More than three weeks after the Labor Standards Act amendments were passed by committee in Taiwan’s parliament, over 10,000 protesters from labor unions, student organizations and labor groups gathered outside the ruling DPP’s headquarters at 12:30 p.m. on December 23 to protest against the proposed labor reforms.
On December 4th, the Legislative Yuan, where the DPP holds the majority, made changes that reduces mandatory break time between shifts from 11 hours to 8 hours, allows for two mandatory holidays within two weeks instead of one day per week, raises the weekly legal overtime hours to 54 hours, calculates overtime pay by the hour instead of legally mandated amounts, and allows for unused annual leaves to be rolled over to the following year.
According to the protest organizers, the amendments would let employers exploit already overworked employees, such as potentially allow for 12 straight days of work, and is the “worst change since the Labor Standards Act was passed in 1984.” Proponents of the change say they reduce costs for employers, especially small and medium enterprises, while giving employees flexible work-life arrangements.
The Ministry of Labor says Taiwan has the fourth longest working hours among developed countries. Last year, the DPP already amended the Labor Standards Act once to mandate two holidays per week (one mandatory and one negotiable), in a move that some sees as favoring labor. After businesses complained about the change, discussions went underway leading to the current changes.
Public show of force
With the protest on December 4th failing to prevent the passage of the proposed amendments, organizers from labor rights groups called on the public to come out and join the march on December 23.
The day began when organizers positioned each group into their designated places, and led a few slogan chanting practices. Unlike traditional labor protests, artworks such as stickers and posters dotted the scene. A group that put together a satirical religious style protest on December 3 also set up a small altar at the scene and performed religious rituals to mock past comments made by Premier William Lai before heading on the march.
As demonstrators marched towards parliament, the police could be seen lining up on the other side of the fence without riot gear. However, soon after protesters walked up to the Executive Yuan, tension rose as organizers started to announce through the microphones that the police had intentionally confined the route of the protest, breaching the protesters’ right of way. Several protesters then shouted at the police and soon minor physical clashes erupted. The crowd kept charging towards the police while chanting “Police back off.” Soon, they broke through the police’s defense line, successfully occupying the entire intersection.
Demonstrators occupied the intersection while representatives addressed the crowd. After two hours of the peaceful sit-in, many members of regional labor unions left the scene. The remaining crowd then gathered for an attempt to breach the Executive Yuan. At around 6 p.m., the crowd was pushed back by the police. After the failed attempt, an end to the protest was called, but some demonstrators demanded further action. The two sides reached a consensus in the end, and youth activists quickly announced their willingness to stay with those who wished to keep protesting while telling the crowd that they were not obligated to stay until the end.
Flash mob protesting
The remaining protesters, made up mostly by youth activists and young union members, suddenly staged another impromptu street blockade, paralyzing traffic at one side of the busy intersection. With the police unable to remove them from the scene, protesters successfully got control over the intersection back.
However, their number also began to dwindle as the protest extended into the evening. At 9 p.m., the police began to remove protesters from the intersection by surrounding them from all sides, but the organizers advised protesters to march towards Taipei Main Station instead, temporarily blocking three lanes of traffic on Zhongxiao West Road. With the limited number of protesters participating in the flash mob style street blockade, the crowd soon moved down Gongyuan Road towards 228 Park, while police tried to set up barricades at couple of the intersections, trying to drive protesters into one space that they could encircle them. This prompted protesters to change directions again, going westward to Ximending.
A brief attempt to occupy the busy intersection at Ximen Metro Station collapsed, and the demonstrators then stormed through Ximending along Chengdu Road. They briefly disrupted traffic at several major intersections in the western part of Taipei City, despite swift police responses that forced them to keep moving. After marching through Civic Boulevard, the group agreed to return to the Executive Yuan, but what awaited them there was a large police force ready to end the almost 10 hour long protest that had created chaos throughout Taipei.
The police cordoned off the entire block, forcing protesters into the nearby alleyways. They later regrouped outside Taipei Main Station, but were soon encircled by around 200 to 300 riot police officers. Although some protesters managed to sneak into the station, the rest were surrounded by the police and confined for more than an hour.
Throughout the process, the police refused to engage in dialogue with protesters while being confronted about their legal grounds for denying protesters the freedom of movement. In the end, all remaining protesters, including four lawyers at the scene, were forcefully dragged onto police buses, and later dropped off summarily in surrounding suburbs of Neihu, Muzha, Nangang and Guandu.
Police action and lawyers detained
During the protests, four lawyers present to represent protesters and mediate between the protesters and the police were detained on unclear grounds by the police, and dropped off in the suburbs at the end of the night.
After a night of clashes between protesters and the police, the Taipei Bar Association issued public statements to condemn the police’s handling of last night’s event. According to the statement, the Taipei Bar Association considers the arrest of the four lawyers an attack on democracy and human rights. Additionally, it called on the government and the police to respect lawyers’ rights while fulfilling police responsibilities.
“We ask the government to look into last night’s arrest process, deliberation process and the handling of the event,” stated Taipei Bar Association on its Facebook page. “Additionally, the government should apologize, penalize last night’s on-site commanders and release a list of police officers who mishandled last night’s incident.”
According to the statement, even the KMT authoritarian regime did not openly arrest lawyers at protests.
Even though the protest dispersed without any response from the administration, it did manage to pull substantial media attention back on the issue and inject new momentum into the social movement scene in Taiwan.
During the protest, youth activists adopted a new form of street protest that is different from the traditional marches or sit-ins. Instead of simply gathering and walking down the street with banners or clashing directly with the police, last night’s protest saw demonstrators maintain a high level of flexibility by staging several flash mob style street blockades.
While this may be considered as lack of coordination or concrete strategy, it took the police by surprise. Additionally, the spontaneous decision to storm through Ximending helped to increase the online exposure of last night’s protest, as many weekend shoppers and tourists took out their phones to film and livestream the event, allowing fresh footage to flood major social media platforms. It was clear that yesterday’s protest created a level of intensity on the street that hasn’t been witnessed in Taiwan since the Sunflower Movement.
While a clear generational gap was reflected through yesterday’s event, it was encouraging to see youth activists try to use the attention generated through yesterday’s protest to pressure the government to reconsider its plans and begin a dialogue with the labor force.
The Ministry of Labor issued a press release late last night emphasizing that the proposed amendments will not breach labor rights while the extreme cases of exploitation cited by the protesters, such as 12-day shifts, will unlikely become the norm. DPP plans to call an interim meeting on January 4 to kick off multi-party negotiations within parliament.
The protest yesterday will unlikely reverse the tide of the legislation. However, the protest adds another page to Taiwan’s history of street demonstrations expanding the boundaries of Taiwan’s civil discourse. It will also add momentum to Taiwan’s social movement scene, and that momentum will surely carry over to other issues, creating a ripple effect that may eventually have larger impact on the course of the nation.
(Feature photo by William Yang)
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