Showing posts with label tsmc. Show all posts
Showing posts with label tsmc. Show all posts

Saturday, December 19, 2020

Pound for pound of what, exactly?


I don’t have a good cover photo so enjoy these amateur door gods. 


I admit I haven’t been blogging as much lately, partly because I’m busy with work, and partly because spending a lot of time with a research topic has made me less inclined to opine on issues I don’t know as well. I’ve been asking myself what value the opinionations of outsiders and non-experts really has, at least after a certain point. (That’s not to say I think there is none; it’s just not where I’ve found the most meaning in my life and Taiwan advocacy recently.) I’ve found more meaning in using all this training and experience I’ve been accruing in the past decades to figure out how to help voices more worth listening to than mine get where they want and need to be to express their ideas in a foreign language. 


With that said, please allow me to opinionate on Ruchir Sharma’s recent op-ed in the New York Times. For a Business Guy, focused entirely on business rather than matters of justice and right and wrong, it was pretty good. That is, if you ignore some of the more questionable assertions about Taiwan lifting itself out of poverty post-WWII. For example, conveniently forgetting that pre-WWII it was one of the most prosperous places in Asia due to a “competent government” (lol) that focused on “small business” (sure, after the US forced them to and then kept Taiwan afloat with aid while the KMT spent almost all the government revenue on the military). And calling Taiwan a “small” island of “just” 24 million— would Sharma call Australia small? Probably not? Well, their populations are similar.


In any case, focusing on how Taiwan — often shunted aside as less important in the face of China’s massive market — is actually far more important due to the vital industries it houses is one way to make the case for caring about this country, in a way that some people will hear. He speaks their language, and that’s great. Those of us who care about Taiwan simply because it’s the right thing to do, don’t speak that language very well, and that case needs to be made to anyone who’ll hear it, in any form they’re likely to buy it. 


But something else was missing from Sharma’s essay that has been nagging at me — what it actually took to get Taiwan to where it is. First and foremost, it’s important to discuss the way foreign workers, who do most of the fab-and-factory-floor level grind work, are treated. Taiwan’s economic miracle is in fact ongoing, although it may not seem that way. Certainly growth seems, and is, slower than those heady days of repressive “competent” leadership. It has grown, however, even in the face of a bully neighbor who has tried to throttle its progress. Not even coronavirus has been able to stop Taiwan. 


But the gains it has made even in the years I’ve lived here have been largely due to a supply of foreign labor that is underpaid, overworked and treated abhorrently. (I’m not the first person to point this out, either.) 


At the other end, while Taiwan does have some very well-paid (and also overworked) engineers and experts, it’s worth pointing out that the majority of Taiwanese workers are underpaid and overworked, though not to the same degree as the foreign blue-collar workers. They also tend to face stifling, bureaucratic work environments, which I can speak to anecdotally after years of focusing on business English.


All that “value” Sharma speaks of has been made possible by these two groups. Profit margins either remain razor thin or don’t trickle down to worker salaries and benefits (such as, say, hiring enough people so that no single worker is doing a job 2-3 people should be doing, and taking real vacations is possible.) If I were into toxic positivity, I’d call them superheroes. 


So while I’m grateful for this Business Guy making the Business Guy case for Taiwan to other Business Guys — a case I cannot personally make — I do feel like the tone of the op-ed places profits above working conditions and human costs. 


In other words, sure, pound for pound Taiwan is the most important place on earth. But pounds of what? Because hearing about factory dorm fires and coronavirus cases and seeing my students looking constantly exhausted, rarely taking vacations and — before the CCP virus — eyeing better-paid jobs abroad with better benefits, I’m starting to think he means pounds of flesh.