Hon Hai Precision Industry Co chairman Terry Gou (郭台銘) has once more been talking about the number “22k.”
The 22k figure originated in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. As businesses across the board foundered, the Ministry of Education allocated a special budget to subsidize the monthly salary for interns who had just finished school and started work, bringing it up to NT$22,000.
However, 22k has gradually taken on a new life as a signifier, influencing how companies remunerate their employees and reflected in the expectations of workers as they enter the workplace. The subjective meaning that was originally attached to the figure of 22k in Taiwan has disappeared, while objectively it has turned into what French sociologist Roland Barthes called a “myth.”
By “myth,” Barthes meant a form of discourse, a kind of signal. In his view, when a sign is elevated to the status of a myth, it becomes a form of discourse operating on an implicit level, taking on a life of its own. Consider this: How many financial woes have beleaguered the international community since the curse of the 2008 financial crisis reared its ugly head? There have been the eurozone debt crisis and the threatened disintegration of the eurozone, necessitating the US government’s decision to print lots of money and its policy of quantitative easing. We have also seen the decline or bankruptcy of many annuity funds and welfare programs, as well as rising commodity prices.
What are the repercussions of the 22k myth? It has informed the level at which salaries have settled in the nation, across industries, regardless of the work involved or the effort required.
No matter how skilled workers may be, or how hardworking or ambitious they are, few are willing to focus on their jobs when they involve too much hard work when they are being asked to work for the same low salary as everyone else.
The result is that many just go from company to company, frequently changing jobs, and pay more attention to their leisure pursuits than to cultivating the correct attitude to work.
The myth of 22k has come to signify disgruntled employers unhappy with their employees’ attitudes to work, and employees loath to work for low pay. This is how people have come to understand the term and the idea they mean to express when using it.
How should Taiwanese interpret and analyze this? In this day and age, numbers count, but so do perceptions. Employers should think about the symbolic meaning that 22k has taken on, and pay these newcomers to the workplace according to their abilities, setting up a range of pay brackets to differentiate those who work hard from those who do not and based on how well they work and on employers’ expectations. This will benefit both employer and employee, creating a win-win situation.
Meanwhile, employees would be given the choice of finding satisfaction with NT$22,000 a month, or thinking of it as a starting point from which to progress, reflecting upon whether their attitude to work is a healthy one or whether they can do better.
Maybe when people start thinking about 22k in this way, the spell will finally be broken.
Chao Che-sheng is an assistant professor in Kainan University’s Department of Information Communications.
Translated by Julian Clegg
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