Laid-off workers rallied in the lobby of the Council of Labor Affairs (CLA) yesterday, asking to see Minister Pan Shih-wei (潘世偉), following a protest that almost paralyzed operations at the Taipei Railway Station on Tuesday night.
The protesters want face-to-face negotiations with Pan over the council’s demand that they repay loans the government gave them 16 years ago after their employers closed down their factories without paying them wages.
The council announced in July last year that they would have to repay the money and filed lawsuits seeking repayment.
“We are not begging for mercy, we will remain in solidarity, nobody’s rights should be undermined,” Taiwan International Workers’ Association secretary-general Chen Hsiu-lien (陳秀蓮) told reporters. “Our only demand is that the council withdraw its lawsuits.”
The protesters held banners asking the council to withdraw the lawsuits, while posting flyers with the words “withdraw lawsuits” on the walls and elevator doors of the building.
The demonstration was continuing as of press time and Pan had yet to show up.
However, the protesters apologized for tying up traffic at Taipei Railway Station on Tuesday night.
“We feel sorry for protesting in such a way, but we had no other choice, because this is the only way they [government officials] could see the suffering of these workers who are in a disadvantaged position,” labor activist Lin Tzu-wen (林子文) said.
Lin, other activists and workers bowed to the public after the apology.
Eight protesters were arrested on Tuesday evening after lying down on one the station’s railway tracks for half an hour. The eight are believed to have been the leaders of the protest.
The Taiwan Railways Administration (TRA) said about 200 people entered the station at 6:50pm after ending a protest at the council. At 7:40pm, they occupied platform three, the agency said, adding that the platform was closed down for safety reasons at 8:10pm.
At 8:25pm, about 40 people jumped onto the railway track and disrupted the operations of the northbound and southbound trains, which did not resume until railway police began making arrests, the TRA said.
The protest delayed 15 trains and about 5,800 passengers.
About 200 police were called in and they carried the protesters away from the station, finally clearing the area at 9:10pm.
The TRA said the protesters would be handled by the railway police, and could face charges of violating the Railway Act (鐵路法) and endangering public safety.
“We respect their right to voice their opinions, but we hope they will choose to do so at legal locations. They should not challenge the public’s power and affect other people’s rights to access the transportation system,” the agency said.
President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) said that while the government wanted to help the protesters, the issue must be handled through legal channels.
The government had given money to the workers in the form of loans, and it would require a legal cause for it to absorb the expenditure.
“This is not an issue of resolution. It’s a legal problem. Without laws and regulations to list the money as part of the government’s budget, no civil servant would dare to enter the loans as an item of government expenditure,” he said.
Ma said the council is seeking to help the workers by providing the workers with subsidies.
Meanwhile, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) condemned Pan for “his negative comments that ignored these workers’ hard work and suffering.”
“The government is obligated to strive for benefits and solve problems for workers, but it is government malfeasance that has caused the workers’ suffering,” DPP spokesperson Lin Chun-hsien (林俊憲) said.
Pan’s comment that the workers were using their bodies as tools for protest was “out of character,” Lin said.
The council should stop asking the laid-off workers to repay the loans so they could live with dignity and without fear, former DPP chairperson Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) said on her Facebook page.
She urged the public to pay attention to the workers’ protest because “if we ignored them now, the same thing could happen repeatedly and we could be the next victims.”
Additional reporting by Mo Yan-chih