Leveling approach not truly fair

By Wang Yu-ling 王幼玲  / 

Fri, Jan 11, 2013 - Page 8

Four years ago, President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) signed the ratification instruments for two important UN human rights conventions — the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, after the legislature ratified the two covenants and passed an act on their implementation.

If Taiwan is to make a reality of Ma’s pledge to “create a world-class environment for human rights in Taiwan,” the legislative and executive branches of government will have to be more active in promoting matters related to human rights, and we must set up mechanisms for assessing the impact of laws and policies on human rights. That is the way to avoid a situation in which we flaunt the banner of human rights, but allow the law to infringe on those same rights.

In particular, economic security for the disadvantaged is threatened by the leveling effect of formalistic equality measures, which, while claiming to be just, may actually detract from their right to subsistence.

The annuity pension system under the labor insurance scheme is a good example. A few days ago, the Bureau of Labor Insurance (BLI) released official data showing that NT$76.8 billion (US$2.65 billion) was withdrawn from the fund in October and November last year. This was the result of the bureau’s failure to provide assurances and dispel rumors that the Labor Insurance Fund was going to go bankrupt, which prompted nearly 60,000 workers to hastily withdraw their pensions as a lump sum. Even if those workers regret doing so now, it is already too late for them to reverse their decision. This incident stems from the government’s failure to seek solutions starting out from the human rights aspect of safeguarding disadvantaged workers’ economic stability after retirement, and that is what caused workers to panic.

The government is now holding forums on how to manage the Labor Insurance Fund, with an emphasis on generational fairness.

The government is expected to announce its proposals for reform of the fund later this month. It is likely that these proposals will include delaying theretirement age, cutting pension payments or raising premiums.

However, when talking about fairness and justice, should the authorities not listen to the opinions of physically and mentally disabled workers and pay attention to whether disabled people tend to age earlier than others?

Many workers who rushed to withdraw their Labor Insurance Fund pensions as a lump sum were physically or mentally disabled, and were worried that their health would not allow them to live long enough to receive their pensions in annuity form.

The bureau’s data show that the average retirement age for disabled people is 52, and there is a lot of research that shows that their life expectancy is lower than that of other workers.

If labor insurance departments do not take the special features of this group into account, and only take a leveling approach to equality when they are planning pension schemes, they will end up making money out of these physically and mentally disabled workers, which would make the system unfair.

Another problem arises from the Public Assistance Act (社會救助法), according to which virtual income is to be calculated for people who are determined to be capable of working, even if they have no real income.

This means that a physically disabled person, whom the authorities decide is capable of working, but actually cannot find a job, will still be assumed to have a salary equivalent to 55 percent of the basic wage, and the calculation of this virtual income is subject to changes in the basic wage.

Last year, the basic wage was adjusted to NT$18,780 per month, so the virtual income assigned to physically and mentally disabled people this year is 55 percent of that figure, which is NT$10,329. That figure is higher than the officially announced basic monthly cost of living of NT$10,244 for Taiwan Province [as opposed to the administrative Fujian Province] and Greater Tainan and NT$10,303 for Greater Taichung. Low income households are defined as those in which the total household income divided by the number of household members comes to less than the officially announced basic cost of living for the area in which they live. This means that disabled people living alone in Taiwan Province, Greater Tainan and Greater Taichung will lose their status as low-income households on account of the surplus of NT$26 or NT$85 in their supposed virtual incomes relative to the official basic cost of living.

New Year’s Eve was celebrated with spectacular fireworks displays, but no sooner were the parties over that many disabled people found themselves stripped of their low-income status and facing hardship with nothing and nobody to depend on. This is the kind of unfortunate outcome you get from a system that does not provide for human rights assessments.

A formalistic, leveling approach to equality is not a truly fair one. In formulating laws and policies, the government needs to effectively assess their impact on disadvantaged groups. Only if it can provide disadvantaged people with a fair chance of subsistence can the government claim to be living up to human rights standards.

Wang Yu-ling is a member of the Presidential Office Human Rights Consultative Committee.

Translated by Julian Clegg