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June 05, 2012

Outside Glitzy Taiwan Trade Show, Workers Fight for Pay and Rest

by Ralph Jennings

TAIPEI, Taiwan - Taiwan’s annual Computex trade show opened with labor groups  highlighting workers’ rights issues outside the glitzy trade show venues. Tech firms and government agencies have pledged to go easier on workers in what is turning out to be a tough year for business. 
 
Product launches are what makes the Computex tech show one of the biggest annual tech shows in the world. The event expects 120,000 visitors who will be examining the latest hardware and software displayed by 1,800 tech firms. Many are trying to close deals this year on tablet PCs that use Microsoft’s long awaited, easy-to-use Windows 8, and cloud computing systems that allow for free, personalized storage of games or movies in cyberspace.
 
The annual five-day show comes as PC shipments are sagging this year and labor problems fester in parts of Asia.

Tracy Tsai, research director with the Gartner market analysis firm in Taipei, says industry growth is slow. She says worldwide PC shipments are forecast to grow by just four percent this year, led by Asia at nine percent. She says the global economic slump has had a direct impact on shipments.
 
But the Gartner firm expects growth in global PC shipments to hit double digits next year. Microsoft is widely expected to boost business for mobile PC makers with the release of Windows 8. That version of Windows is due by year’s end and will improve Microsoft’s earlier mobile operating systems, by combining touch functions with the standard keyboard and include an app store similar to Apple’s. Silicon Valley’s microprocessor maker, Intel, and the world’s best known PC giants, are using the trade show to display their devices that use Windows 8. Among them are super-thin, lightweight and high-speed ultrabook computers that were introduced in Taiwan last year.
 
J.T. Wang, chairman and chief executive officer of Taiwan’s top PC maker Acer says the new Microsoft system should improve its sagging business. His company's revenues declined 24 percent last year.
 
“It is a good decision for Microsoft to decide to have the preview of Windows 8 in Computex 2012," he said. "I’ve never been so supportive for Microsoft. We have a good opportunity to grow again after the Windows 8 launch and we see this as a great opportunity for Acer to get back to the sustainable growth.”
 
The Taiwan government looks toward the annual show to stimulate local PC makers such as Acer and its cross-town rival Asustek Computer, as high-tech makes up about one-eighth of the island’s economy. The trade promotion agency in charge of Computex expects the show to generate a stunning $28 billion in business deals. That would be up from years past and offset what the agency acknowledges as sluggish high-tech export returns so far this year.
 
But visitors at Computex will not see what labor activists say is happening at Taiwanese offices where engineers put in unpaid hours and factories where workers earn the equivalent of $635 per month, which they say is too little to support themselves.

Du Guang-yu, adviser to the Taoyuan County labor dispute resolution agency Serve the People Association, says workers are afraid to speak out. He says wages are below the cost of living, difficult even for unmarried workers.  He says engineers earn more, but they do unpaid overtime and spend up to 16 hours per day working. Du argues that employers would simply fire workers who dared to lodge protests about their wages or working hours.
 
Labor groups allege fatigue and illness caused by the extra hours. The Taiwan government’s Council of Labor Affairs has pledged more oversight of unpaid long hours.
 
Factory workers in China and Vietnam are also fighting for higher pay, as consumer prices rise. Vietnamese workers, who take in an average of $100 per month, are known for staging sudden strikes that can stop assembly lines. Meanwhile, the Hong Kong-based China Labor Bulletin advocacy group says in China factories that roll out some of the world’s best known PCs and smartphones hire young migrant workers for long hours and offer few breaks.
 
The Labor Bulletin says wages are rising, but barely keeping pace with China’s spiraling costs of living. Because of pay disputes, strikes in China’s manufacturing sector rose to 20 cases in April.
 
After a month-long investigation, the Washington-based advocacy group Fair Labor Association says Apple’s main China contractor Foxconn should improve worker safety and reduce hours. It found that 14 percent of the workers at three factories run by the Taiwan-based electronics firm may be underpaid. Foxconn’s south China plant was known for a mysterious rash of worker suicides in 2010.
 
Apple has declined to comment on labor conditions at contractor factories in China. But after the Fair Labor Association findings came out, news reports said Apple had agreed to make changes. New rules would reduce any further labor violations at the Chinese factories that churn out its ever popular iPhones and iPads as Taiwan’s PC giants try to cut into Apple’s dominant position in the world market.