Written by Brian Hioe.
Image credit: 04.03 總統探視臺鐵太魯閣號列車事故傷 by 總統府/Flickr, license CC BY 2.0
This article was originally published by the New Bloom Magazine and can be found here.
After a rail accident on Friday that left fifty dead and injured over 200, there has been much political contention between both the DPP and opposition parties such as the KMT. The railway accident was the deadliest accident in Taiwan in decades and took place after a truck from a construction site on a slope overlooking train tracks slid down a slope and crashed into a train exiting a tunnel near Hualien.
In particular, the KMT has called on President Tsai Ing-wen to apologize for the accident and for Premier Su Tseng-chang to resign as a way of taking responsibility. Minister of Transportation and Communications Lin Chia-lung has already verbally tendered his resignation, something that the KMT also urged, though Su has not yet accepted his resignation.
It is common in Taiwanese political culture for government officials to take responsibility for accidents that take place under their tenure, even if they were not directly responsible. Party chairs will, for example, resign to take responsibility for poor election performances by their party. This is why Tsai Ing-wen resigned as chair of the DPP after its poor performance in 2018 nine-in-one elections, along with her entire cabinet, and why Wu Den-yih resigned as chair of the KMT after 2020 elections.
Consequently, this is why the KMT has called on Su and Lin to resign, with the view that this is what is expected of government officials after a major accident. The KMT is also currently calling on Su to resign over the issue of imports of ractopamine-treated pork from the US. At the same time, there have been calls in past years to break away from the traditional culture of politically resigning to take responsibility for an unexpected incident—some have pointed out that it does not help the Ministry of Transportation and Communications (MOTC) or other government bodies to suddenly have no leadership during times of crisis.
The Tsai administration has set up a bank account for donations for the injured and relatives of the deceased. Over 200 million NT have been donated to the account so far, with politicians, celebrities, and corporations also among those to contribute, likely with an eye on their public image. This included two well-known Hong Kongers, political scientist Simon Shen and actor Chapman To, who pledged to donate one million NT each to express gratitude for Taiwan’s assistance to Hong Kong, as well as manufacturing giant FoxConn/Hon Hai. An oversight body has been set up to regulate what is to be done with the funds. At least one online influencer has come under scrutiny for lying about the amount that they donated to the victims and their families. Quarantine rules have also been eased for relatives of victims.
Much remains to be cleared up regarding the accident. In a case of an Internet witch hunt gone wrong, a passenger who was among the injured was blamed by netizens for causing the accident, due to a case of being mistakenly identified from a photo as a construction worker.
Likewise, much debate has taken place regarding what should be done after the accident. The KMT has called for an investigation into the systemic causes for the accident, while the TPP has called for work at construction sites along railways to be suspended. The MOTC is considering increasing penalties for traffic accidents. Otherwise, some experts have called for barriers to be installed along train tracks. The MOTC has been given one month to come up with an improved safety plan after the incident.
The construction project was commissioned by the MOTC, ironically enough, to improve rail safety. It remains a mystery why the bid was awarded to the construction company that caused the accident, despite a history of violations, why work was undergoing at the construction site because the accident took place at the start of the four-day Tomb Sweeping Holiday. As there would be increased train traffic because of the holiday, construction should not have been taking place at that time. However, labor and safety violations, with the aim of reducing costs, are common in Taiwan’s construction industry—so far, it has been found that the truck’s brakes were modified.
Still others have pointed to the corporatization of the Taiwan Railways Administration (TRA)—a partly state-owned enterprise—in past years. Reductions in manpower and pay and increases in working hours are seen as contributing to the possibility of accidents. Just before the Tomb Sweeping Holiday, TRA station workers were threatening to strike because of a new labor shift schedule that would have decreased salaries, one of a series of working hour disputes between the TRA and rail workers in the past year.
However, it is probable that the TRA will use the rail incident as a means to criticize workers calling for improvements in their labor conditions, claiming that the willingness of workers to strike and further reduce the manpower available during the Tomb Sweeping Holiday shows that they would further endanger conditions for passengers. This would not surprise.
More generally, the incident points at systemic issues in both the rail and construction industries in Taiwan, whether with regard to labor conditions, safety violations, and a deeply-rooted culture of cost-cutting. Yet it is to be seen whether public reflection on the accident will lead to an examination of such issues.
Brian Hioe is one of the founding editors of New Bloom. He is a freelance writer on social movements and politics, and occasional translator. This article is part of the special issue on new media. He tweets @brianhioe
It’s disappointing to see that all the initial responses are reflex actions that lack a more systematic and thorough look at the root cause of the incident: barriers will not prevent future incidents related to health and safety at construction sites. The most likely issue is H&S culture within the construction industry: not uncommon to see some unnerving practices around most roadworks or construction sites. Improving the behaviour, without turning the industry into a H&S cripple (think the UK or NZ) is probably a better way forward – but more challenging.