Fostering knowledge workers in Taiwan

Taiwan’s long-term prosperity will require a shift to a new economic paradigm centered on the ability of knowledge-based industries to generate constant innovation. Yet many of the government policies and regulations in place are still geared toward the traditional factory production-line models of the past. That approach is already incompatible with current needs, let alone the challenges of the years and decades ahead.

A prime example is an issue that has kept the human-resources managers of a wide range of Taiwan-based companies, both foreign-invested and domestic, in a state of frenzy for the past several months: how should working hours be regulated for knowledge workers? The Labor Standards Law stipulates a maximum number of working hours per week, allowing some flexibility for only a few occupations (journalists, salespersons, telecom-industry workers, and professional drivers), and requiring detailed records tracking employees’ time on the job.

In recent months, the labor affairs offices in major municipalities have been increasing the scope and frequency of their inspections, and imposing stiff fines on companies found to be non-compliant. For many of these enterprises – especially among financial institutions and other employers mainly of white-collar workers – this was a new and unnerving experience. In particular, for branches of prominent multinational corporations, who pride themselves on adhering strictly to the letter of the law, it meant having to explain to headquarters why the company had received a black mark. In many cases, the reason was simply staff members’ habit of remaining in the office after normal working hours to socialize or wait for a spouse.

The short-term confusion and frustration could have been prevented if the labor authorities had communicated more clearly with business organizations prior to the inspections, outlining the required working-hour conditions and acceptable modes of record keeping. After numerous rounds of meetings organized by AmCham Taipei’s Human Resources Committee, including one session attended by the labor inspection chiefs from Taipei City and New Taipei City, HR managers now have a better understanding of how to satisfy the current legal requirements.

But the long-range implications of the current government policy remain. Knowledge workers–well-educated professionals who are dedicated to their jobs and have developed valuable areas of expertise – perform best when treated with dignity and respect, not regimented and subject to a host of controls. The number of hours put in is less important than the completion and quality of the work.

Keeping such responsibility-driven personnel under the existing regulatory framework will only stifle the innovation and creativity that the authorities say they wish to foster. It will also make the goal of promoting start-up technology companies even more difficult.

In addition, maintaining a log of work hours is a burden when so much of the activity in Taiwan’s internationally oriented business sector involves communications with customers, suppliers, or colleagues in other parts of the world in different time zones. Meetings today are as likely to be teleconferences or videoconferences as face to face.

The current regulations are well-intended, aimed at ensuring that workers are properly paid for overtime and that they are not overworked to the detriment of their health. But an overly paternalistic attitude toward protecting white-collar professionals is bound to backfire, holding back Taiwan’s business sector from advancing to a new level of competitiveness. AmCham Taipei’s HR and Technology Committees both strongly advocate revising the current rules to reflect the economy’s increasing need for flexibility.



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