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Using Social Media to Organize Contract Workers – Chronicle of Taiwan Telecommunication Network Union (TNU)
Prof. Santanu Sarkar
Advisor to CHT Taiwan Business Group Workers’ Union
Visiting Fellow at National Chengchi University
Professor of Labour Relations, XLRI India

Using Social Media to Organize Contract Workers – Chronicle of Taiwan Telecommunication Network Union (TNU)

Prof. Santanu Sarkar

Advisor to CHT Taiwan Business Group Workers’ Union

Visiting Fellow at National Chengchi University

Professor of Labour Relations, XLRI India

email: ssarkar@xlri.ac.in


Taiwan Telecommunication Network Union, or TNU, as most of us today regard it, is more than a labor union for its members. For a young girl or boy who worked for more than the stipulated working hours in a small beauty parlor or in a retail outlet or in a call center, to earn barely the minimum hourly wage, right to representation and negotiate with employer for better pay and decent working condition was a distant dream. It was absurd and unthinkable to say the least around a decade back in Taiwan.

Several hundreds of similarly situated outsourcing labor in surplus in Taiwan’s labor market under the constant threat of unemployment or underemployment were forced to take up any vocation and calling that is available for a time being. Union or collective of any form to represent them has not been a priority for major trade union federations in Taiwan.

There was more than one reason behind the aloofness of these federations towards organizing outsourcing workers employed in the country’s semi-organized sectors like back offices, call centers, BPOs, retail outlets, mom-and-pop stores, beauty parlors, pubs, eating joints, primary schools, civic amenities, and restaurant chains. Their temporary nature of work, no fixed hours of work, and dispersed nature of work have remained the biggest challenges for the organizers.

Having due paying members on board who will remain committed to a common cause was a far bigger challenge. For many, it was still not clear whether they should negotiate with their small employers or with the government, with the franchise manager or with the CEO of the multinational who is sitting thousand kilometers away from their workplace. Small and big campaigns under the banner of an independent union that has cut ties with political parties was a daunting task as grassroots organizers were few in numbers.

To help the outsourcing workers engaged by Chunghwa Telecom (CHT), the preliminary initiative to organize them started in early 2000 when these workers were growing in abundance not only in CHT but also in other SOEs and small and big private firms in Taiwan. Historically, the labor organizations in Taiwan were concerned of welfare and rights of regular and permanent workforce (and to some extent was prejudiced towards formal and organized sector workforce). None until then has paid adequate attention to the wellbeing of outsourcing workers or tried to unionize them.

Simon, a middle class labor organizer from Kaohsiung who began his career like most of us with an aspiration to do a decent job with a state owned enterprise (SOE) could not sit quite after watching the unitary approach adopted by the capital during the era of economic liberalization and political democratization. With time, he emerged as one of the finest organizers of SOE workers in Taiwan. He remained passionate about championing the cause of working class. He succeeded in leading one of the country’s largest SOE unions as its President for three terms.

According to Simon, if labor movement has to succeed in Taiwan, the outsourcing labor has to be made part of the established unions or should be organized fresh. Their wellbeing has to be the concern of big and small enterprise unions since they are increasing in number compared to regular workforce. “Soon, an average firm in Taiwan will have 2/3rd of its workforce who are outsourcing workers”, shared Simon.

Outsourcing workers in CHT and its allied business were made to work under different contracting agencies over a long period with no interruption in service. However, their supervisors or immediate employers were changed once in every 11 months or a year. The usual practice was terminating the contract in December and making fresh contract from January of the next year to create interruption in service. Or else, the parent company would change the contractors while the labor remains the same. If an outsourcing worker works for more than one year of continuous service, then s/he is entitled to a permanent position in the company. In both SOEs and private enterprises, the employment of outsourcing workers have grown phenomenally over the past one-decade but the government has not passed any special law to protect their interest.

However, the interesting part of this note is revolving around the organizing and campaigning activities for the outsourcing workers. Simon and his teammates applied an innovative technique to organize them first at CHT. They approached these workers with the help of Facebook. Most of them were working in back office or call centers of CHT. They were in their early 20s and were mostly women. In 2011, when the Legislative Yuan revised the Trade Union Law, it offered opportunity to Simon and his small team to organize the outsourcing workers of CHT.

On May 01 2011, they organized the outsourcing workers of CHT and formed a new union by the name Taiwan Telecommunication Trade Union or TNU. They got it registered with Kaohsiung county government. In the beginning, TNU had 200 members but presently there are around 125 due paying members. Simon said the reason for a drop in number of members is that in 2016, the TNU succeeded in making 1500 outsourcing workers of CHT permanent and getting them absorbed on the payroll of a 100% subsidiary of CHT viz., Hong-Hoa International.

TNU’s campaign was effective in making 1500 workers permanent. Simon spent five years in campaigning all around in Taiwan for the outsourcing workers of CHT. He presented the facts on increasing number of outsourcing workers and their deplorable working conditions to the Legislative Yuan and made appeal to the CHT management. He did not miss a chance to raise the issue in CHT’s shareholder meeting either.

TSWU, a union established by Simon for the employees of CHT working in and around Kaohsiung also shown solidarity by taking up the issue with the President of CHT in the shareholder meeting. The representation raised concerns over greater pay parity between the permanent and outsourcing workers of the company. TNU presented its case to the CHT management suggesting that if the company can spend to improve its public image by doing CSR activities for external stakeholders, it should do a little more for its own outsourcing workers by which the CHT can earn a bigger reputation among its own employees.

Some of the interesting campaign and organizing strategies include public shaming of CHT, a company, which otherwise hold a high reputation among common Taiwanese. Through intensive propaganda against company’s bad labor practices on local TV channels and newspaper reporting the organizers intend to create a dent in the reputation of the parent company. The organizers applied to the Legislative Yuan and made appeal to the media. It used Facebook to spread the news about the deplorable working conditions in which young women were made to work. Use of social media was one of the foremost and powerful tools for propaganda. Joint demonstration by the permanent and outsourcing workers, especially knowing that outsourcing workers because of their odd working hours would not be able to come in large number to take part in any demonstration was another innovation. People started following the news. Asking unions of permanent workers to express solidarity and stand besides outsourcing workers during the crisis was a part of the bigger campaign strategy. Using CSR report to attack the company in public forum and talk shows against its bad labor practices, and making repetitive appeals to company management helped Simon and his small team to escalate the matter. The CHT, which has earned its reputation through several years of hard work finally established its own 100% subsidiary and absorbed close to 1500 outsourcing workers in the roll of the subsidiary company in 2016.

According to Simon, TNU is not just a labor union but is a movement where young call center women workers joined Facebook operated (moderated) by Simon and gradually joined together to be a part of a union to fight for improving their working and employment conditions. “This case may sound like a story with happy end but the same can be replicated in other companies and in other growing economies where outsourcing workers collectivize and fight under one banner”, said Simon.

Creative Use of Social Media

TNU’s creative use of social media in harboring common interest of young precarious workforce merits our attention. A small initiative that began with opening a Facebook account by Simon, rapidly took off with many young outsourcing workers joining the account and sharing their views and opinions on day-to-day challenges at workplace. To maintain a startling tempo and spirit of Facebook members, Simon continued posting items with credential. These were sensational in nature including articles, newspaper clippings, presentations, messages, pictures, and a variety of things from time to time to attract outsourcing workers of Taiwan. They are young, mostly women and technology savvy. Facebook, which was a part of their life, was a useful medium to attract and retain their attention.

The news items and postings on Facebook by Simon on behalf of TNU (hitherto has not been registered as union) were on issues concerning working conditions, working hours, odd timing of job, nature of job, low job security, and low pay. Simon tried explaining how precarious work has been causing damage to society and why precarious workers are ill paid. “How odd working hours are causing harm to youth in global South and North is what I tried explaining them through videos borrowed from global unions’ sites, global union federations, transnational networks of unions, and YouTube. I posted them on regular basis on our Facebook page”, shared Simon.

Items on deplorable working conditions of call center workers in Taiwan and stories from other neighboring countries including South Korea, Vietnam, India, and Philippines were posted. The idea of using Facebook as a platform was to influence the youth so that they can share their experiences, talk to each other, and communicate effectively, and if needed vent out frustration at work through Facebook postings. The idea was to create a shared identity among the young outsourcing workers so that they not only feel for a common cause but also can identify a common target against whom they can launch campaign. Over the past seven years, Simon and his small team have been silently organizing the outsourcing workers with the help of social media.

Simon and his small team started posting provisions of labor laws specific to outsourcing workers. The work of sensitizing, educating and generating awareness among the members was driven by TNU’s key philosophy of escalating an issue of violation. Therefore, when the members on getting sensitized and educated posted specific complaints against any form of discrimination or deplorable working conditions, TNU used these posts to file complaint with labor department against the parent company. Simon left ‘no pebble unturned’ in bringing these issues of violation to the notice of government.

In one of the cases, Simon went to the extent of involving the media to bring to the notice of common people an issue that deserves escalation. The group lodged complaint against the principal employer with the government. The idea was to create dent in the company’s public reputation. In a letter to Kaohsiung City Mayor, Simon wrote that a company X is asking its outsourcing workers to work on a day when government through official notice has suspended work in every enterprise of the country because of typhoon. The company was taken by surprise. They had no clue of how TNU get to know about the internal circular related to work schedule. The firm was not aware of Facebook groups formed with the intention to uncover stories of exploitation of precarious workers.

Facebook turned as a platform for hundreds and thousands of outsourcing workers where they raised grievances and reported the cases of violation of labor laws. Some will speak out about day-to-day problems at work. Simon was sitting back in his TSWU office while keeping a close watch on the postings. “I will sometime remain awake late in the night to collect vital information so that I can bring respite to individual member plus escalate an issue”, shared Simon. Calibrating the posts on Facebook so that the movement does not take wrong turn was what Simon chose to do.

As per Simon, call center workers work round o’clock in shifts. Hence, it was difficult to organize them, as they would hardly turn up for even a short meeting. Simon and TNU were flexible enough. Through Facebook posting, they urged members for a suitable time when most can turn up but that did not work too. Therefore, the team decided to use Facebook for conducting ‘silent meetings’, a concept which was quite new in Taiwan.

Simon said that he was lucky to have a dedicated and efficient team, who in no time organized a Facebook group of similarly situated workers. He referred to the invisible workforce of Taiwan, who wanted to vent out frustration and are looking for a platform for the same. Since the organizers suspected undercover activities and attack on Facebook or breach of its privacy, a small group of 15-20 members maintained small Facebook groups where posts were not accessible to outsiders. They maintained the secrecy of their plans, programs, agenda, and members’ identities. Several small Facebook groups were working in coordination with each other until the last day before TNU with 200 odd Facebook group members chose to register their union formally. “We moved from a virtual world to a real world but chose to maintain low key in the initial days. Our movements were unpredictable and we preferred to work silently. There were several clandestine meetings”, avowed Simon. A small team was staying back to moderate the Facebook accounts.

TNU asked the due paying members, who are not well off like their counterpart from the SOEs, to pay more than 50 NTD, which an average SOE union member would pay. TNU believes in creating resources to withstand stalemate and impasse instead of taking shelter under the banner of a political party. “We have relied on our own resources and under no circumstance we would compromise our independence in order to stay firm while we go on strike”, said Simon.

Concerning the organization development initiative, Simon understands that he has to raise a second line of leadership. He has appointed a vice president of TNU, a young woman in her mid-20s, who is efficient and hardworking. However, to succeed, she has to work for five more years, organizing and campaigning, to prove that she is capable of taking up the leadership role in the organization. Simon accepts that to raise a good leader from among the rank-and-file is a challenge and at the same time, it is hard to place an outsider as a leader who will struggle to earn acceptance within the rank-and-file.

Simon added, “My critics are skeptical of my pace. They often remind me that my rank-and-file would not be able to run as fast as I would. Yet, I believe that in today’s world where capital is changing so fast, so should the labor. If capital can bring new product every alternative month or launch new scheme for welfare of workers in every quarter, the union has to be at par and acclimatize with the fast changing trend as fast as the technology or its creators are”. Simon blames the SOE unions for clinging to the conventional ways and means. According to him, most SOE union leaders are still averse of technology and its use in mobilizing, organizing and campaigning. “With fast changing technology the labor has to adapt to the changing world. If capital is going global so should the labor be! Long live workers’ solidarity” avowed Simon from the TNU.