Last year, over a period of 37 days in April and May, a Taiwanese bank employee and his partner divorced each other three times and remarried four. Why? To get some time off.
By law, Taiwan grants newly married couples eight days of paid marriage leave, which the couple claimed for each wedding: a total of 32 days off. When the bank tried to appeal to the Taipei city government’s Department of Labor, it was fined about $715 (20,000 NT dollars) for violating leave regulations, since there is no legal limit for the number of times one can get married and divorced. The fine was later waived, but the bank tried to appeal the ruling, setting off a tricky legal fight about what constitutes a “false marriage.” Though the employee has since left the bank, he alleges that his former employer still owes him 24 days of leave.
As the rest of us struggle to get just a few days off, here someone managed to get an entire month of leave, albeit going to bizarre lengths to do so. But the irony is that Taiwan’s highly efficient government system can make this very easy to do — if you’re clever enough and know how to take advantage of the loopholes. And this seems to be a recurring pattern in Taiwan, when it comes to trying to get a free meal or some time off.
In March, Taiwan made international headlines with what has since been termed the “salmon chaos.” Conveyor belt sushi chain Sushiro began a promotional campaign that offered discounted sushi to people whose names were homonyms for salmon in Mandarin, and free sushi for individuals with the exact characters for “salmon” in their names, along with five of their friends.
The chain didn’t anticipate the wave of people who trekked to the Household Registration Office to pay the $3 (80 NT dollars) it costs to change their names, ate thousands of dollars’ worth of sushi, and then changed their names back. At least one person allegedly used his name change as a money-making scheme, charging people to eat unlimited sushi with him for $13 (400 NT dollars), when a plate of sushi usually costs $1.25 to $1.60 (40 NT dollars to 80 NT dollars).
In Taiwan, citizens are allowed to change their name only three times, leaving one man reportedly stuck with the name “Zhang Salmon Dream.” (He was later able to change his name one last time.)
In the wake of the two stories, there has been increased attention in Taiwan on the willingness of people to take advantage of these legal gray areas. Some Taiwanese have called for these loopholes to be closed or for there to be legal punishment for abusing the systems, which only exist because of the comparative bureaucratic efficiency of the Taiwanese government.
The country has invested heavily in public technology, from back-end government systems to a sophisticated strategy for tackling misinformation to its pandemic response. Through rigorous contact tracing, an “electronic fence” system that prevents returnees from breaking quarantine, and mandatory health monitoring apps, the country recorded only around 1,100 Covid-19 cases and 12 deaths in the first year of the pandemic — although a new wave in April and May has led the country to impose a soft lockdown.
This modern approach to governance explains how Taiwanese people are able to game the system. But why they have to do so shows the limits of the progressive society.
In 2020, when the couple divorced and married repeatedly, there were only 115 public holidays, including weekends, in Taiwan. According to the Ministry of Labor, Taiwan had the fourth-longest working hours in the world in 2019, with Taiwanese working an average of 2,033 hours per year, compared to around 1,800 hours in the U.S.
Many companies set internal regulations that prevent workers from reporting their overtime beyond legal limits, and they often expect workers to stay past their mandated working hours. In January 2018, the Tsai administration changed the law to cut public holidays, a move that was seen as undoing close to 30 years of labor reforms. Companies have typically stymied efforts by workers to unionize.
Pay is also low, relative to the high cost of living in Taiwan. Many of the individuals who changed their names to take advantage of the Sushiro promotion were students, who face entering a job market in which they do not have the same opportunities as their parents. College graduates can expect “22K” salaries that mean a life of eating instant noodles.
Owning a house feels out of reach for most young people, given Taiwan’s real estate market; one calculation showed that an average Taiwanese person would have to not eat or drink for over 15 years in order to afford a home in Taipei, Taiwan’s capital.
Given how precarious many people feel, it is hardly surprising that they take advantage of savings when they’re presented, or get pulled into seemingly odd crazes — in February 2018, proposed hikes in toilet paper prices led to a wave of panic buying, and there were shortages nationwide.
These stories — which make global headlines because of their strangeness — are revealing. They show that scraping a meager living in a time of global economic downturn, even in a developed, seemingly progressive country like Taiwan, can mean taking advantage of gaps, loopholes, and unintended consequences. Perhaps this all goes to show that, even with a technologically advanced, highly efficient government, this means little in the absence of basic labor conditions.