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Laid-off Workers Turn from Victims to Debtors in Taiwan

In a rather ironic case, Taiwan's Council of Labour Affairs (CLA), a government body in charge of protecting labour rights, wants to sue  workers who were laid-off by factory owners sixteen years ago. The council seeks money from the Legislative Yuan to bring legal action against more than 2,000 workers, who they say never returned the ‘loan’ the government offered as compensation for being laid off.

Since July 2012, members of the Alliance for Workers of Closed Factories (AWCF) and their supporters have been protesting against the CLA‘s [zh] decision. One of the most widely reported action was the occupation of the Taipei Subway station on August 10, 2012.

Victims turn into debtors

On August 10, 2012, workers from AWCF occupied the Taipei Subway Station against the CLA's lawsuit. Photo from coolloud.org. Permission for non-commercial use.

The story begins in 1998, when many factories in Taiwan relocated to China and other countries [zh] to cut their labour costs. Some of these factory owners announced bankruptcy and refused to pay their workers salary, retirement and other compensation. Many of the factory owners fled to other countries and reopened their factories, leaving the workers in Taiwan protesting in despair. The CLA was then assigned to negotiate with these labourers and the factory owners. While the factory owners refused to pay the compensation, the CLA decided to settle the conflict by granting “loans” to the workers to release them from financial burden before they found new jobs. The understanding was that the workers would not have to pay-back the so-called “loan” as the workers were also victims.

But recently, the CLA broke their promise and asked the Legislation Yuan for NTD20.56 million (approximately USD 709,000) to sue more than 2,000 workers who have not paid back their “loan”. In reaction to the decision, the AWCF protested in front of the Legislation Yuan [zh] on Oct 31. The CLA's action is outrageous, as Tiny fatty pointed out [zh] in his blog:

一個勞工工作了近半輩子結果領了退休金竟然還要做償還,
如果事件發生在你我身上的話,你不會想上街頭為自己討回公道嗎?

A worker spent half of his life-time working and finally get his pension. Now he has to pay it back. If such a thing happens to you or me, won't you demonstrate and seek justice?

To avoid further conflict, the CLA agreed to suspend the lawsuit, but refused [zh] to revoke the budget for the lawsuit, which means it may pursue the lawsuit later. In fact, according to Taiwan independent media, coolloud.org's report [zh] CLA's representative Keng-Pei Li (李庚霈) insisted that the money distributed to the workers 16 years ago was a “loan”:

不管過去的政府跟工人們談過什麼,現在也沒有記錄作憑證,目前勞委會只想找到一個雙方都能接受的處理方式。

No matter what the government negotiates with these labourers, we do not have any record as evidence. Now CLA only wants to find a solution that both CLA and these labourers can accept.

Jack and the beanstalk questioned [zh] the function of CLA:

勞工局不是應該要替勞方權益著想嗎?
現在竟然為了控告勞工,編列了2千萬預算……

Isn’t it CLA’s responsibility to take care of labours’ right?
On the contrary, CLA is asking a budget of 20 million to sue these labourers…

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