OPINION: by Jeffry Babb News Weekly
Economics isn't everything
, November 24, 2007
In Taiwan's deregulated labour market, bosses do what they please and workers have few rights. Jeffry Babb asks if this is what John Howard's controversial WorkChoices laws will portend for Australia.For 10 years, I worked in Taiwan as a journalist. From time to time, I would return to Australia to see my family, who remained in Melbourne.
Every nine months or so, when I was visiting in Australia for a couple of weeks, I noticed changes - the sort of things that creep up on you if you are a resident - such as the proliferation of electronic payment terminals. When the local Turkish restaurant started processing credit cards online, I knew things had changed fundamentally. As usual, I paid cash - and was given a discount.
What has really changed in the time I was away are the terms and conditions of employment. This sneaked up on me.
At the China Post
, where I was chief copy editor, we would grab any professionally-trained native English-speaking journalist with both hands.
We often hired Australians. They were expert journalists and worked hard. But what they found hard to adjust to were the rules - or lack of them. Australians have grown up with rule-governed behaviour.Boss makes the rules
On the China Post
, as in most Taiwan companies, the only rules were what the boss says they are. We were quite frequently asked to come in early to cover a special event, such as an election, but we still had to wait until 12 midnight to clock off.
Overtime was never offered and never paid. And when I say clock off, that is exactly what happened - there was a time-clock to punch out on. Arriving at work, we punched in. Being late by a minute meant losing at least an hour's pay - often two hours.
Other more fundamental changes were imposed on a take-it-or-leave-it basis, such as changing paydays from every fortnight to every calendar month, meaning we lost a month's pay over a year. These are only a few examples. These changes used to infuriate the staff, who would often move on to other publications.
When I use the term "rule-governed behaviour", I am not talking about a unionised workplace. Unions in Taiwan are organised on an enterprise basis. That does not mean they are tame-cat unions. They can be very strong.
Mergers in the banking sector, where many banks are owned by the central government, have been resisted for years by the unionised staff, who would simply close down the enterprise if a merger was announced. But in Australia, rule-governed behaviour is the norm.
In Australia, the terms of employment have been governed by awards. That is, workers knew what to expect.
The Coalition's WorkChoices has meant that terms and conditions can be altered unilaterally by the employer. I think that the Howard Government has underestimated the adverse reaction to WorkChoices.
WorkChoices outrages the Australian commitment to a "fair go". Workers have been stripped of their terms and conditions for derisory amounts. The Howard Government has very sensibly stopped advertising the so-called "safeguards" in WorkChoices, for the simple reason it reminds workers of what they might lose - or have already lost.
In Taiwan, the implicit bargain between workers and government has been that employees would work hard and accept poor conditions as long as full employment was maintained - if you didn't like one employer, you could soon find another.
Full employment is the worker's best defence against an unfair boss - if you don't like one job, you can simply leave and find a new one.
In recent years, as Taiwan has become a more developed country, relying on a growing services sector and high-tech manufacturing, the government has legislated to give workers more rights - in other words, becoming more like Australia.
The new government-mandated superannuation plan, similar to Australia's, relies on co-contributions by employers and employees. The old system was simply a rort to rob long-serving employees of their entitlements.Australia sliding back?
Ironically, Taiwan is developing the attributes of a family-friendly environment while Australia is sliding back. For example, 25 years ago almost all businesses in Taiwan stayed open seven days a week.
Now, most small businesses close on Sunday. Taiwan now has a distinct youth culture, based on a more affluent society and a new willingness to express an opinion.
The Liberal Party has simply lost the plot. The APEC leaders' conference, in which PM Howard placed so much faith, caused nothing but annoyance. Millions tuned in for the irreverent ABC Chasers' War on Everything
's APEC lampoon.
Taiwan politics no longer turns only on economics. Far bigger thing are at stake. Australia's Liberals soon are likely to hold not a single federal, state or territory government.
They may have simply got too close to big business - it killed the old United Australia Party, and Menzies structured the Liberal Party to avoid the same fate.
Perhaps they can learn from Taiwan that the economy is important - but it is not everything.