EDITORIAL: Think beyond minimum wage hike

Mon, Mar 10, 2014 - Page 8

Some local government leaders have made news recently by criticizing the nation’s twin woes of low wages and long working hours and announced plans to raise the minimum wage for temporary workers and allow more maternity and paternity leave.

The reactions from the Cabinet and other local governments have been covered in the media. Agree or not, one should notice that such announcements are carefully calculated moves by the leaders of these local governments because they know exactly how to grab media attention in an election year.

As an example, take Taipei’s minimum wage increases for the city government’s temporary workers starting in May. Increasing the minimum monthly wage by NT$3,592 to NT$22,639 and raising the minimum hourly wage from NT$115 to NT$133 can hardly convince anyone that such hikes would be able to improve the lives of low-wage earners. Further, there is no certainty that these wages would enable temporary workers — such as door guards, street cleaners and interns — to live in this city, where the basic living cost is far higher than other places. Moreover, the city government has thus far only targeted temporary workers, not regular city workers.

Yet, these cunning politicians use the media to play political games again by gaining public praise for daring to challenge the central government’s labor policy. However, they did not say that government agencies hire more temporary and dispatch workers than the private sector, nor did they shed light on any plan that could allow these workers become full-time employees, with higher wages and better benefits.

The issue is not with politicians’ attention-getting motives. When society has failed to set appropriate wage levels for all workers and the average degree of satisfaction with their wellbeing remains low, any plan to raise wages or increase paid holidays is never an issue of right or wrong, but rather of when and how.

However, the focus of the issue is the expectation that the action of one city can kick-start similar actions in other cities, with the expectation that such moves could spread wider to ultimately influence national policymakers. With the move to influence the public sector comes an even greater expectation that the private sector will follow suit and collectively help improve living conditions for Taiwanese.

Even so, the hard facts of reality are that today’s high-paying jobs could be tomorrow’s low-paying offers, considering the world’s rapidly changing economy affected by the global economy and ever-developing technology. It is also true that the public sense of wellbeing is not just about the number of paid holidays or wage increases, but also about government efficiency and capability in guiding the nation.

As such, raising the minimum wage, for instance, is not going to solve the problem of low wages. Instead, the nation has to think about training more people in the appropriate technical skills for jobs that provide higher wages and better prospects, while allowing businesses to provide more high-paying jobs in Taiwan.

That means both government and educational institutions have to review school curricula, provide more options for school admission and increase investment in vocational training so that workers and new graduates will possess skills necessary for promising careers.

It also means that the nation should speed up industrial improvements and economic transformation to enhance companies’ competitiveness and improve people’s wellbeing, otherwise debates over minimum wage increases or other trivial benefits will continue making headlines that benefit just a few people, especially shrewd politicians.