Social Issues

Social Welfare Policies

Rapid growth has clearly brought new educational and economic opportunities to a wide segment of Taiwanese society. Some measures of quality of life are impressive. Infant mortality stands at eight per 1,00 live births (the rate is 10 per, 1,000 in the United States). Life expectancy is 71 years for males and 76 for women. Nutritional levels are among the best in Asia, with average per capita calorie intake well above the minimum necessary for a healthy life, and few reported cases of undernutrition. In the late 1980s, there were an estimated 27 televisions, 40 telephones, and eight motor vehicles for every 100 persons; one hospital bed for every 232 people; and a doctor for every 919 people.

However, critics of the government claim it has invested too little of the island’s wealth into creating a "social safety net" which assures that everyone can meet their basic needs, regardless of circumstances. In fiscal year 1989, social welfare expenditures accounted for 17% of the government’s budget, compared to 22% for defense and foreign affairs and an identical share for public works projects. Programs of direct financial assistance to elderly, disabled, and low-income people accounted for about 0.05% of total government spending. In fiscal 1990, funds for social programs increased by just four percent, or less than the rate of economic expansion.

The government’s social insurance programs have expanded in recent years, but still cover less than half of the population. There is no unemployment compensation, and in the mid-1980s, only 21% of the people -- mostly public employees -- had health insurance with just five percent covered by mental health insurance. The government has promised that it will assure universal health insurance coverage by 1994. In the meantime, health care is provided on a fee-for-service basis by private practitioners. Low-income people and those living in rural areas and the mountains have little access to medical facilities. Approximately 5,000 ill children from low-income families die each year because their families cannot afford health care.

There are many public health problems. The government makes little effort to regulate food quality, drug safety, or toxic chemicals. Despite the development of a bio-technology industry on the island, tap water is not safe to drink. The government has plans to improve sanitation services, but at present, garbage is piled up at random on corners even in Taipei.

For the most part, the authorities expect physically handicapped people to engage in petty trade or rely on private charities instead of depending on government programs to meet their needs. As a result, a 1988 crackdown on illegal lotteries harmed many disabled people, who had sold tickets to earn a modest living. The government began drafting legislation on the welfare of the handicapped in 1989, but had not completed work by mid-1991.

A social stigma is attached to mental retardation, and there are few health, special education, or vocational training programs available to mentally retarded children. Instead, these handicapped youth face discrimination, mistreatment, and sexual abuse.

Taiwan currently faces a housing crisis. Real estate speculation has raised prices to a level which puts home ownership out of reach for an estimated 21% of the population, and homelessness has become common in the cities. In working-class neighborhoods and rural areas, housing is generally of poor quality, and even urban middle-class housing often has antiquated plumbing. In other rapid growth Asian countries, such as Singapore and Hong Kong, the governments have invested heavily in assuring everyone access to decent shelter; the ruling party on Taiwan, in contrast, seems to have no policy in the area of housing.

Perhaps the biggest social problem facing Taiwan today is the strain caused by moving from an agrarian to an industrial society in just 45 years. Traditional values of family and community have broken down in favor of a materialists, "get rich instantly" mentality. The island now faces rising levels of violent crime, drug addiction, alcoholism, suicides, child molestation, and juvenile delinquency.

Beyond these general social problems, there are particular groups within Taiwan’s society who have found that they have not received their fair share from the "economic miracle." They include women, Aborigines, and industrial workers.




The ROC constitution forbids discrimination on the basis of gender, and separate legislation provides equal pay for equal work, as well as maternity benefits for working women. In practice, however, the patriarchal culture which has prevailed in both Taiwan and China means that these laws often go unenforced. On average, women earn two thirds of what men receive, and pay equity laws do not apply to service industries. Cases of spouse abuse are seldom prosecuted, women find it difficult to obtain credit or purchase real estate despite laws against discrimination, men automatically gain control of their wives’ property after marriage, and courts generally award child custody to the father following a divorce. Although women generally have equal educational opportunities, they have been discouraged from going into science and technology fields and most well-educated professional women are still expected to bear the burden of household duties and child care.

In working-class and farm families, young women frequently go to work between school and marriage, typically between the ages of 16 and 25. "Dexterous and docile" young women have long formed the backbone of the workforce in the textile, electronics, and plastic plants of the Export Processing Zones: they work long hours, often under unsafe and unhealthy conditions. Their earnings are a major portion of household earnings for lower income families.

The opening of Taiwan’s economy to international investment has led to booming sex industry. Women over age 18 can legally work as government-licensed prostitutes, but pimps often kidnap or "buy" girls as young as ten from low-income families and force them to handle up to 50 "customers" a day. The illegal child prostitutes far outnumber the legal sex workers, and the authorities either look the other way or even receive payoffs.

A women’s movement began in the 1970s led by Lu Hsiu-Lien, seeking to end many of these abuses. Women’s groups managed to defeat a proposal to maintain male majorities in colleges and universities. The movement continued in the 1980s with the publication of Awakening Magazine, a feminist monthly that later evolved into the current Awakening Foundation, the center for progressive feminist involvement in legal, political , social, cultural and educational change. Other women’s groups include the Homemaker’s Union, which is mainly concerned with environmental protection and education; Warm Life Association, which provides marriage counseling; the National Organization for Women in Taiwan, focusing on professionalism and political participation for women; the Grassroots Women Workers Center; Taipei Women’s Protection Foundation; the Rainbow Project, which works to prevent and terminate teenage prostitution; the Center for Women’s Development; and Taiwan National University’s Women’s Research Center, which is a pioneer in incorporating the study of women’s issues in academia.

Tremendous progress has been made by women in Taiwan in the past two decades. There are many more channels through which women’s issues may be voiced, and the newly founded women’s groups have created spaces and support for the development of social and political empowerment. Today, women are pursuing higher education and they are more aware of alternatives outside the family and home, provided by the increase of adequate childcare and career opportunities. Under pressure from women’s groups, legislative reform has taken place in the following areas: revision of the Family Law to improve marital property laws and divorce laws; legalized abortion under the Eugenic Health Law; and the Basic Labor Standards Law, which protects the rights of women workers. Currently, women’s groups are lobbying to introduce an equal employment bill into the legislature that would protect women in all fields of employment.

Today in Taiwan, employed women constitute close to 40 percent of the labor force, many of which are managerial positions, and 42 percent of college students are women. In the political spheres, the recently revised constitution guarantees a quota for women of 10 percent of the seats in legislative bodies, but feminists are proposing gradual amendments to reach an eventual goal of 40 percent guaranteed representation.



Each succeeding wave of settlers on Taiwan made life increasingly marginal for the indigenous people of the island. When the Japanese finally pacified the highland Aborigines, the colonial authorities forced these people into reserves, which they could use, but which belonged to the government. As the colonial regime began leasing this land out for commercial purposes, Aborigines began migrating to the lowlands, where they found discrimination on part of the authorities and bigotry from their fellow Taiwanese. Thus, they joined the culture of underemployment, poverty, self-hatred, drug addiction, and alcoholism that modern society has brought to so many indigenous people.

The current government’s policies toward the Aborigines have resembled those of the Japanese. Since 1945, the government has accelerated the economic exploitation of the mountains, reducing the size of the reservations and allowing the tribes to sell their rights to use the land to non-Aborigines. Many Aborigines have fallen prey to dishonest developers, and the authorities have sometimes sold land without informing the tribal people who live on it.

Once Aborigines leave the mountains, they lose their right to work the land. They also have had trouble returning to visit friends and relatives, because the government, claiming that it fears the development of a guerrilla movement, placed severe restrictions on travel in the mountains.

The government has taken other more subtle steps to suppress the Aborigines’ "non-Chinese" culture. The government discourages all families from having more than two children, and zealously enforces its family planning policy among the tribal people, even though their birth rate is declining. Aborigines are referred to as "Mountain People," although a majority of them now live in the lowlands. During the martial law period, the authorities banned Aborigine rights organizations from using the term the tribal people prefer, "Originally Residing Peoples." The government has also insisted that all Aborigines take Chinese names, and has forbidden them from using their tribal names on official documents. Intermarriage and the official policy encouraging the use of Mandarin have accelerated the decline of traditional Aboriginal culture; many younger tribal people cannot speak their Aboriginal languages.

The authorities do encourage displays of traditional Aboriginal culture in a number of villages which are maintained as tourist attractions, such as Wulai, in the mountains to the south of Taipei. Aboriginal rights activists condemn this as a form of exploitation, which they consider prostitution.

Less than one percent of the Aborigines obtain education beyond the secondary school level, and in the mountains, there is only one doctor for every 6,000 people. Polluted and overworked mountain soil and streams can no longer support the old lifestyle based on slash-and-burn agriculture, hunting, and fishing. Thus the cycle of poverty and the exodus from the mountains continues.

Given their relatively low levels of education and skills, Aborigines in the lowlands tend to go into dangerous and relatively low-paying jobs: mining, deep sea fishing, and construction work. The island’s mines are antiquated, and safety rules are rarely enforced. Fires and explosions frequently kill the predominantly Aborigine miners; the combined death and accident rate in mining is about 20 times the combined rate for all industries.

Low-incomes mean that many Aborigines do not complete the mandatory nine years of schooling. Nevertheless, increasing numbers of tribal people have obtained high school and college education over the last few decades, and the KMT’s "speak Mandarin" policy has increased communications across tribal lines.

All this has meant the growth of an Aborigine rights movement in the 1980s and 1990s. It has sought improved job and educational opportunities, stronger enforcement of laws prohibiting child prostitution, the right to maintain traditional culture, government assistance in efforts to combat wide-spread anti-Aboriginal prejudice, and the return of several million acres of land lost during Nationalist rule.

The Presbyterian Church, of which 40% of the members are tribal people, has strongly supported this movement and has established programs to offer alternative employment training to prostitutes, legal aid to detained fishermen, and economic and social development programs to Aborigines. About 80% of the tribal people are Christian, roughly one-third of all Aborigines are Presbyterian, and Aborigine pastors and lay persons have held leadership positions within the church.


Workers and the "Economic Miracle"

It is not a secret that cheap labor has played an essential role in Taiwan’s rapid industrial development and continuing economic growth. As the economy has grown, so have wage levels, although these generally have not kept pace with rising living costs. Moreover, since arriving on Taiwan, the government has sought to maintain extremely tight control over the ability of Taiwan’s workers to act to improve their status.

The ruling party has dominated most labor unions, and in most large workplace, party members and security agents keep a careful eye on the activities of workers. Laws and KMT policy have greatly restricted worker’s rights to organize outside of the government controlled union structure, to engage in strikes, and to bargain collectively. Groups which seek to promote free and democratic labor unions find themselves subject to government harassment. For decades, the authorities have tried to attract foreign investors with promises of "labor peace."

The lifting of martial law theoretically meant an end to restrictions on labor unions, and union activity has increased markedly in recent years. However, in practice, the government continues to restrict worker rights. Labor laws ban unions in enterprises with fewer than 30 employees, even though small firms employ the overwhelming majority of the workplace. The authorities also prohibit unions among civil servants and teachers. The government has not taken action against larger firms which fire employees for attempting to organize unions and other union activities, although such reprisals are supposedly illegal.

Restrictions on the right to strike have outlived the martial law era. The main mechanism is a legal requirement that employers and workers submit all disputes to final and binding arbitration; workers charge that government-sponsored arbitration panels are heavily biased in favor of management.

Despite the restrictive laws and the risks to their job security, Taiwanese workers became increasingly militant in the late 1980s, and have staged "illegal" strikes, "sick-outs" and other job actions with increasing frequency. Ignoring legal bans on competing unions and federations of unions, they have formed new, democratically-run organizations outside of the government’s control. They have also taken employers to court to force them to pay legally-mandated bonuses and benefits.

Some of the factors behind the island’s labor upsurge include a growing labor shortage, which has improved worker’s bargaining position; the slow growth of wages; and a wave of factory closures due to executive’s embezzlement, fluctuations in the world market, and competition from neighboring countries with lower wage rates. In addition, the growing clout of neighboring Korea’s unions and pressure from foreign unions and human rights organizations for greater industrial democracy in the newly industrialized economies have encouraged Taiwanese workers to demand improved conditions and the freedom to organize. The liberalized political climate of the late 1980’s has helped workers feel that they need not fear airing the grievances. Finally, today’s workers are removed from the traditional peasant deference to authority that the first generation of Taiwanese industrial laborers brought with them to the factories.

Unfortunately, the government has responded in much the same way that it has handled environmental concerns and social welfare issues: with largely cosmetic gestures, such as creating new agencies and passing new laws, but few concrete measures. The government has elevated its labor bureaucracy to the level of a cabinet ministry and has liberalized statues and regulations governing organizing, wages, hours, benefits, and industrial health and safety. However, the budget for enforcement is too small to make much difference. Health and safety problems are especially acute, due to the use of hazardous chemicals and high risks techniques - for example, requiring workers to peer into microscopes to assemble computer chips - in key industries like electronics. The government acknowledges that the industrial injury rate is unacceptably high.

Between 1986 and 1989, labor unrest helped drive wages up by 60%. The more militant workforce, the environmental movement, and rising wages have led to a flight of both foreign and Taiwanese capital to areas of cheaper and quieter labor, notably the Export Processing Zones across the Strait in China.

The rising cost of Taiwanese labor has also led to increased reliance on foreign workers, most of whom do not have legal permission to work on the island. They come mainly from Southeast Asia and China, and usually earn about half the average manufacturing wage. They do not enjoy even the theoretical legal protections applying to citizen workers. These foreign workers have become increasingly important to the construction industry and to small- and medium-sized firms (generally owned by native Taiwanese entrepreneurs); their presence also serves to undercut some of the new found bargaining power Taiwanese workers have gained.

Yet the potential social problems created by the presence of 50,000-100,000 exploited and culturally diverse alien workers is also apparent to the government. In 1991, the authorities promised a crackdown on illegal foreign workers, especially mainland Chinese, whom the government considers a security threat. The government has not explained how local business will meet the labor shortage or rising labor costs.

At the same time, a reversal of current labor market patterns seems likely if the government proceeds with plans to increase investment in more capital-intensive industries. This will probably lead to increased unemployment. Taiwan has never had unemployment compensation (plans were drafted for such a program in 1991), and the government has only recently launched efforts to retrain displaced workers.

All these factors point to continued labor militancy in 1990’s.