How Cheap Must Taiwanese Workers Get?
In this exclusive interview, former Council of Labor Affairs minister Wang Ju-hsuan considers the deleterious effects of a cost-down labor strategy, and the need for a fresh approach to development.
How Cheap Must Taiwanese Workers Get?By Rebecca Lin
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 541 )
Basically I believe that one's occupation is sacred and that it is possible to learn new skills in any job. There is nothing wrong with going to Singapore for employment. To a certain degree this expands one's horizon. But people should not be "forced" to go. If people are forced [to look for work elsewhere], it means the country is not taking good care of its citizens. That's where we need to do some soul-searching.
When I served as minister of the Council of Labor Affairs, I insisted that the minimum wage for foreign laborers and domestic laborers must not be delinked, and I even stepped down from my post to take political responsibility. I didn't do this merely to protect the workers, but also because if Taiwan's industry fails to develop, the workers are the ones who will be hurt.
Should the minimum wage be raised? Should the minimum wage for foreign workers and domestic workers be delinked? The question that needs to be asked behind all this is: Where should industrial policy be headed?
Should Taiwan continue to use cheap labor to attract foreign businesses? Or how cheap do workers have to get so that enterprises can survive? Does the country want such industries?
I don't know when Taiwanese society will finally wake up.
When I was in the government, they came up with the same old tricks whenever we talked about industrial policy – how to cut taxes, how to make labor even cheaper. But there were no other directions to be seen.
If all a nation can do is to sell cheap labor, it will be held hostage by business.
South Korea and Singapore, which used to be neck-and-neck with Taiwan, have long surpassed us. This development did not happen over night. I have been to South Korea three times. At the time of my first visit in 1997, South Korea's national income was lower than Taiwan's. When I visited in 2004, I found that national income was more or less the same as in Taiwan. Now, it has already surpassed Taiwan. This means that the direction and strategy of Taiwan's development are wrong – that much is very clear.
Translated from the Chinese by Susanne Ganz