Most Taiwanese workers are having a tough time. Their real wages are not only not increasing, but are dropping and most reap no benefits when economic growth does occur. All they can do is watch as housing prices continue to soar. They bear the brunt when the economy becomes stagnant, taking pay cuts, unpaid leave and layoffs. The reasons for these problems can be divided into international and domestic. The first is of course linked to China’s cheap labor and the downward pressure this has put on wages. This has already been discussed by many others and I will not delve any further here.
Domestically, the problem wage earners face is that no one represents them in the political system, although they make up a majority of the electorate. Many commentators who have transcended the blue and green political divide have pointed out that the economic policies of Taiwan’s two smaller and two larger political parties are right-wing and lean toward employers and the wealthy. This is the reason why salaries have dropped for the past dozen years despite two changes in government.
Many explanations have been offered for wage earners’ lack of political clout. Some say they have been neglected due to the overriding importance given to the independence-unification issue, while others say the White Terror period suppressed left-wing thought and the organization of labor unions. These arguments all make sense, but wage earners also lack a sense of unity among themselves, as could be clearly seen in the recent debate over the year-end bonuses for retired government workers.
On the one hand, some government workers still divide people according to the traditional Chinese concept of gentry scholars, peasant farmers, artisans and craftsmen and merchants and traders, and see themselves as gentry scholars. They have long ignored the hard circumstances faced by blue-collar workers and some even feel they are superior to them. This is why civil servants call in to talk shows and “lecture” about the differences between mental work and physical labor.
On the other hand, many people view social problems from the traditional standpoint that officials and civilians are in opposition to each other instead of the tense relations between employers and workers in modern societies. This is why retired government workers received the most attention when talk of social unfairness started recently.
In all fairness, the retirement pension system needs to be reformed and it is only reasonable to discuss income replacement ratios for the retired. However, the recent debate has diverted attention from the issues like the fact that the insufficient tax revenue and the difficulty in taxing the wealthy is the source of the national debt, and it also diverted attention from the much more important issues of tax reform, social welfare improvements and distributive justice.
Most commentary has merely been concerned with attacking retired government workers and public school teachers, with very little discussion given to the question of how to increase the pay of blue-collar workers. It seems most commentators have forgotten that the stagnant wages is the most fundamental problem.
The same thing has happened overseas in the past. After the Industrial Revolution, the traditional skills of workers in the textile and other industries became obsolete as a result of mechanization and such workers experienced a large drop in wages. However, wages in some other industries was not affected and those workers received better pay and a certain amount of autonomy. When labor movements initially began, employers said these movements consisted of the “labor aristocracy” because they enjoyed higher pay than other laborers, causing lower paid workers to direct their dissatisfaction and anger toward this group instead of their employers, thus splitting and weakening labor movements.
A common trick in the 20th century was for employers to emphasize the differences between the employees of state-owned and private enterprises. As workers fought among themselves, they failed to concentrate their power and demand benefits from their employers. Even if this “labor aristocracy” had their pay cut, other laborers did not experience pay increases, and as the labor movement was weakened all workers were worse off.
Most of Taiwan’s workers are at an organizational, political and legal disadvantage. If they continue to fight over preconceptions of the value of different professions, the battle between lower and middle class will continue while the upper social echelons of greedy political hacks and land speculators will watch from the sidelines. The only result will be that workers will suffer more.
Li Shang-jen is an associate research fellow at Academia Sinica’s Institute of History and Philology.
Translated by Drew Cameron
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