Deaths spotlight Taiwan's 'overwork' culture

File photo Taiwan workers protest in Taipei Taiwanese labour activists rallied at the Council of Labour Affairs in Taipei last year

Working hard is ingrained in Taiwanese society. But recent deaths attributed to overwork are leading people to question the culture for the first time.

The deaths of nearly 50 workers last year were blamed on working more overtime than allowed by law. This figure was as much as four times higher than the previous year, according to the Council of Labor Affairs (CLA).

There have been many high-profile cases over the past two years. They include:

  • Hsu Shao-pin, 29, an engineer at Nanya Technology, who worked 99 hours of overtime monthly, six months before he died. His parents found him slumped over his desk at home in 2010. He had died from a heart attack.
  • Chiang Ding-kuo, 29, a security guard for Chien Hsiang Security Service, suffered a stroke while working in 2010. In the nine years before he died, he worked 288 to 300 hours a month.
  • Hsieh Ming-hung, 30, an engineer for smartphone maker HTC, died in his dormitory in February. He worked an average of 68 hours of overtime monthly.

Investigators tasked by the government to look into what caused deaths related to overwork found that the victims generally had congenital conditions, especially heart problems. They also had high-risk factors, such as being overweight and being a smoker, which had been aggravated by too much work.

Many of them were in their late 20s to 40s.

'Finding loopholes'

The companies generally do not dispute the CLA's findings. They are only obliged to pay a relatively small fine for violating overtime laws. The labour insurance bureau compensates the victims' families for up to 3.75 years of their salary.

Start Quote

We've had these cases all along, including migrant workers who died from overwork. But in the past, some people thought it was just a regular heart attack.”

End Quote Sun Yu-lian Secretary-general, Taiwan Labor Front

"We've had these cases all along, including migrant workers who died from overwork. But in the past, some people thought it was just a regular heart attack," said Sun Yu-lian, secretary-general of Taiwan Labor Front.

"What's different about the recent cases is that the families dare to speak out."

Although Taiwan's labour law mandates that workers should not do more than 46 hours of overtime a month, some could be exempted from this if they agree to it.

"There are laws, but there are problems with the laws being followed. It has to do with the local culture," said Peng Feng-me, a specialist at the CLA's labour safety and health department.

"Taiwan's employers don't follow the laws. They find loopholes because they think no one will check."

Based on CLA data, the number of overwork cases is disproportionately low compared to Taiwan's work force and to similar economies like Japan and South Korea, leading many to believe the problem is under-reported.

Hotline

Taiwan ranks among the top countries with the longest working day, based on statistics.

On average, Taiwanese employees work about 2,200 hours annually - that is 20% more than Japan and the US, 30% more than the UK and 50% more than Germany, according to government data.

A government study in 2010 found that 80% of the big Taiwanese tech companies being investigated violated overtime laws.

But some officials say that conditions have improved.

"In recent years, we've made changes in the law to let workers have more recreation time," said Lo Chih-chiang, who until recently was a spokesman for the president's office.

Most workers now get two days off a week. The government has also threatened to increase fines and even jail employers. It also set up a hotline for violation reports and even lowered the maximum work hours for certain occupations.

But many still see 12-hour work days as the norm, with some managers even giving up annual holidays.

Business association head Lin Bing-bin Working hard in Taiwan is important to economic development, employers maintain

Susan Tai, who juggles 10-hour working days with caring for a baby, said leaving work early was not an option. "My colleagues would resent me and my boss would think I don't have enough work to do," she said.

Too late

Many also argue that Taiwan has to work so much to stay competitive.

Lin Bing-bin, who heads a business association, said that working hard in Taiwan is important to economic development.

"We, employers, agree we should raise workers' benefits, but we should not forget the hard-working attitude is a very important, basic factor of a country's economic development," said Mr Lin.

"The laws can be revised to be more strict and complete, but they shouldn't be too inflexible. If they are too strict, it could hurt Taiwan's economic development."

Trade unions are nearly non-existent or too weak to help pursue financial compensation. Many are also doubtful that the government will severely punish violators.

The problem with existing laws is the penalties are too light, analysts say. "Stepping up fines or jailing is too late - the worker has already died," Taiwan Labor Front's Mr Sun said.

But some companies, especially those with reported overwork-related deaths, are beginning to take notice. HTC banned employees from working past midnight after an engineer died, local media report. Nanya Technology now requires workers to get permission to work overtime, said vice-president Pei Lin Pai.

Mr Lo from the president's office said that as Taiwan seeks to "create a knowledge and innovation-based economy", "working hard will take on a new meaning". This means that long hours may not necessarily be the norm, but having time to recharge and be more creative should be factored in.

But while the prevailing culture continues, more workers have been reporting violations anonymously.

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