The controversy over year-end bonuses for retired military personnel, civil servants and public school teachers has ignited debate throughout Taiwan, and can even be said to have deepened opposition between social classes. In response to the backlash from retirees and legislators close to the military, the government, in a display of insincerity and lack of good faith, now seems ready to change its mind and make the payments this year, despite earlier statements to the contrary.
At its core, this issue is not about encroaching on the dignity of government employees, nor is it about who has contributed more to state and society. It is about whether the distribution of resources is appropriate and fair. It is an issue that must not be treated lightly, for the following reasons:
First, it is imperative to avoid further expanding the wealth gap. Everyone has to shoulder the nation’s debt and help make up for the fiscal shortfall that has resulted from the government’s differential treatment of government employees and private-sector workers. The majority of the population is now paying off the debt accumulated for the welfare of a minority. In the long term this will contribute to a widening wealth gap.
Second, the principle of legitimate expectation is not immutable. Government employees believe this principle means that the government must continue to provide welfare measures it has pledged to them. However, legally speaking, there is also the principle of changing circumstances. If, after a situation has changed, adhering to the original plan means that fairness can no longer be upheld, courts may increase or decrease benefits, or change the effect of a law by changing its interpretation.
When the welfare system for government employees was established, the nation’s economic situation, demographic structure, workforce and government finances were different from how they are today. If this legacy system were to remain unchanged, it would cause a worsening of the government’s fiscal situation and could even lead to a default, which would be unfair on the public. As a result, the principle of changing circumstances should be applied.
Third, professions should not be divided into valuable and less valuable ones. The reason that the government is giving particular protection to military personnel, civil servants and public school teachers is that these people for a long time have sacrificed themselves for the country, and therefore should have a comfortable retirement guaranteed. This is not entirely unreasonable, but in democratic societies, all professions should be respected. Although salaries differ, there should be no difference in post-retirement care. The income substitution rate following retirement should be the same across the board to satisfy requirements of fairness.
The question of whether the treatment of military personnel, civil servants and public school teachers should be given an overall review involves not only the issue of the national financial burden, it also concerns social justice. Article 7 of the Constitution clearly stipulates that: “All citizens of the Republic of China, irrespective of sex, religion, race, class, or party affiliation, shall be equal before the law.”
This principle of equality lies at the heart of the values to be implemented through social justice. Even if the burden of the nation’s financial situation is still bearable, that does not mean people of different professions should receive differentiated treatment upon retirement.
Long-term distortion of resource distribution may result both in social infighting and expand the wealth gap between social classes. That would not be in the best interests of the nation as a whole.
Tim Hsu is a professor of law at Chinese Culture University.
Translated by Perry Svensson