Victory for Taiwan housewives

By Laurence Eyton, Asia Times, 11 June 2002

TAIPEI—Taiwan this week passed one of the most radical pieces of social legislation perhaps ever passed in an Asian country—and almost nobody noticed. The blandly named Civil Code Amendment bill makes Taiwan the first country anywhere in the world—to this reporter’s knowledge—to mandate cash payment for housework.

There was of course more, and less, to the legislation, than that. The aim of the change in the law was really to remedy inequities in the property-holding system that put women at a disadvantage. But it was the pay-for-housework clause which captured the headlines.

Many in Taiwan—and they are by no means all male—think that lawmakers should have had better things to do with their time than legislating on issues more usually associated with cranks and the lunatic fringes of feminism.

Others, more thoughtfully, have pointed to the vagaries in the new law and wondered how cases might be brought under it and judgments made using it, and how the results of those judgments might be enforced.

But the new legislation marks another step in an area in which radical change has taken place during the current government’s two years in office.

Much of this change has been barely noticed because it is not politically contentious and the object of partisan squabble. But when the humor has subsided, there might yet be a time when the presidency of Chen Shui-bian will be seen as a watershed for the promotion of sexual equality and the reform of a legal system that has long left women, at home and in the workplace, as second-class citizens.

The pay for housework provision is not specifically aimed at women; it is merely that the idea of a househusband in Taiwan is almost unheard of. The law says that a working spouse must pay a sum to a homemaker for the housework he or she does, the sum to be agreed between the two spouses. This sum is exclusively for the non-working spouse to spend as he or she pleases, and is extra to any sum that he or she receives for household expenses. If the couple are unable to agree upon a suitable sum to cover the value of the housework, then they can apply to a court, which will decide the issue.

Critics of the move have said that this gives the court a far too intrusive role in a couple’s personal affairs.

Supporters of the measure argue that it is up to the couple as to whether they take their disagreement to court in the first place, the judiciary is not forcing itself into their lives. What they think is of greater concern is that penalties for ignoring a court ruling in such cases were deleted from the bill in a committee stage. Supporters of the law are therefore concerned that it might simply create a class of deadbeat scofflaws, working spouses who refuse to pay the homemaker partners their pocket money and ignore a court order to do so.

The new law does not only try to regulate the position of working and stay-at-home spouses. It also stipulates that when both spouses work, their contribution to household expenses should be in proportion to their respective salaries. This provision has incurred a lot of criticism; most Taiwanese believe that who contributes what to the household is a matter strictly between family members in which the law should have no role.

But the measure is justified, say others, as are the property-related provisions of the amended law by a new phenomenon threatening marital harmony in Taiwan, mistresses or second wives in mainland China.

The time was when a philandering husband in Taiwan might have a fling with a bar girl, or even keep a mistress, but the very fact that he continued to live in the family home with his wife gave her some control. While married women’s property rights remained weak—property brought into a marriage by a woman became her husband’s to dispose of as he pleased—adultery is also a crime and the threat of prosecution gave women some leverage over erring husbands to ensure financial support.

Such redress is not open to a wife whose husband lives and works on the mainland and either keeps a Chinese mistress or has bigamously married a second time. And such cases have grown exponentially with Taiwan’s enormous business investment on the mainland. Thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of Taiwanese companies have factories or offices in mainland China that are headed by Taiwanese men, usually married and separated from their families. And these are not short-term assignments but involve stays of several years. Obviously some marriages fail. But the real problem, and the one that the revised Civil Code was introduced to solve, is that of husbands who strip their family of their assets to set up home across the Taiwan Strait.

Yu Mei-nu, a lawyer and longtime women’s rights activist, told a press conference in April: Since wives in Taiwan have few legal methods of redress if their husbands have affairs in China, the least we can do is to keep the property ... in Taiwan. Yu was especially concerned about the rights of children from a bigamous mainland marriage to inherit property from the husband’s first family in Taiwan.

Another problem with the unreformed law was that in Taiwan a husband’s wishes took precedence over those of his wife in any dispute about the division of jointly owned property and husbands were not obliged to hand over anything from the sale of such property. The new law says that property that a spouse brings into a marriage or acquires as an individual afterward remains his or hers exclusively. Property that has been acquired jointly cannot be transferred without the agreement of both parties, who can apply for a court order to determine their relative shares in the property should they be unable to agree themselves.

At a stroke this gives women far more control over both their own and family-acquired property. It redresses a situation in which women were often trapped in loveless marriages because if they walked out they would be left with nothing at all. One women’s rights advocate has called the measure the last step in dismantling Taiwan’s traditional patriarchal system.

Certainly women’s rights have been improved considerably since the current government took office in May 2000. Earlier this year the Gender Equality Labor law was passed, banning sexual discrimination in the workplace. In Taiwan this has been a highly contentious issue, with women being fired from jobs for getting pregnant and in some cases—most notoriously employees of the showpiece Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall in Taipei—being forced to resign even for getting married.

The next major step will be reform of the divorce law. Divorce is Taiwan can be as easy as signing a contract to dissolve a marriage—if both parties are agreeable—or almost impossible if one of the parties contests the issue. The government wants to introduce a no-contest divorce that would be allowed to proceed after three years’ separation even if one of the parties wanted to contest it.

Women’s groups are worried, and once again it is mainland China that is on their minds. Unless separation is better defined—perhaps as an agreement to live separately as a result of marital problems—there is a worry that, as Hsu Chia-ching, secretary general of the Taiwan Women’s League, told a press conference this week, Taiwanese businessmen based in China could ditch their Taiwanese spouses easily in order to marry their Chinese girlfriends. The issue gives a whole new dimension to the problems of cross-Strait links.