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In Taiwan, Airline Employees Go on Strike for Second Time this Year

An EVA Air flight attendant holds up a sign which reads: "Strike begins, join immediately" during a protest at the EVA Air headquarters in Taoyuan, Taiwan, Friday, June 21, 2019.
An EVA Air flight attendant holds up a sign which reads: "Strike begins, join immediately" during a protest at the EVA Air headquarters in Taoyuan, Taiwan, Friday, June 21, 2019.

Taiwan’s second airline employee strike this year to date has impacted more than 25,000 passengers just before a peak travel season, showing the powers of labor unions that are uncommon elsewhere in Asia and even among other Taiwanese professions.

An Eva Airways strike that entered its fifth day Monday had spiked about 60% of scheduled flights hit about 25,300 travelers, many of whom were bumped to other airlines. About 2,000 people, two-thirds of all flight attendants, walked away from their posts as many Taiwanese were planning summer holidays.

In February, about 600 of the 900 unionized pilots of China Airlines went on strike for a week during the Lunar New Year travel season. Eva and China Airlines are Taiwan's two biggest carriers, taking passengers daily as far as North America.

Few other Asian airlines have weathered strikes, as many major carriers are state-owned or their home countries lack effective labor unions, analysts believe.

“This is really related to the fact that the trade unions there hold relatively more power than the rest of what we see in Asia,” said Paul Yong, an aviation analyst with DBS Bank in Singapore. “The power or the amount of influence trade unions have in any country I think is built up over time, and it’s also a function of how powerful the government allows it to be, and to a certain extent also social norms.”

Unions versus airlines

Eva Airways flight attendants backed by the Taoyuan Flight Attendants Union have eight demands, including more pay and less overtime on international flights, union member Chou Pei-ru said Monday. Some flights sometimes force workers to wait in overseas airports for weather delays, Chou said. The union is demanding as well more access to the airline’s management to discuss whatever issues come up, she said.

The China Airlines pilots wanted higher salaries and more staffing to ease fatigue on longer flights. The airline agreed to increase the number of pilots.

The outcome of the February strike may have galvanized Eva’s flight attendants to go on strike, said John Brebeck, senior adviser at the Quantum International Corp. investment consultancy in Taiwan.

Unusually strong unions

Most Taiwanese firms do not hire union labor, but airlines have made an exception to compete for qualified staff people in markets where talent may be limited, he said. Taiwanese office workers often work overtime, paid or not, until their supervisors leave for the day.

“I would say that industry is better position for worker rights and unions than most in Taiwan,” Brebeck said.

Striking airline employees also get relatively high exposure for any labor causes because of their high-visibility jobs, Chou said.

“Every flight is a new duty for us, so we can just keep on not providing service for however long it takes and pressure the company, that’s an advantage for us,” said Chou, herself a flight attendant vexed by overtime. “I actually think labor in other sectors is pitiable, because they don’t have a way to go out and show their potential.”

Obvious impacts

The exposure is obvious to passengers. Eva Airways had cancelled 158 flights as of Sunday and estimated a business loss of $18.7 million, the company said in a notice to the Taiwan Stock Exchange.

A media office representative with the airline declined comment Monday and said other spokespeople were in all-day meetings.

The February strike by the Pilots Union Taoyuan led to cancellation of 80 flights and $34 million in business losses for China Airlines, the company said then in its own statement to the stock exchange.

Eva’s flight attendants had protested in 2017, as well. In July that year, 500 flight attendants took a day off due to a typhoon threat – uncommon for airline employees though allowed by Taiwan law. Their action caused the cancellation of 50 flights, adding to those already spiked or delayed because of the weather.

Elsewhere in Asia, in 1980 Singapore Airlines pilots cut back their hours in protest over pay until the country’s then-prime minister Lee Kuan Yew stepped in.

But airline strikes are rare as Asia's organized labor is historically weaker than in the West, Yong said. Some actions are called off before they start. But the strikes in Taiwan might motivate airlines to double up on ensuring that their own staff people avoid strikes, Yong said.