From: ICFTU Press <press@icftu.org>
To: ICFTU Online <icftu-online@forum.icftu.org>
Subject: ICFTU on-line: 'Spotlight' on Chang Junche from the Taiwan Association for Victims of Occupational Injuries (TAVOI).
Date: Fri, 26 Apr 2002 14:59:03 +0200

TAVOI: Combating the dangers for workers in Taiwan

ICFTU Online, … , 086/260402/JL, 26 April 2002

Brussels 27 April 2002 (ICFTU OnLine): Events observing the Day of Mourning for Dead and Injured Workers are taking place worldwide on 28th April. To explain the issues at stake on this day, the ICFTU is launching a series of interviews, the second of these is with Chang Junche from the Taiwan Association for Victims of Occupational Injuries (TAVOI).

For the first time, the Taiwan Association for Victims of Occupational Injuries (TAVOI) will be taking part in the Commemoration Day for Injured and Dead Workers on April 28th. At the forefront for the protection of workers in Taiwan, Chang Junche, International Solidarity Officer of TAVOI, spoke to James Lorenz for an ICFTU 'spotlight' interview.

How dangerous is work in Taiwan and in which sectors in particular?

The latest state statistics from Taiwan show that, in the year 2000 alone, there were 56,927 people injured or dead due to unsafe workplace conditions. I suppose this can give a rough idea of how dangerous work in Taiwan is: if the government is right in its research, on average, for every one thousand Taiwanese who work today, there are more than four people injured or made ill, nearly one permanently disabled, and another one killed each year. The same statistics also show that it is particularly dangerous for our people to work in the fields of manufacturing, mining and quarrying, and, in particular, construction. In these three sections, the occupational injury ratio per thousand is, respectively, 7.070, 11.902 and 13.402, all exceeding the national average 5.135.

These figures are enormously high and utterly unacceptable. Many labour activists here also regard these state statistics as incomplete, reflecting something that is only the tip of the iceberg. The health and safety of workers in Taiwan has not been well protected, it is not good enough. They have built an economic miracle for this country with their blood and sweat, and what have they received in return? Apart from a minimal salary, many have earned a scarred face, a crushed limb, a failing lung/ heart/ liver, a shattered life, and a traumatized family.

That is an undeniable fact, and, yes, it is ugly. This much explains why the society tends to turn its gaze away from it. The victims of occupational injuries and death have been positioned as, or at the blind spot of the society. For the merry Taiwanese society continues to see itself as a miracle, while the victims of occupational injuries and death have to be hidden away. We can say they have been forced to live on the margin of society. Taiwan is a society that refuses to wake up from its own fantasy. TAVOI on the other hand is here to stand against this tidal wave of social hallucination. We will no longer allow this problem to go unnoticed or underestimated. We want the Taiwanese society to be able to look squarely at its blind spot.

Do you think that the level of health and safety at work is lower in developing countries?

I am not sure whether I could gather enough evidence to make this kind of generalization. However, recent state statistics seem to suggest that this is the case in Taiwan: in 1998, the fatal rates of industrial accident per thousand in Taiwan was 0.094, a figure that was much higher than that in many developed nations: US (0.045), Canada (0.056), France (0.045), German (0.038), Japan (0.034), and Britain (0.008). Again, there are many reasons for me to believe that in reality, the figure would be much higher in Taiwan and the gap between it and other developed nations much wider. In this respect, I suppose one can also draw a comparison between Taiwan and other Southeast Asian economic miracles, only to find their similarity: Korean (0.2) and Singapore (0.142). As I said, I do not want to make any kind of simplistic assertion, but there is an iron fact: Taiwanese workers, like those of many other developing nations, have paid a high price in this crude business of economic development.

What has been the effect of globalization on the healthy and safety of workers?

I consider the impact of globalization - here I shall use the term as we commonly understand it today: the opening of national boundaries and markets, the free flow of international capitalism - on nations such as Taiwan as being largely negative. True, Taiwan is still in the fever of celebrating its recent entry into WTO, and it might be too early to be pessimistic. Taiwan, however, has been touched by the power of globalization since the 1960s, when foreign capital first poured into our economic processing zones to exploit the cheapness of labour, lowness of taxation, and environmental friendliness of this country. And how much, if any, do these multinationals care about the health and safety of our workers? Well, let us consider an example.

Before its closure in 1992, there were 20,000 to 30,000 people who worked on the RCA (Radio Cooperation of American) production lines in Taiwan, and many now have been diagnosed as developing certain forms of cancer. Even though the real cause of their illness is yet to be established, many former RCA workers believe it has something to do with the underground water they drank and showered in every day in the factories. A series of investigations have revealed that the underground water in question could have been polluted by the company that had systematically dumped toxic waste into its environment since its establishment in Taiwan in 1960.

No wonder many former RCA employees lamented that the RCA values their lives less than dirt. Of them, if my data is correct, at least 216 have already died from cancer. This, unfortunately, is not an isolated incident.

I understand how easily this kind of story can evoke nationalistic antagonisms: good natives bullied by evil foreigners. However, apart from a certain collective hatred, I am not sure if one can extract anything else out from this type of simplistic argument. In this context, one should not be surprised to see how the health and safety of migrant workers in this country are equally compromised by their evil Taiwanese bosses, or how less these Taiwanese care about the lives of workers they have hired in Thailand, Philippine, Indonesia, Vietnam and China. Let us not forget the fire in the Kader Toy Factory on the outskirts of Bangkok on May 1993, which killed 188 workers and seriously injured 469. Surely the Taiwanese/ Hong Kong investors of the company are fully responsible for the perished Thai souls in that fire. However, to prevent another Kader from happening, there is more to be done.

How is TAVOI working to improve health and safety in Taiwan, can you give examples of encouraging results you have had?

In 1992, a small group of workers who had received various kinds of occupational injuries decided to establish a new organization to fight for the compensation they deserved. Soon, families of workers who had been killed also began to join. Since its establishment, TAVOI has grown into an organization that has more than 600 individual members, 15 group members, and a hotline that serves more than 2,000 persons every year. In TAVOI, our members give each other comfort and support. Yet, more importantly, there is a call for other workers who have suffered similar traumatic experiences to come out, to form a wider coalition, and most crucially, to fight for greater rights for workers in a similar situation. TAVOI is, in short, a demonstration of solidarity. In the past decade we have been engaging in the following activities to make this happen:

1) Last year, we pressed the government to fulfill its commitment to the protection of workers through the adoption of a new law that will strengthen its health and safety measures. The same legislation also makes April 28, Workers Memorial Day, a national day. 2) We have trained the victims and the families of the victims of the occupational injuries and death to become specialists in the field of labor health and safety. Many of them have been invited to deliver lessons in places such as hospitals and schools, and some have served as expert consultants in local trade unions. They are unique in the way that they have been able to combine a thorough understanding of the relevant labour legislation with a hard lesson from personally experiences. 3) We have launched several individual campaigns to support different groups of workers and family of workers who died or were injured at work. For example, a hotline for the young adults has been in service since 1997, in every summer break when many youngsters work as part-time. Since 1999, we have been involved in working with the aboriginal people, calling social attention to the fact that they often receive less protection in health and safety. A special campaign for the welfare of migrant workers, another less protected group in Taiwan, was also launched in the same year. In 2000, for the families of sixteen missing fishing crews, we filed a lawsuit for compensation with some satisfying results. 4) In some major cases, we have established sub-organizations in order to coordinate the campaign, such as the one for the former RAC workers, which was established in 1998. It was under the pressure of these women workers that the government finally agreed to include breast-removal operation patients in its disability compensation scheme. 5) Since 1997, we have started another major campaign for the subway construction workers in Taipei who had caught what is commonly known as the diver's disease. Finally, under their influence, a historical milestone was reached when the violent construction practice that is known to cause this type of illness was banned in this country. The subway system also erected two memorials to pay tribute to those who have suffered in this way.

6) Besides, since 1999, every spring, we have held religious services for those who died at work. To console the dead, yes, but we also use it as a mechanism to reach out, encouraging more and more families to come out, and to call social attention to this group of underprivileged people. 7) Finally, research, photo collections, interviews, and memoirs of our members have been published in various forms. In addition, an art workshop has been set up to encourage our members to depict, or even to come to terms with, their traumatic experiences. For a similar purpose, a choir has been organized, which gave its national premi´┐Że in a concert in 2000.

What activities is TAVOI organising around the 28th April?

On April 17, a national press conference will be held to launch our activities this year. A simple ceremony will take place in which bells will be rung, and prayers will be delivered by a collection of religious leaders from some different practices in this country. To continue, a series of services for ill workers have been scheduled to run throughout April according to these different religious practices. An exhibition with paintings contributed by our members will open itself to the public from April 21 onwards. To accompany this event, a collection of these works will also be published, and a conference on the development of working class culture will be held. On April 27, in a press conference, our expert consultants in labour safety and health will announce their plan to tour the country this year. Finally, on April 28, in coordination with ICFTU and many other organizations in the world, we will gather in Taipei to light our candles of hope, accompanied by singing and poetry readings from the TAVOI choir.