Keep arguing and get paid less

By Lai Chen-chang 賴振昌  / 

Wed, Dec 19, 2012 - Page 8

A National Conference on industrial development held by the Ministry of Economic Affairs on Monday and Tuesday last week was the scene of angry altercations between the organizers and labor and environmental groups, who were dissatisfied with the conduct of the meeting.

One of the entrepreneurs attending the conference, Richtek Technology chairman Kenneth Tai (邰中和), upset a lot of people with his remarks about employees’ monthly salaries, saying that, “If people keep on arguing, I’m telling you, you won’t even get 15k [NT$15,000].”

Tai seems to think that he has the right to decide what young people will earn. The incident brought to mind the scenes of slave owners haranguing their slaves in Harriet Beecher Stove’s 1852 novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. It is disturbing to see such behavior in 21st-century Taiwan.

Young people’s salary expectations are by no means unrealistic. All they want is to be paid a fair wage for the work they do. They do not expect any special favors from their employers, so business owners should not think of salaries as alms bestowed on beggars.

Salaries are usually determined by the law of supply and demand, but why are the wages offered on Taiwan’s labor market so low? There are two main reasons: On the supply side, the available labor power is not competitive enough. On the demand side, the poor economy is the cause of the problem.

Are young people to blame for this lack of competitiveness and poor economic environment? The Ministry of Education’s policy orientations have failed to foster appropriate working abilities among the youth and students, and wrongheaded industrial policies have created a sluggish economy. Who can say that the government bears no blame for these structural problems?

It could be that there really are a few work-shy youngsters around. If so, they are to blame for how little they earn. However, the situation one sees today affects young people in general. Youth unemployment stands at 13 percent and those in work earn a mere NT$22,000 on average. The government is definitely responsible for that.

Tai said that young people will not even earn NT$15,000 a month if people keep on arguing. One has to wonder whether he has heard of the Labor Standards Act (勞動基準法).

The law states that employees cannot be paid less than a basic wage determined by the central competent authority, namely, the Council of Labor Affairs. That minimum wage is currently set at NT$18,780 per month and any employer paying less than that is acting illegally.

Evidently minimum wage regulations mean nothing to Tai and he thinks he can decide what workers get paid entirely on a whim. Plainly, legislation is the only effective way of safeguarding workers’ right to a decent salary. Seeing as businesspeople were given free rein to mouth off at a conference organized by the Ministry of Economic Affairs, while Cabinet ministers in attendance turned a blind eye, shows how cold and indifferent they are in their political attitudes.

Maybe the workers’ groups at last week’s conference were a little rambunctious in the way they expressed their demands, but, generally speaking, mass movements in Taiwan are not particularly passionate. One does not see huge protest rallies of hundreds of thousands of people such as happen in other countries, with Molotov cocktails and stones flying all over the place.

Yet, the price paid for this moderation is the indifferent treatment given to workers by the government and the condescending attitudes shown by employers.

There seems to be something wrong with communication in the public sphere in Taiwan. Will the nation have to wait until public resentment has accumulated to such a point that people instigate a conflict to seek solutions to all their problems in one fell swoop, as happened in the US Civil War?

Lai Chen-chang is president of the National Taipei College of Business.

Translated by Julian Clegg