ore than a month has passed since President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) delivered his New Year’s Day address, calling the nation to work in unity to bolster the economy. The same old slogan gets repeated year after year, until it gets to sound like a stuck record. Even though it is just a placebo, many people still hope that something may come of it. From workers’ point of view, the kind of “good economy” they hope for is quite simple: stable employment, reasonable work conditions and wages, and health and safety in the workplace.
However, looking back over what workers have experienced in recent years, there has been nothing but successive disappointments that add up to despair. The jobless rate has been over 4 percent for a long time, while temporary jobs and other poorly paid kinds of work are ubiquitous. Real salaries have fallen badly and employees are haunted by the specter of unpaid leave.
Many workers can barely eke out a living and some have even died on the job, exhausted from trying to make ends meet. It seems that the more Ma’s government talks about bolstering the economy, the harder life gets for working people. You have to ask whose economy our leaders are improving and what kind of economy Taiwan really needs.
The government’s mindset about improving the economy over the years has been long on repetition but short on analysis. Its strategy revolves entirely around a neoliberal framework, while government officials responsible for running the economy have an almost religious faith in the alleged economic panaceas of liberalization and flexible employment.
On the one hand the government keeps favoring big business by cutting taxes and suppressing wages — by keeping the minimum wage down and importing lots of foreign migrant workers. On the other hand, having pushed through the cross-strait Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement, the government now blindly promotes the follow-up cross-strait trade in services agreement, as well as free economic pilot zones, which they plan to expand to cover the whole country, turning Taiwan into a free-trade island.
If they have their way, the nation will end up as one big concession to capitalist corporations and the already highly unequal distribution of wealth will get even worse.
Such is the “blood-and-sweat economy” in Taiwan. Under this economic model, workers find themselves slaving away in poorly paid, tough and exhausting conditions. This can be seen from the hours that local employees have to work, which remain among the longest in the world.
Despite working such long hours, workers’ incomes fall far behind those in competing countries, and employees often have to quietly accept demands for illegal overtime, just to keep their jobs, while work conditions deteriorate.
Further, wages never rise and indeed keep falling relative to the ever-climbing cost of living, including clothes, food and travel, not to mention soaring house and apartment prices. These factors have plunged people’s lives into a vicious cycle of hardship.
Taiwan must discard this “blood-and-sweat” economic mindset. Instead, the nation needs significant wage increases and meaningful improvements in work conditions and to promote economic justice for workers through a fairer and more transparent system of distribution of economic benefits.
Otherwise, with the government “bolstering the economy” only for a handful of corporations, the nation’s economy will end up in a state of structural collapse.
Son Yu-liam is secretary-general of the Taiwan Labor Front.
Translated by Julian Clegg