Taiwan unions plan protests against privatisation

The News International, Pakistan, Thursday 18 September 2003—Rajab 20, 1424 A.H.

TAIPEI: Thousands of workers at more than half a dozen state-owned enterprises in Taiwan are planning street protests and strikes to oppose the government’s privatisation programme.

After 8,000 railway workers took to the streets in Taipei last week, union leaders at Chunghwa Telecom Co, Chinese Petroleum Corp, Taiwan Power Co, Taiwan Sugar Corp, and Taiwan Tobacco and Liquor Co say they are all considering similar protests.

They fear privatisation would lead to job losses and lower wages, making worse an unemployment rate that is already hovering above five per cent, near a record high. We are clueless about our future. We all feel insecure and hopeless, but the government is not listening, said Kao Mei-hsiang from the Chunghwa Telecom Workers’ Union, which represents the New York-listed firm’s 29,000 employees.

An estimated 5,000 to 10,000 Chunghwa workers are set to protest outside parliament on September 23, when Premier Yu Shyi-kun is due to deliver his administrative report, Kao said.

We are pushed to the corner and forced to take drastic action in order to get attention, Kao said. Timing is very important for us.

Taiwan’s once-lucrative state monopolies have come under intense pressure from local and foreign competitors in recent years as the island gradually liberalised its markets.

The government says privatisation is the only answer but workers are resisting. Workers at the Taiwan Railway Administration pledged at a protest last Thursday to hold a seven-day strike during Chinese New Year in January, the most important holiday in Taiwan.

The strike would be the first by any of Taiwan’s unions and would cripple the railway used by millions of people daily.

Premier Yu has said he would protect the interests of railway workers, although he gave no specifics. Analysts said the protests may slow down privatisation before the March 2004 polls, when President Chen Shui-bian of the Democratic Progressive Party is expected to seek re-election, but they did not expect a change in long-term policy.

Privatisation is an inevitable trend and there is no turning back. But by stirring up the issue before the presidential elections, it may force the government to slow down its pace a bit, said Wu Hui-lin, research fellow at Chung-Hua Institution for Economic Research. Officials at the Ministry of Economic Affairs in charge of privatisation could not be reached for comment.

In the late 1980s, Taiwan had set ambitious plans to privatise 47 state firms by 2001, but progress has been slow.