Since the beginning of the year, the prices of everyday necessities from food to household goods have risen rapidly. In response, Premier Wu Den-yih (吳敦義) suggested during a recent question-and-answer session at the Legislative Yuan that we should use less sugar in our coffee, for example, because to do so would enable people to save more. He also said that sometimes the problem is just a matter of choice.
For example, when Wu sent a subordinate to buy instant noodles during a visit to Hualien a few days ago, he discovered that there was a wide range of products on offer, ranging from NT$15 to NT$45 in price. This, Wu said, is evidence that expenditure is driven by choice and the quality of food one wants to eat. He added that some instant noodles sold in bags are cheaper than those sold in cups.
At a time when everything seems to be going up except salaries, many people have been forced to reconsider their consumer habits. In many cases these changes have involved more than simply using less sugar in one’s coffee. Some people might have to drink less coffee or even give it up altogether. For the middle and upper classes who are still capable of making such choices, this might constitute nothing more than changing an unimportant daily habit.
However, that is not the case for those lower down the socioeconomic scale. I would like to ask Wu if he has ever given any thought to those at the bottom of the ladder who do not have the choices to which he alluded. Perhaps they were already eating instant noodles in bags costing NT$15 for every meal late last year. Following the sharp price hikes, maybe their choice now is which meal to skip.
In addition to not being able to eat their fill, some people may not be able to afford to pay their rent. Owing to unreasonably high housing prices, it is already seen as normal not to be able to buy one’s own house, but now more and more people cannot even afford to rent. Today, 1.038 million Taiwanese workers subsist on a monthly salary of less than NT$20,000.
What I would like to know is how Wu expects these people to be able to pay a high deposit, water and electricity bills and other daily expenses once their living costs have been deducted from their salary.
As a result, a large number of “working poor” have started to appear. There are those who despite working two jobs, find that their income barely covers their daily expenses, and heaven forbid that they or a family member gets ill or is involved in an accident stopping them from working.
Recently, there have been a string of cases of alleged karoshi, a Japanese term for “death from overwork.” In addition to excessive working hours, this is also intimately related to the issue of the working poor.
I wonder if it occurred to Wu, as he called on the public to adjust their eating habits, that both healthy dietary habits and healthy living conditions are declining in tandem with the rise in commodity prices.
Chiang Ming-yun is director of education at the Taiwan Labor Front.
TRANSLATED BY EDDY CHANG