Premier insists employees want flexible work-hour system

Premier Lai Ching-te, third right, responds to questions at a press conference on Nov. 9, 2017. The premier on Thursday insisted workers also wanted a flexible work-hour system as labor rights groups criticized his Cabinet's approval of amendments to a law that had restricted how much businesses can ask their employees to work, to allow companies flexible use of work hours. (CNA)

TAIPEI (CNA) – Taiwan’s Premier Lai Ching-te (賴清德) on Thursday insisted workers also wanted a flexible work-hour system as labor rights groups criticized his Cabinet’s approval of amendments to a law that had restricted how much businesses can ask their employees to work, to allow companies flexible use of work hours.

The Cabinet was responding to the business leaders’ demands by approving the amendments on Thursday but labor rights groups say the law, if amended, would be a “draconian law.” To deliver on President Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) campaign promises to ensure two paid days off per week and to shorten Taiwanese workers’ annual hours worked, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) government pushed through reforms to the Labor Standard Act in November last year.

Under the reforms, which took effect Jan. 1, employees must get two days off per week – one mandatory day off and the other “flexible rest day.” The latter means that employees can opt to work if employers ask them to.

The law also raised overtime pay rates for flexible rest days to discourage employers from asking employees to work on those days. That, combined with the rule that bars employees from working more than six days without a break, was considered by the DPP as an interim to implementing a five-day work week with two mandatory days off, to bring Taiwan in step with other industrialized, advanced economies.

But in less than a year after the law was passed, five major changes to the workweek system were proposed, as reflected in the Cabinet-sponsored amendments adopted on Thursday.

First, compensation on flexible rest days will be calculated based on the actual amount of time worked, not a range, which would effectively lower the amount of overtime companies must pay.

Currently, on a flexible rest day, working less than four hours would be counted as working for four hours; working between four to eight hours is regarded as working for eight hours, and working between 8 to 12 hours is deemed as working for 12 hours.

Second, exception to the rule banning employees from working more than six consecutive days can be made for a business sector after it seeks consent from the government agency supervising it.

The proposal would then be reviewed by the Ministry of Labor mandated to require an enterprise to further secure consent of its employees through negotiation or consent of their trade union.

In that case, employees could work 12 days in a row if the mandatory day offs fall on either end of the 12-day period.

Third, the proposed amendments change the regulations on overtime work by increasing the maximum overtime hours allowed per month from 46 to 54, but capping them at 138 hours over three months.

Meanwhile, the amendment guarantees a break of at least 8 hours between work shifts, rather than 11 hours as the law specifies at present.

Lastly, the amendment proposed that employees could take unused annual leave accrued in the previous year. Currently, unused annual leave should be paid out instead of being carried over to the next year.

After the Cabinet approved the changes, Premier Lai presided over a press conference to explain the rationales for the revisions.

Lai said that the revisions were made to meet the needs of both business managers and employees.

“Flexibility is not just what business leaders want, it is also desired by employees,” Lai said.

The reason Taiwan’s 1.4 million small- and medium-sized businesses are praised as role models and have become the backbone of the nation’s economy, providing 8 million jobs, is mainly because of the old flexible work hour system, in addition to their innovation and capability, Lai said.

Lai said that the “rigidity” of the revised current work hour regulations not only made it difficult for businesses to set personnel schedules but also increased their operational costs and hardship for employees.

The rule originally aimed at enabling employees working on flexible rest days to earn more overtime pay turned out to be like “a pie in the sky,” Lai said.

“There were cases of workers not given a chance to work overtime having to moonlight to make ends meet,” Lai said. “[The amendment last year] has made life more difficult for them. Could we just turn a blind eye to the problems entailed by that amendment?” Lai called for cooperation between opposition parties and the government and between businesses and labor groups to revise the law because “economic development is what people most anticipate.” In response to the point made by Lai, Hang Shr-shian (韓仕賢), general-secretary of Taiwan Federation of Financial Unions, an organizer of the protest, told CNA that the path of economic growth should be driven by industrial upgrading rather than reduction in personnel costs.

Hang said that giving businesses too much leeway in determining their workers’ work schedules would be harmful to industrial upgrading because the companies will be able to stay afloat by reducing personnel costs without seeking to upgrade themselves through investment in R&D.

Asked if economic growth coming at the expense of labors rights would be a cause of concern, Lai said that under the amendment, the normal working hours, five-day workweek, the upper limit of overtime hours, and overtime rates “remain unchanged.” “Simply put, the four rules that remain unchanged can guarantee labors’ rights. The amendment is to give flexibility to both businesses and employees for them to cooperate to boost the economy,” Lai said.

By Shih Hsiu-chua