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
For the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), China’s “century of humiliation” is the gift that keeps on giving. Beijing returns again and again to the theme of Western imperialism, oppression and exploitation to keep stoking the embers of grievance and resentment against the West, and especially the US. However, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) that in 1949 announced it had “stood up” soon made clear what that would mean for Chinese and the world — and it was not an agenda that would engender pride among ordinary Chinese, or peace of mind in the international community. At home, Mao Zedong (毛澤東) launched
To say that this year has been eventful for China and the rest of the world would be something of an understatement. First, the US-China trade dispute, already simmering for two years, reached a boiling point as Washington tightened the noose around China’s economy. Second, China unleashed the COVID-19 pandemic on the world, wreaking havoc on an unimaginable scale and turning the People’s Republic of China into a common target of international scorn. Faced with a mounting crisis at home, Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) rashly decided to ratchet up military tensions with neighboring countries in a misguided attempt to divert the
The restructuring of supply chains, particularly in the semiconductor industry, was an essential part of discussions last week between Taiwan and a US delegation led by US Undersecretary of State for Economic Growth, Energy and the Environment Keith Krach. It took precedent over the highly anticipated subject of bilateral trade partnerships, and Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co (TSMC) founder Morris Chang’s (張忠謀) appearance on Friday at a dinner hosted by President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) for Krach was a subtle indicator of this. Chang was in photographs posted by Tsai on Facebook after the dinner, but no details about their discussions were disclosed. With
Toward the end of former president Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) final term in office, there was much talk about his legacy. Ma himself would likely prefer history books to enshrine his achievements in reducing cross-strait tensions. He might see his meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) in Singapore in 2015 as the high point. However, given his statements in the past few months, he might be remembered more for contributing to the breakup of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT). We are still talking about Ma and his legacy because it is inextricably tied to the so-called “1992 consensus” as the bedrock of his