Former presidential adviser Day Sheng-tong (戴勝通) has ignited a firestorm, accusing renowned religious institution Buddhist Compassion Relief Tzu Chi Foundation of stealing from the poor.
Day, an entrepreneur known as Taiwan’s king of the hat makers, posted a message last week for the foundation saying: “Please leave some rice for poor people to eat.”
He was referring to the philanthropic foundation’s entry into the trash recycling business, pushing out private individual trash collectors, known as “scavengers.”
In the past, the scavengers went from street to street on a bicycle or hand-cart, picking up storefront or household trash, collecting recyclables and reselling them to distributors.
Nearly all are from impoverished backgrounds, some with physical disabilities, and most are more than 50 years of age, with no other means of subsistence.
“Tzu Chi can call up their armies of volunteers, who collect and recycle trash without being paid wages. This is a ‘for-profit business’ in which Tzu Chi has an unfair advantage against the private collectors. Profits from this business are plowed into purchasing land and real estate for Tzu Chi,” he said.
He criticized Taiwanese religious organizations for their non-transparent operations and finances, and for “distorting the true intention of benevolence and social work for the public good.”
“In Taiwan, we have about 4.5 billion plastic bottles trashed each year, from which scavengers can earn about NT$5,000 to NT$6,000 each month. About 20,000 depend on this for their livelihoods,” he said.
“However, now it has all changed. Now Tzu Chi has thousands of recycling depots, relying on free armies of volunteers to keep the business going. Tzu Chi has also set up factories to make carpet and other goods out of the recycled materials. The profits are then used to snap up real estate,” he said.
“Religious organizations supposedly involved in philanthropy should help needy Taiwanese, rather than competing with the poor for profit,” he added.
According to Day, some religious organizations create a vicious cycle of negative impacts in society.
“In South Korea, a leader of a religious group of 800,000 followers was arrested and jailed. Yet in Taiwan, our government does not dare investigate so-called ‘philanthropic organizations.’ I urge these organizations to open up their accounts to show the public their finances,” he said.
In a statement on Thursday last week, the foundation said that it annually recycles between 2 and 5 percent of the nation’s plastic bottles, and denied that it operates a carpet or clothes making factory.
The foundation said one technology company, which is non-profit, was incorporated under Tzu Chi’s name through business donations.
Yet the company’s Web site contradicts this information, some netizens said, citing: “About one-third of all plastic bottles in Taiwan are recycled by Tzu Chi volunteers. These are recycled to manufacture carpets and clothing [by our subsidiary company], and also for materials made into other goods.”
A netizen surnamed Lin (林) agreed that Tzu Chi should exit the recycling business and not take money from scavengers.
A female surnamed Chang wrote: “In the public park near my home, Tzu Chi volunteers come by twice a week to collect recyclable trash by the truck load. This is very bad, because the truly needy are unable to collect it for money.”
A private recycling operator surnamed Wang agreed that Tzu Chi is a “threat” to people and businesses dependent on recyclables for their income.
“Tzu Chi has lots of volunteers doing work for free, so its labor costs and overheads are lower than ours. They enjoy a high profit compared with other groups in similar businesses,” he said.
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