Another serious tour bus accident has happened on one of Taiwan’s highways.
In the search for the cause of the disaster, there has been a great deal of discussion and analysis, most of which has been insightful, considerate and reasonable. Repeated injunctions have been made for the authorities to punish those found guilty and to compensate victims and their families, the finer details of which have been discussed and deliberated from every angle imaginable.
However, after the public debate comes to a close, how many people are likely to feel confident that similar accidents will not happen in the future, or that — at the very least — the current heightened level of vigilance will be maintained for any length of time?
Accidents involving chartered tour buses are becoming not just more frequent, but also more outrageous. Earlier this month, a tour bus carrying Chinese tourists crashed into a bridge in southern Taiwan, leaving 12 passengers injured. In July last year, 24 Chinese tourists, a Taiwanese guide and the bus driver died when the bus they were traveling on caught fire.
Since Taiwan opened its doors to Chinese tourists in 2008, over a dozen major accidents have occurred, which clearly demonstrates that these are not isolated events. This latest calamity is simply another instance in a long line of Taiwanese tour groups claiming the lives of Chinese tourists.
The underlying cause of these accidents is yet to be properly addressed: price wars between tour operators. Budget tour companies readily engage in cut-throat business tactics and are unwilling to provide compensation when blood is literally spilled as a consequence of their actions.
Since these operators need to keep prices down to increase their competitiveness, their business models are always predicated on reducing costs in order to maximize profit.
The need to reduce costs in business was originally about improving efficiency in the pursuit of a niche market, especially in times of recession or when finances are tight.
The main and most commonly employed methods for reducing costs include increasing labor productivity, maximizing equipment utilization rates, reducing production overheads, reducing staff costs and lowering salaries.
However, if cost control measures begin to affect the quality of the product, they begin to become counterproductive and prevent the business from achieving its profit targets. A business that peddles inferior products often results in dissatisfied customers and poor sales.
Management of consumer awareness is therefore a crucial link in the overall operating chain. If this important last line of defense becomes ineffective, then there is no lower limit to the many adjustments a business makes to its operating model.
The accident record of the tour bus industry is extremely poor, yet rarely is the role of the consumer actually discussed.
Consumer awareness is more than just a basic knowledge of the law and consumer rights.
It also concerns the perception of value for the cost, which often translates into a desire on the part of the consumer to “get their money’s worth” or to “find a bargain.”
This type of consumer behavior is bound up in cultural values and is not just a product of a consumer’s individual financial position, but also about the greed of getting a small bargain, a national sport.
Using the analogy of a bowl of rice, logic dictates that a bargain price usually entails the consumer receiving a small bowl. If a medium bowl is provided for the same price, it might be possible that the business is still able to turn a profit through increased sales.
However, let us imagine that consumers, or society, collectively decide that this is not enough and demand a large bowl of rice in return for the same amount of money. Faced with such a deal, it is inevitable that the trader will either find a way to pass the increased cost on to the consumer, or the level of risk involved in the transaction increases, such as food safety. In the final case, the consumer has not received a genuine bargain.
Twenty years ago, Japanese author Haruki Murakami coined the term “little but certain happiness” — small things are guaranteed to bring happiness — which was related to the Japanese economic collapse in 1991.
The term subsequently crossed to Taiwan, but its meaning was corrupted and used to promote the concept of finding a bargain.
The term has had a far-reaching impact in Taiwan — and not just on the quality of tourism due to budget tour operators, or tour buses operating on the edge of safety.
In recent years, Taiwan has experienced a string of food safety scandals from plasticizers to tainted cooking oil, all of which were products designed to appeal to the bargain-hunting mentality of the public.
Irresponsible profiteers must of course be eliminated through competition, but there also the need for a sea change in the habits and attitudes of consumers.
Taiwanese consumers must, through their choices, refrain from feeding the monster and creating a breeding ground for more disreputable businessmen and profiteers.
InterNations — the world’s largest online expat community — recently published the results of its latest InterNations Expat Insider survey that ranked Taiwan as the world’s best place to live for expatriates.
More than 14,000 expats from 191 nations and territories participated in the poll that included criteria such as quality of life and personal income.
Aside from the low average cost of living — which allows expats, already on relatively good salaries, to lead a comfortable life — what most impressed respondents was the quality and affordability of Taiwan’s healthcare.
Hong Kong actor Chapman To (杜汶澤), perhaps the ultimate example of the something-for-nothing culture, who was traveling in Taiwan without medical insurance, reportedly paid NT$500 for treatment for gastroenteritis in the nation’s unique healthcare system.
Although the actor has heaped praise on the system, behind the scenes, what did To actually pay into the system to support the medical care he received?
It should go without saying that there is no such thing as a free lunch, yet this latest fatal accident is the calamitous result of consumers’ refusal to pay a fair and reasonable price for the services that they use.
If we continue to overlook the truth that you get what you pay for, the task of building a better, fairer society is likely to become an ever more unattainable pipe dream.
Translated by Edward Jones
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