It made sense to ban people sitting on the floor of Taipei Railway Station’s main hall as the COVID-19 pandemic worsened in February; it was seen as just another disease prevention measure.
Even as the pandemic shows signs of easing, Taipei’s restrictions on Muslims who observed Eid al-Fitr on Sunday were in accordance with its policies for other “mainstream” events, such as next month’s Dragon Boat Festival, which has been downsized and is to take place without spectators.
However, problems arose after the Taiwan Railways Administration (TRA) on Monday last week suggested making the railway station ban permanent, even after the pandemic ends.
The issue of mostly migrant workers gathering in the main hall of the station at weekends has been a polarizing matter for years and the suggestion once again ignited the debate.
Even after an outcry saw the TRA backtrack on its proposal, the issue continued to be debated and about 400 protesters organized a sit-in in the main hall on Sunday.
The TRA has promised to keep the hall open to the public, although it said that it would invite experts to discuss how the space should be properly utilized when it reopens.
This is a good opportunity to plan a way for the space to be optimized for all of its users — including migrant workers. Other issues, such as whether it was wise in 2011 to remove the seats from the main hall to prevent homeless people from sleeping on them, could also be debated.
Social media comments in the past week show how many people look down on migrant workers, despite their contributions to the nation.
Even though migrant workers only gather in large numbers at the weekend, people are quick to blame them for ruining the image and functionality of one of the nation’s main transport hubs, even though regular travelers also sit in the main hall and the space is often rented out for events.
However, migrant workers have the most to lose if the ban is made permanent and as such they have become the focus of the debate.
Migrant workers have to congregate somewhere, and their numbers will only grow as the nation’s society ages and its labor force declines.
The government has been slow or unwilling to act on many of their demands — which often involve basic human rights — and while it is not a transportation agency’s responsibility to provide them with a space to gather, the issue should be handled with careful consideration.
Those who ask why the workers cannot find another place to congregate — such as coffee shops — are probably unaware that many migrant workers cannot afford to do so.
Those who congregate at the station are the lucky ones who get regular days off, an issue that has been much publicized, but people just seem to notice them when they get in the way. If they did start congregating in coffee shops, or moved to a park or other public area, the detractors would be sure to continue to complain.
Over the years, the station’s main hall has become more than just a place to gather, it has also become a place for Taiwanese to interact with and get to know the nation’s migrant workers.
It is a vibrant cultural space that can definitely be improved, and the TRA made the right call in retracting its proposal.
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