Thu, Oct 09, 2008 - Page 8

Parallels across the globe

The response of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) government to the melamine scare is in some ways analogous to the US government’s reaction to the problems in its banking sector. In both situations, domestic and foreign companies exploited a lack of regulation in an environment of institutional corruption to base the largest part of their profit margin upon practices that were unsound and, in terms of market stability, unsustainable.

When Sanlu Group executives decided to add melamine to milk to artificially raise protein readings and cheat the market, they turned the company into a sociopathic entity acting purely to sustain itself — and one that operated outside of the social contract and acceptable business ethics.

That the Ministry of Health raised the level of acceptable melamine in products from zero parts per million (ppm) to 2.5ppm as a response to the exposure of this scandal is, and I reserve the right to be wrong, a knee-jerk reaction because the minister feared that actually enforcing the zero ppm standard would not only mean an effective boycott on a whole range of goods from China but also seriously threaten domestic producers who may not have been meeting the standards for years.

In the US, taxpayers have now been asked to pay out US$700 billion to rescue a financial sector that has imploded under the weight of buying on the never-never and gambling with people’s mortgages and pensions. Before the “crash,” financiers were the first to insist on deregulation and “freedom of markets.”

This hegemony of neo-liberal economics has been exposed as a sham, because the same people now say that the crash represents the failure of markets, not the people that comprise them. It seems some markets are more equal than others and if they were to fall, governments fear that the whole house of cards would tumble too.

What is most striking, however, is that both the US and Taiwanese governments have in their own way put the interests of businesses before public security and safety.

In these democracies the influence and weight that the wealthy exert on the political decision-making process is disproportionate to that of the least wealthy.

Some citizens are more equal than others.

When corporate interests capture the agenda of a state and then act in a way that undermines the social contract between citizen, government and market, the integrity of the democratic polis is compromised.

Luckily some companies, like the Taiwan High Speed Rail Corp, have high standards and act as a beacon for others by showing that the extra expense is worth it to a business, since it almost guarantees customer satisfaction and trust.

If the KMT and Chinese Communist Party want business as usual, they may find the market to be uncooperative as — at least in Taiwan — freedom of information is likely to result in consumers making better choices. Perhaps then Taiwanese will defend their sovereignty and their health through their purses and wallets in the face of a national government that is a closed shop to their concerns but open for business.


Tamsui, Taipei County

Stop abuses of labor rights

Regarding the story on Indonesians in Taiwan celebrating Id al-Fitr (“Indonesians celebrate Id al-Fitr,” Oct. 6, page 2), I think it’s wonderful that some employers allow their foreign staff to take holidays.

On the other hand, I think a lot more needs to be done to prevent abuses of labor rights. I have a dear friend from Indonesia who came to Taiwan on a three-year contract. Her employer, a grocer, works her like a slave, sometimes making her work 14 to 16 hours a day.

Why not force employers to attend workshops on how to treat their foreign staff properly? They would be forced to pass a test and swear a binding oath not to force workers to work more than an eight or nine-hour day.

Why force a powerless foreigner to do the work of three people? Isn’t that how the Great Wall of China was built? But that was so long ago.


Ottawa, Canada