Lessons from the Strike by Taiwan Railway Workers

Written by Kuei-Chih Yang.

Image credit: 000063700010 by Louis Liu/ Flickr, license: CC BY-SA 2.0.

In 2018, the Puyuma Ziqiang train derailed on Taiwan Railway, and then in 2021, the Taroko overturn accident occurred again on Taiwan Railway. Two major railway accidents happened one after another within three years. Many innocent lives were lost, and the safety management of Taiwan Railway was questioned.

In March 2022, the Taiwan government proposed a draft of the “Act for Establishment of State-owned Taiwan Railway Co., Ltd.” to respond to the social demands of reforming Taiwan Railways since the accidents.

The Taiwan government believes that, as an administrative agency responsible for public policy, Taiwan Railway inevitably lacks autonomy in organisational structure, personnel appointment, investment and construction, budget and final accounts, surplus utilisation, preferential measures, and freight rates. 

For example, due to political considerations, Taiwan Railways must maintain many geographically remote stops, sparsely populated, and unprofitable stops. Eventually, the statistic shows that 75% of revenue is generated only from 10% of the stations. On the other hand, huge personnel costs, pensions, and debts left over from past construction also weighed heavily on Taiwan Railways Administration (TRA). The inefficient way of doing business eventually led Taiwan Railway to tragedy. 

The Difficulties that Taiwan Railway Has Encountered

When a company is overwhelmed by debt, it is impossible to maintain, update equipment, and provide better treatment to employees. As components age and employees begin “quiet quitting”, the quality and the safety of service would ultimately fall.

To make matters worse, to cope with construction debts and personnel costs, Taiwan Railways adopted a downsizing policy. During the same period, the number of passengers and mileage has increased significantly due to the electrification of Taiwan Railways. As a result, the workforce went from 23,000 to only about 13,000 employees in 2006. According to “Reporter”, 40 years ago, each TRA employee served about sixteen passengers a day. Still, today, 40 years later, it has to serve forty-four passengers, a difference of nearly three times.

In 2017, 40-year-old train conductor Zhang Mingyuan died suddenly at home due to a myocardial infarction. The shift schedule before his death showed that he worked more than 12 hours, and the rest time was shorter than 6 hours.

The government believes that the corporatisation of railways is already a world trend. Countries around the world have already corporatised or privatised railway operations. At present, only North Korea, Cuba, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and Taiwan still maintain the model of public agency operations. The government argues that after corporatisation, efficiency may be improved, and incentives to recruit professionals are enhanced.

However, the draft was met with a backlash from the labour unions, who believed that corporatisation was a fake issue and that safety reforms should be carried out directly.

The Opposition from the Labour Union

The labour union argues that the government’s draft does not mention the safety reform issue of Taiwan Railways. Moreover, regarding Taiwan Railways’ debts, the government is unwilling to make specific commitments on how to deal with them. In this way, the problem cannot be solved fundamentally.

The Railway Union further contends that the government had promised the Railway union in 2003 that the corporatisation of Taiwan Railways shall be made on the following conditions: (1) all the debts should be bear by the government; (2) reforms should be only carried out after negotiating with and consented by the Railway union.

However, the 2022 corporatisation was promoted without sufficient communication with the labour union. Therefore, the Taiwan Railway Enterprise Labour Union announced on April 1, 2022, that it would launch “collective refusal to work on labour day” to paralyse the Taiwan Railway transportation.

Employees are justified in their concerns. However, because the corporatised TRA may still be burdened with too many policy tasks or suffer from poor financial conditions resulting in limited safety improvement, on the contrary, even without corporatisation, Taiwan Railways can still improve safety by giving up certain public tasks, improving salaries, and supplementing the workforce. In other words, corporatisation does not equal security, and security reforms can be carried out immediately without corporatisation. Therefore, corporatising cannot be justified in the name of safety reformation.

In addition, ensuring working conditions is a top priority for employees. However, the government failed to guarantee positions, salaries, bonuses, job content, promotion methods, company prospects, and business strategies. There is no way to blame the employees for not supporting the corporatisation of Taiwan Railways.

The union also does not accept how the government plans to deal with TRA’s debt. In 2003, it promised to take on all the debts. Nevertheless, because of this corporatisation, the government only promises to take on the part of the debts. The rest of the debts will be paid off by “revitalising the assets”, such as renting out land to build shopping malls, etc. The Railway union believes that the government has violated its promises and is also suspected of taking the opportunity to arbitrate on the land.

The Importance of Communication

From this, we can see the lack of communication between the Railway union and the government is the key to detonating labour disputes. Especially when the core reason employees resist reform is nothing more than “fear of the unknown” and “anger from being ignored.”

Most employers take it for granted that workers should obey the employer’s instructions and policies, failing to communicate with labour. Unfortunately, this is a widespread problem among Taiwanese enterprises, and so is the government. In addition, over-cutting business operating costs while ignoring the resulting increase in staffing load is also a common mistake employers make. 

Because of the bureaucratic nature of Taiwan Railways, it is difficult to solve the aforementioned problems. Corporatisation may be the fundamental solution to bureaucratic problems, but before that, how to appease employees so that they can understand company policies and be willing to cooperate should be prioritised.

The bill of “Act for Establishment of the State-owned Taiwan Railway Co., Ltd.” was passed on May 27, 2022. After negotiation, “operating safety” was eventually clearly written into the Act. To formulate the details in the subsequent sixteen sub-laws, both government and the union agree to further negotiation in the following year. 

Yang, Kuei-Chih is an attorney-at-laws, a representative of Taiwan Associate Bar, and a member of Taipei Associate Bar. He is also well-known as a podcaster who won the Excellent Journalism Award and whose channel is called “Plain Law Radio.”

This article was published as part of a special issue on ‘Farewell 2022 and Welcome 2023’.

One comment

  1. The corporatization of a government agency has never been a success story. Look at what happened to the British rail system when it was turned over to corporations and the situation in the USA. You would think that the government would have set aside money for raising the salaries of the workers when they were also improving the rail system.

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