Export-driven Taiwan's new import: a five-day workweek

The long workaholic and now more affluent Taiwanese, familiar with the leisure culture elsewhere in the world, are dedicating themselves to their children as well as their employers. The shift in work-life balance becomes law Jan. 1.

Chiang ying-ying/AP
In this Sunday, Nov. 20, 2016 photo, Taiwanese enjoy their weekend at the Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall in Taipei. Starting Jan. 1, Taiwan will mandate that workers be given two days off per week, reflecting desires for better work-life balance in this affluent, industrialized island.

On Saturdays, Aries Chen takes her two children to the park in central Taipei. A normal enough weekend treat, one might think, for a 40-year-old marine shipping industry worker and her kids. But until now, Taiwanese have never been able to take their weekends for granted.

“When I go back to work Monday, I’m not happy about it, but at least I’m not tired,” says Ms. Chen.

From Jan. 1st, for the first time, all citizens will, by law, enjoy two days off each week. Taiwan is shaking off its “nose to the grindstone” work ethic as people pay more attention to the quality of their lives.

As Taiwan industrialized in the 1960s, becoming a pioneer “Asian Tiger” economy, manufacturers of Taiwan’s signature exports such as consumer electronics and machine tools had to be able to keep up with urgent orders in boom times.

That meant they needed flexible staff who would work whenever they were needed, and the farmers and fishermen flocking to stable and relatively highly paid jobs in factories were happy to oblige.

Many of today’s 6.6 million workers still feel a familial loyalty to their companies, a hallmark of the Confucian culture that underpins Taiwan. But they also insist on time off to travel, eat out, and spend time with family, says Yang Lian-fu, a publisher of books on Taiwanese history.

“Traveling and enjoying life – they see Westerners doing that,” he points out.

The shift, social observers say, is a sign of Taiwanese citizens’ greater wealth, increased personal freedoms since Taiwan’s democratization in the 1980s, and their familiarity with leisure culture in other parts of the world. Under the new law, the two days off need not be contiguous, but should be worked out between employer and employee.

“Work is necessary to make money, but the rest of the time Taiwanese are more interested in their family and they’re more interested in other things, like they go to evening schools and learn a little bit more,” says Jens Damm, associate professor at the Graduate Institute of Taiwan Studies at Chang Jung University in Tainan.

Professor Damm recalls that 25 years ago, only a few well-off retirees or government employees on fixed timetables would go hiking in the mountains outside Taipei; nowadays thousands crowd the trails at weekends.

Focus on children's well-being

Taiwanese are also having fewer children than before, and fathers are dedicating themselves to their offspring as well as to their employers, Damm notes.

As Taiwan changed, “you could see young families with fewer children out taking care of their one or two kids,” he recalls. And mindsets changed too, as parents began to see both themselves and their kids as more than work machines. The idea took hold, Damm says, that “children were not just something that were there and grew up to work for the family, but something that needs education with play.”

Taiwanese 30 years ago largely accepted long hours because if they didn’t, employers could easily find someone who would. “The boss wouldn’t let you rest, so you couldn’t do it,” remembers Mr. Yang. Workers were permitted only a handful of public holidays each year.

“When I worked for a television station, I’d do 16-hour days and sleep at the station,” recalls Wu Wei-lin of his job 15 years ago. “Unless something urgent came up, it was impolite to ask for time off. That kind of work isn’t good for people as they get older.”

Mr. Wu, now 42, has a new job as a metal worker with regular 40-hour weeks. He takes care of his four-year-old and spends time with his parents on the weekends.

Need to 'take care of workers'

That kind of shift toward a more reasonable life-work balance has sometimes been jolted forward by tragedy: in 2010, Taiwanese society was shocked by the sudden death of a young hi-tech engineer who had been working 13 to 19 hour days.

Trade unions have also begun to spotlight the dangers of fatigue from overwork, and their strength has grown in recent years. The number of workplace unions in Taiwan rose from about 3,800 in 2001 to 5,285 in 2014, with membership swelling from 2.8 million to 3.36 million, government statistics show.

Last June, hundreds of flight attendants with China Airlines, Taiwan’s flagship carrier, went on strike over working hours, in the first strike to hit a local airline.

At the same time, employers are taking a kinder approach to their workers; some have already started to allow two days off each week, even before the bill passed this month by parliament becomes law, in a bid to retain workers’ loyalty and services.

“We’ve got to take care of workers, and we need to go in that direction,” says Luo Huai-jia, spokesman for the Taiwan Electrical and Electronics Manufacturers Association, a group of 3,200 companies that are key to the island’s half-trillion-dollar economy.

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