vice President of the Labour Party of Taiwan. Ms. Wang is a lifelong supporter of the labor movement in Taiwan.
October 23, 2023
Vice President of the Labour Party of Taiwan
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Question: You are known as the Iron Lady of the Taiwan labor movement. What motivated you to become involved in the labor movement?

Wang: After graduating from university, I noticed that despite having received a great education, many of my classmates struggled to find jobs unless they had strong family connections. Even those who graduated from postgraduate studies ended up working as salespeople. Those with better family connections could find jobs immediately. I felt that society was unfair.

My first job was in an electronics factory. I was deeply troubled by the unfairness of the overtime pay. The base salary was around 15,000 Taiwan dollars, but overtime pay was not calculated by the hour. Instead, you would receive 50 dollars after working several hours of overtime. The boss would say, “Go have a late-night snack.” It was not calculated according to the legal wage.

I left that company and joined the Labour Party to fight for labor rights. I realized that many people were unaware of labor laws. To fight for labor rights, you must understand labor laws. Hence, I started studying labor laws and continued to participate in the movement, educating more people about labor rights and encouraging them to form unions.

In the beginning, I learned from senior activists how to fight for workers’ rights. First, you need to understand labor laws, like a doctor diagnosing the problems workers face during labor disputes. What are the damages they have suffered? How can we fight for their rights? What is the purpose of the labor movement? Many people don’t know why they are fighting, but we do. We are fighting for national and class liberation. That’s how I started getting involved in the labor movement.

Question: How difficult is it to fight for workers’ rights in Taiwan?

Wang: The most shocking experience was during the election of the Taiwan Railway Union. The labor line was strong, and the KMT’s party department had gotten wind of it. They used meeting rules to obstruct the entire agenda. A worker representative jumped onto the stage to fight for procedural fairness. I saw railway police, sent by the railway bureau, enter the venue and arrest this person.

The whole process shocked me deeply. After being released, the man could not speak. He said, “Don’t ask me anything, I need to go home quickly.” Later, I learned he was tasered during the arrest. He was too scared to speak – a very terrifying situation. His fear and haste to leave made a deep impression on me.

I realized that fighting for workers’ rights is not easy, especially forming an independent union. The labor movement in Taiwan faces steep challenges.

Taiwan’s labor movement is very important, inspired by labor history. But it’s difficult now. Taiwanese workers have always been suppressed because their demands are modest, and they only engage in legal struggles.

Workers’ consciousness is crucial. First, workers are reserved about political participation because they don’t know how to express themselves. Secondly, the organization rate is low. Of 12 million workers, only about 500,000 have joined unions. So, communication with unions involves very few. Small unions with under 30 members account for 97%, meaning only 3% of unions have over 30 members.

Moreover, some labor movement people support the DPP. They can’t discuss certain issues well and can’t fight for workers’ future. There are also some without political positions. They don’t know their purpose in the labor movement. After helping workers get unpaid wages from businesses, they don’t know what to do next. Infighting within unions is fierce, and those in charge may not always stand with workers.

Question: Does Taiwan celebrate Labor Day on May 1st?

Wang: During the long period of martial law in Taiwan, you couldn’t gather and discuss matters with two other people. If three people were found discussing and someone reported it, they might have ended up in prison. After martial law was lifted, related activities could be organized and relevant rights could be fought for. There was labor law at that time, but people didn’t know how to fight for their rights.

After the lifting of martial law, I started working in 1988. That year’s May 1st Labor Day was the first time after martial law was lifted that workers took to the streets. I followed these predecessors to the scenes of labor-capital disputes. We were not very familiar with the laws, but we were about to march. At that time, we were preparing for the parade, figuring out how to promote it so these workers could come out, then fight for their rights, and how to highlight the importance of workers’ rights on May 1st. I got on the propaganda vehicle and had to talk to everyone about Labor Day. At that time, I only knew to tell everyone that today is May 1st Labor Day. Why are so many shops still open? You workers should take a day off, do you know? Do you know your rights? I think at that time I didn’t know much about workers’ rights, I wasn’t clear, but I went to the streets to talk about this. Since then, the Labor Party has organized related activities for May 1st Labor Day every year, mainly to raise workers’ consciousness.

We provided labor education on parts that these workers didn’t know about. We propagated it to various unions on May 1st, and we even handed out flyers in front of union companies. We have done all of these things. Moreover, in the early days, there were some labor-capital disputes. Just after martial law was lifted, the labor movement surged, fighting for overtime pay, fighting for year-end bonuses. Because of participation in this, everyone’s awareness of labor rights slightly improved, but only consciousness of rights and interests emerged without labor consciousness.

Therefore, every year on May 1st Labor Day, we would educate everyone about raising labor consciousness. What’s interesting is we talked about related workers’ rights issues on May 1st. We never talked about political issues. There was a year on May 1st, during the Sunflower Movement year. Everyone also said they didn’t want to talk about politics. We just discussed the demands of May 1st. A few groups talked about the Kuomintang and the ECFA (Cross-Strait Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement) issue, because there was no deep discussion about this so-called free trade issue at the meeting.

Because during our preparation process, we went to the Ministry of Economic Affairs to hold a press conference. I and several unions also attended. We believed the chaos should be resolved quickly, and then we opposed the Legislative Yuan occupation and this crude way of opposing ECFA. That night, after seeing the meeting record, I spent about 4 hours writing 6 lines of text on how to clearly state your position, and tell everyone that today we march is also everyone’s joint invitation to participate. So we will not participate in it, we will have our own May 1st activities, but regarding the unity of workers, does everyone have different views? This matter caused a great response.

So everyone put aside political considerations, just for the labor movement. Everyone gathered together and had a common language because the direction was the same, so everyone walked together. This kind of cooperation was achieved.

In summary, yes Taiwan does celebrate International Labor Day on May 1st with various activities and demonstrations. It’s an important date for the labor movement and workers’ rights in Taiwan, despite the complex political history.

Question: Where is the future of Taiwan’s workers?

Wang: Peaceful reunification across the strait is the most advantageous direction for Taiwan’s workers. How to tell them, not necessarily tell them, so we use a worker interview team to let them come to the mainland to take a look. Everyone likes to compare, I let you know what the mainland is like. For example, the Shanghai interview team, when I came, I just looked at Shanghai. I wanted the locals to tell me what it was like before, what it is like now, and its development process. So I am very concerned about labor laws across the strait, and because a union law was revised this year, I also gave my opinion. Taiwan’s union law is seen from the perspective of cross-strait relations. Many workers we brought over for visits saw clearly that many may just be (stigmatizing the mainland), and they will adopt a more reserved attitude.

The mainland is now very attractive to Taiwan, such as maternity leave. Taiwan’s maternity leave is only two months.

However, the future of Taiwan’s workers is complex, involving many factors like politics, economics, labor laws, unions, and cross-strait relations. While peaceful reunification may benefit some workers, others may disagree or prioritize different policies. Ultimately, improving workers’ rights in Taiwan requires open dialogue, progress on key issues like wages and working conditions, and finding common ground across political divides. The labor movement should focus on workers’ shared needs and make pragmatic gains. With commitment on all sides, the future of Taiwan’s workers can be bright.


Vice President of the Labour Party of Taiwan
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