Yang Wei Chung
Although the Taiwan Motor Transport Company (TMT) Trade Union held demonstrations against privatisation for months, it could not stop the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) government taking the most crude and coercive way of selling off TMT.
Free Market in Transport - a Myth
Before 1996, TMT was the fourth largest road passenger transport company in the world and the biggest in Taiwan. It held licences for 432 routes, owned 2,580 buses, and transported an average 310,000 passengers per day. At one time it employed more than 15,000 workers.
However, in 1989 the previous Nationalist or KMT government started the policy of deregulation known as ‘opening up routes’ for private companies involved in massive competition. This was the beginning of liberalisation and privatisation. Then with four massive redundancy programmes and cut routes before full privatisation, the workforce was reduced to 3,000 and routes were cut to 145. The power of the union was also successfully weakened.
For a long time, both the DPP government and the Nationalist government that preceded it told the Taiwanese people that the reason for privatising TMT was that this company does not make any profit, and instead just wastes government (taxpayer’s) money.
However, the evidence clearly shows that both governments profited from privatisation and continue to do so; this became obvious when the new company chairman, who used to be a government official in the Ministry of Transport, suddenly became president of the first legal private transport company which was granted a government licence in 1989. He progressed to bigger and better things when he was appointed vice president of TMT, and co-operated with the Deputy Minister of Transport to privatise TMT.
Indeed, TMT has not made a profit since the liberalisation of public transport. One reason is that TMT continues to follow basic labour and traffic laws. For example it pays workers’ pensions and other benefits, and limits the bus speeds and passenger numbers to government recognised safety levels. However private competitors feel no such restraint. Another important reason for lack of economic success is that TMT licences operate on remote routes and provide other essential services. But other companies were free to concentrate on profit, not on the needs of people.
Drivers working in private companies tragically have traffic accidents, partly because of extremely bad working conditions, for example low basic wages force most drivers to work day and night just to earn enough to live on. According to statistics from the Ministry of Transport, in 1998 the accident rate in TMT was 0.18 percent, whereas at other private companies the rate was 1.84 percent; the TMT death rate in accidents was 0.16 percent, while the rest was 1.6 percent. Because private companies just run for profit they exploit workers, rarely check the condition of vehicles, and overload with passengers.
Liberalisation of the transport market seems to give consumers more choices. But the truth is quite to the contrary. Intense competition tends towards monopolisation. While transport companies are beginning to form mergers and take-overs, the consumers no longer have a safe, cheap, and convenient public transport system as it was under the state-run TMT, instead it is a much more dangerous and expensive ‘choice’.
Workers’ Joint Venture Projects - Deceptive Traps
In order to get rid of TMT as soon as possible, the Ministry of Transport has come up with a new concept – the workers’ joint venture project. This scheme makes each worker pay NT$300,000 (US1 = NT$29) into a fund to create a new company, Kuo-Kuang Motor Transport Company, so the project costs the government nothing. In order to carry out this new invention of privatisation, the company pressured workers to sign joint venture agreements within one week. 1,093 of TMT’s 3,141 former employees reluctantly signed the agreement and were guaranteed jobs at Kuo Kuang. In addition, the new bus line hired 334 workers. The union failed to defeat the project.
But Kuo-Kuang is actually no more competitive than TMT was. The aim of turning it into this new private company is to let other capitalists take over its routes at minimal cost. Besides in order to be more competitive the new company will exploit its workers more than ever. Although most workers are stockholders, they have no authority to run it or determine working conditions. With TMT union help workers protested their new inferior working conditions and low pay at Kuo Kuang. On the first day of its operation, more than one hundred drivers in northern city Keelung went on strike, protesting at deteriorating conditions and lack of power as shareholders.
The TMT privatisation hurts both workers and passengers. The new company is just like every other profit-first private company, quality and safety are no longer priorities, remote routes are neglected, the number of scheduled buses are cut, and regular vehicle checks reduced.
The Choice - Unemployment or Worse Working Conditions
Except for a few hundred retired workers, thousands of workers who did not subscribe to the Kuo-Kuang joint venture are now jobless. The Ministry of Transport helped less than 150 of them to find new jobs in the public sector. The average age of TMT workers is 48, so it is very hard for them to find jobs today because the average jobless rate in Taiwan is more than five percent. Those who manage to find new jobs also suffer worse job conditions and insecure jobs. However, the government treats these workers like disposable tableware, immediately and mercilessly throwing them away after use. During the privatisation of the buses, five workers have committed suicide.
TMT Trade Union’s Struggle
The TMT Trade Union has been fighting against privatisation since the beginning of the first series of redundancies. Back in 1989, the union launched many demonstrations, aimed to fight government attacks from all sides. For example, the union even started a pay cut initiative to save TMT. Unfortunately, internal disunity has undermined the power of the union following fights between factions inside the union. A further union weakness followed its failure to devise clear objectives or an agenda to fight privatisation. The union also failed because of a blind belief that the DPP government would slow down the privatisation programme. The president had signed such an agreement during his bid for election and the union simply believed him.
Although it took a long time for TMT workers to waken up to these shortcomings, the union displayed remarkable efforts in the struggle in the last six weeks of the privatisation scheduled for July 2001. On 15 May the union began a nine-day protest outside the Committee of Labour Affairs and held demonstrations and protests on the president’s first anniversary in front of the Ministry of Transport.
The TMT case demonstrates a worst case scenario of the government’s determination to privatise public services. As the government tries to privatise more state-owned industries and service sectors, workers must continue fighting back; even when workers in state-owned enterprises have to try very hard to save themselves, conditions for workers in private companies are much tougher. But governments are not as all-powerful as they would like us to believe. Workers could win if they all joined the struggles against privatisation in solidarity.
Yang Wei Chung, Linkage magazine