Not Qualified To Do Business

By Robin Winkler

The Chinese National Federation of Industries (CNFI) was recently reported as saying it may boycott the upcoming national economic conference unless its proposals for rejuvenating the economy are seriously discussed. Those proposals include loosening environmental controls, opening up direct links with China, and further relaxing restrictions on imports of foreign labor.

One can understand this coming from the CNFI, a front organization for businesses that have no special allegiance to Taiwan. As long as it can help its members cut costs and improve their bottom line, then national interests be damned. Who needs a pesky national economic conference?

During a recent meeting of the Environmental Impact Assessment Commission, another commissioner took issue with my asking whether the developer would be willing to consider a zero imported labor (blue and white collar) policy. The developer's response to my question had been "we will follow the rules and regulations of the Council of Labor Affairs" which of course means that they will import as many foreign laborers as is legally possible – frequently up to 20 percent of the total. And why not? The subsidies are a great boon to the bottom line – national interests be damned.

Last year there was considerable print and electronic media devoted to the 21 August riots involving Thai guest workers in Kaohsiung, incidents at the Mailiao plant of Formosa Plastics, and the endless stream of abuse heaped on personal caregivers. From speaking with members of the labor movement in Taiwan one can safely conclude that these incidents are the tip of a very large iceberg. Nor has this gone unnoticed by the U.S., whose State Department lowered Taiwan's standings on humans rights due to a poor record on migrant labor.

The CNFI, its supporters and members have gone so far as to propose setting up gulags that will house foreign workers doing the 3D jobs – dangerous, dirty and dull – which they say the Taiwanese refuse to do.

It is dismaying that there has been so little discussion of two phenomena that underlie these incidents and trends: individuals have become incapable of acting responsibly towards their family members while businesses have become unable to provide decent working conditions for their compatriots. All the while the government under the DPP has continued policies of its predecessor KMT that facilitate these trends and exacerbate the social fallout.

The government's response to businesses and individuals who claim they need to bring in foreign guest workers has been short-term knee-jerk crisis management rather than carefully considered long-term planning.

The number of foreign workers, currently over 330,000, exceeds by far the total population of laborers from Taiwan's 12 tribes of indigenous peoples. Unemployment rates among native peoples are higher than the national average, and while I am the last to urge members of the Paiwan, Taroko, Amis and other tribes to take construction, manufacturing, or home care jobs, we should be concerned by the quantity and quality of government resources dedicated to bringing in people to work on projects for which employers are claiming adequate local labor is not available.

Home care is one of the major areas of employment of foreign workers with an estimated 125,000 nannies and other caretakers. For many of the people that hire this sort of guest worker the difference between what they have to pay the guest worker and what they make at their jobs is very little. So little in fact that if they calculated the time they spend commuting to their job, the cost of clothes they buy for their job, the cost of the drinks, coffee, eating out, holidays and other relievers of stress caused by their jobs, they would come out ahead by staying at home and spending more time with their parents or children. This is reflected in the irony of a young mother who is anxious to put her newly born child into a day care center so that she can get right back to work to earn enough money to pay for the day care center or guest worker nanny.

When I came to Taiwan nearly 30 years ago many people bemoaned the fact that Taiwan had no social security system such as that in the US – at that time the only "foreign country" with which a significant number of Taiwanese were familiar. This was a time when it was common to have "four generations living under one roof," but most people didn't realize that this was their social security system, one that is far superior to anything Taiwan might come up with in attempting to imitate the United States, a country that is hardly acclaimed for the way it treats its elderly. Shouldn't we be urging the government to use its resources to provide an environment that encourages family members to spend more time with their family, rather than spending those resources on managing guest workers? Importation of foreign guest workers to do the "work" formerly done by siblings, children, uncles, aunts and neighbors is not only depriving the "carees" of time with their family and community, it is facilitating a further breakdown of the very basic unit of a civil society.

Over 150,000 guest worker jobs are in manufacturing and construction. Here the issues become a little more complex, although the underlying principles are quite simple. And as with the case of home care guest workers the result is the same: by allowing the import of cheap labor, the government is facilitating or enabling practices by business that are economically, socially, and environmentally suicidal. The problem of home care workers showing up in manufacturing and construction jobs is yet another aspect of a mess that Taiwan economics officials can not bring themselves to face.

To recover from the devastation of Taiwan's economy following World War II and to maintain tight control over every aspect of society, 37 years of martial law and authoritarian rule were not enough for the Chinese Nationalists (KMT). They needed to give the Taiwanese a vision that would divert the public's attention from the corruption of the KMT government or from making comparisons to the way things were under the Japanese, or the way things could be if the promises and principles of the United Nations had been implemented. This vision was basically to make as much money as possible by whatever means.

Imagine the entire population of a country working with a single purpose in the same way as a giant corporation – relentless pursuit of profits regardless of long-term economic, social or environmental costs. The "economic miracle" that resulted from the pursuit of this single bottom line over the 50 years following the Chinese Nationalist taking power in Taiwan was accomplished through a number of means:

splitting up farms and giving the large landowners incentives to invest in factories,

pampering large business interests that came over from China after the war, most of which were dominated, if not outright owned, by the KMT,

import substitution policies that quickly ramped up the abilities of tens of thousands of businesses to start up and prosper (the "living room factories" were a mainstay of Taiwanese life throughout the 70s),

industrial parks and export processing zones,

the major construction projects initiated by Chiang Chingkuo in the 70s,

and on, and on, and on.

People throughout this period questioned whether the neglect shown for environmental and social issues might be one of the causes of widespread dissatisfaction with the government. Many of those people went to jail or were otherwise persecuted for their beliefs, writings and activities.

President Chen, former Council for Labor Affairs Chairperson Chen Chu, and Vice President Lu were among that prominent group of fighters for social and environmental justice from the 1970s through the 1990s. Why are they now unable to make the connection between the double whammy of social and environmental costs with the kind of short-sighted economic development that Taiwan experienced during the Chinese KMT's reign? It seems that the perceived benefits of the economic boom – highways, hospitals, airports, fishing harbors, foreign travel, everyone owning at least one home (there goes the big family), a car and tons of electronics, and being able to engage in unbridled consumption - are just too attractive to be marred by considerations of the impact of these material "benefits" on the deteriorating social and natural environment.

And the connection with guest workers? Labor is one of the major cost components of any economic project, whether it is building a High Speed Railway or a Metro in Kaohsiung, operating a Naphtha Cracker Plant in Yunlin, an LCD factory in Taichung, or a cement or paper factory in Hualian, or even for the small scale fishing, agriculture, and manufacturing operations throughout the country. While many of these projects are already subsidized through low utility rates, land grants, tax holidays, roads and other free infrastructure, without the allowance of imported labor many if not all these projects would have to be terminated or significantly adjusted.

Before officials jump to the conclusion that they must accede to the wishes of industry and their agents to open up foreign labor, perhaps they should ask why are these businesses spending and investing beyond their means? Why can't these businesses afford to hire Taiwanese? Perhaps there is a structural problem here? Perhaps these businesses are simply not qualified to do business.

Limits are ways of forcing businesses to adapt to their environment, be it the natural environment, society, or the economy. All living organisms must live within limits and grow only so far as their environment allows, eventually reaching a balance. One possible exception is a "phenomenon" that sometimes occurs when conditions have been provided to facilitate relentless and unchecked growth of the organism, and to allow it to flourish at the expense of other healthy members of the community. That phenomenon is known as cancer. By continuing to remove limits (obstacles to investment) such as environmental controls, natural limits from the Taiwan labor market, or to investment in China (where the Taiwan companies can go and behave the way they have in Taiwan for the past 50 years), the government is creating a cancerous monster.

The businesses that are calling on the government to allow them to import more labor would do well to look at themselves. Have they improved the conditions of their employees or their environmental practices during the past decade? Or having become addicted to ridiculously high, abnormal profits over the years of nearly unregulated growth in Taiwan, did they become so spoiled and soft that the only way they can survive is to either move abroad where environmental and social limits are non-existent or to demand that Taiwan give up all environmental and social controls? Can we expect any of these businesses to upgrade in terms of energy and other resource efficiency, or upgrade the work environment for their employees while they continue to be coddled by the government?

In answering why we have to import labor to Taiwan we hear the refrain: "the Taiwanese are spoiled, no one wants to do that kind of work." The real answer is much simpler: the people and businesses that bring in guest workers are not qualified to raise a family or run a business. At the same time, we need to accept the fact that Taiwan is a small country with one of the highest population densities in the world. Many of the projects and industries for which foreign labor is imported are inappropriate for Taiwan and should either be scrapped or adjusted to a scale that Taiwan is able to accommodate.

Robin Winkler is a naturalized Taiwanese citizen who heads the Taiwan Wild at Heart Legal Defense Association and currently serves as a commissioner on the Environmental Protection Agency's Environmental Impact Assessment Commission.