by Brian Hioe

Photo Credit: Brian Hioe

SEVERAL HUNDRED gathered in front of the Presidential Office today in order to commemorate International Workers’ Day, also known as May Day. A color stage was set up on Ketagalan Boulevard for the occasion. 

Although International Workers’ Day is normally commemorated by a march between the Presidential Office on Ketagalan Boulevard and other government buildings, such as the Ministry of Labor, this was canceled this year due to the effects of COVID-19. The march normally draws thousands of participants from union groups across Taiwan. 

Press conference held by Taiwan Railways Union workers. Photo credit: Brian Hioe

As such, a smaller demonstration was held in front of the Presidential Office than in past years, and there was no march. Attendees were called on to wear masks at all times and to use the Social Distancing app that the Ministry of Health and Welfare developed, to track when individuals are within two meters of a confirmed COVID-19 case. This is not the first time during the COVID-19 pandemic that a smaller demonstration or press conference was held instead of a full-scale rally for International Workers’ Day. 

On International Workers’ Day this year, Taiwan Railways Administration (TRA) workers are currently on a de facto strike, in refusing to work overtime today. Over 12,000 of the TRA’s 16,000 workers and 1,300 of its train drivers refused to work overtime. As this is 95% of train drivers, this means that few trains are running today. 

Photo credit: Brian Hioe

The strike is against plans by the TRA to corporatize the company, changing it into a state-owned company rather than a branch of government as it is now. TRA workers are critical of that this could potentially lead to the loss of benefits that they currently enjoy as public servants, pointing to how the TRA has cut the number of workers even as passengers have increased, something that proves dangerous for passenger safety. As such, workers have argued that the corporatization of the TRA will be at the risk of consumers. Ironically, the TRA and the Ministry of Transportation and Communications justifies the corporatization of the TRA as something that would improve safety, and uses a train derailment that took place in 2021 in Hualien as a pretext to push for the corporatization. 

Consequently, while the May Day rally began at 2 PM on Ketagalan Boulevard, members of the Taiwan Railways Union (TRU) gathered outside of the NTU Hospital MRT starting at 12 PM. They then marched to a location close to the Presidential Office to hold a press conference, with police having refused them holding a demonstration outside of the Presidential Office or Executive Yuan. Police declared this to be an illegal march that had not been reported ahead of time to them and interrupted several times with loudspeakers and a large number of police officers followed the march, but otherwise did not interfere. 

Photo credit: Brian Hioe

During the press conference, TRU members criticized the corporatization plans, with some union members shouting that Minister of Transportation and Communication Wang Kwo-tsai to step down. TRU members stressed that what they hoped for most of all was safety for passengers and workers, stating that they also hoped for reform in the company while criticizing the TRA for failing to consult with workers in the process of corporatization. Likewise, they performed a skit in the press conference where a TRU member popped a balloon reading “Corporatization” on it, and left flowers in front of a placard emphasizing their desire that no tragedies such as the train derailment again occur.  

Much of the framing of the May Day rally, then, was also regarding workplace safety, with the rally organizers drawing attention to the TRU strike. Apart from union groups, the NPP and Labor Party were also present, and TPP legislator Lai Hsiang-ling, the former head of the Department of Labor for Taipei city, also made a brief appearance, passing through the rally, though no political parties spoke. 

Photo credit: Brian Hioe

One of the speakers represented RCA union workers, RCA being one of the major industrial accidents in Taiwanese history, and very likely the first class-action lawsuit for workplace-related injuries. RCA workers have sought justice for decades, with many RCA workers since having died from cancer and other illnesses due to contamination at the workplace. The case is broadly seen as one reflecting the contradictions of Taiwan’s manufacturing heyday and its relation to the US during the Cold War, seeing as RCA was an American company that came to Taiwan because of weak workplace safety measures. There are several groups of RCA workers engaged in a class-action lawsuit, some of which have won, but their compensation was recently reduced by a High Court ruling. RCA workers were critical of compensation as being insufficient for their medical expenses during the rally. 

Another speaker was the sibling of a convenience store clerk that was stabbed to death for reminding a customer to wear his mask. She spoke of the pressure on convenience store clerks and clerks at other stores that sell medical supplies or serve as key points for distribution as goods during COVID-19, particularly due to customers that refuse to wear masks, or when customers take out their frustration on clerks. Apart from this being a matter of workplace safety, she also touched on the emotional labor that this entails from clerks. 

Skit held at the end of the demonstration, regarding price hikes for goods. Photo credit: Brian Hioe

Likewise, a third speaker represented Taiwan’s medical workers. Despite having to frequently be quarantined for contact with COVID-19 cases in the workplace, he stated that medical workers are sometimes blamed as though they instead became infected with COVID-19 from social gatherings, and that they are unfairly stigmatized by management in this way. 

To signify this demand for workplace safety, workers were asked to stick origami cranes that they were handed at the start of the rally onto a sign. 

Otherwise, the rally also called for adequate pay for workers to keep pace with rising costs, especially after recent price hikes. To signify this, boxes representing necessary goods were passed up through the crowd to the front of the stage, which members of the TRU then covered with a banner. “Goods” included everything from housing to instant noodles and bubble tea. The rally ended shortly after 3 PM. 

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