President’s informal remarks speak volumes

The China Post news staff

President Tsai Ing-wen usually guards her words carefully: At times, her prudence has shielded her from gaffes. But this prudence has also earned her the nickname “hollow vegetable” — a play on her last name Tsai (a homophone in Chinese for “vegetable”) and a pointed critique of her lack of substance. That’s why the president’s off-the-cuff remarks to reporters on her return flight from a Central America trip last week was such a rare opportunity for the public to see the person behind the presidency. Tsai was chatting with journalists when one of them suggested that media workers too needed to enjoy the “one fixed day off and one flexible day off (a week)” guaranteed by her new labor law.

The president, feeling relaxed after completing her diplomatic trip and probably perceiving the comment as informal banter, replied, “You don’t talk to me about that! You ought to talk to your boss.” She went on suggest that workers should seek to negotiate with their employers instead of relying on appealing to the government. ”The government has turned from a neutral arbiter into an involved party. That’s what has become (of the government.) You (the reporters) must stand up and fight on your own,” she said. It is true that the government does not have the power or ability to negotiate holiday schedules (and by extension other labor rights issues) on behalf of all laborers in Taiwan. But telling workers that they are “on their own” in a battle the government is only inadvertently caught in was not the best way to communicate this point. Unsurprisingly, the president was criticized for avoiding responsibility for controversial reforms to labor rights. The Presidential Office scrambled to walk back Tsai’s remarks, saying she meant that the revised labor law did have provisions on holidays, and as it was “still the grace period,” the reporters should talk to their employers. This was not the first time the president made a misstep on labor rights. In May 2015, Tsai, then a candidate for president, told business leaders at a forum: “Frankly speaking, I also think there are too many holidays in Taiwan.” She later apologized on Facebook for “causing misunderstanding and controversies,” explaining that she did not have time to elaborate on her ideas at the forum.