TAIPEI (CNA) — One bright Sunday afternoon, Siti Johariyah and her friend hold hands and pose for pictures standing on the black-and-white checkered floor of Taipei Main Station hall, celebrating seeing each other for the first time in eight years.
“The hall is a good place to meet because it is comfortable and convenient,” said the Indonesian caregiver in her 30s, who took the Taipei Metro from Luzhou, New Taipei. Her friend took the airport MRT from Taoyuan.
Visiting Taipei Main Station on Sunday afternoons has become a ritual for many migrant workers like Siti, who use the little free time they have to get togehter with people from home.
However, whether these gatherings will continue has become a political issue. Indeed, Taiwan Railways Administration (TRA) recently found itself in a heated debate over whether the hall should permit mass gatherings after the COVID-19 pandemic eases.
The TRA, which imposed a ban on mass gatherings in the spacious station hall in February to curb the spread of COVID-19, proposed on May 18 that the restriction be made permanent to facilitate better traffic flow and preserve public order.
However, that decision was quickly rejected by Minister of Transportation and Communications Lin Chia-lung (林佳龍), who said he has directed the TRA to gradually reopen the hall when COVID-19 becomes more manageable.
“We should treat foreign friends away from home working or living in Taiwan the way we wish to be treated in other countries,” Lin said.
The policy flipflop drew mixed responses, with the TRA saying it will consult public opinion before making a final decision in July.
“We hope to create a friendly space that is acceptable to everyone,” said TRA official Ku Shih-yen (古時彥), explaining that the authority is mulling the introduction of a new design to change public behavior.
However, Chen Hsiu-lien (陳秀蓮), a member of the Taiwan International Workers’ Association (TIWA), said she feels the TRA has vacillated too much on the matter.
“It appears the TRA does not want to offend anyone. What it has done is go wherever the wind blows,” Chen said.
While mass gatherings are currently banned at the venue due to the pandemic, she said, things should go back to normal because there were no restrictions before.
Introducing a limited area for such gatherings is also unacceptable, Chen argued, as that ignores the fact the station plays a vital role supporting migrant workers’ life styles, because they not only meet there but also shop and transfer money in the area.
Mira Luxita Sari, an editor at media Indosuara International and an Indonesian community leader, said an online poll by her company found that almost 80 percent of 121 respondents opposed TRA’s proposed permanent ban on mass gatherings.
The lobby is the best place to socialize and discuss migrant issues with NGO or migrant activists, Mira said, adding that the respondents also expressed a willingness to keep the environment clean.
If the ban remains, the workers said they might relocate to 228 Peace Memorial Park or Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, while some said they have no idea where they would go, according to the survey.
“We consider Taiwan to be a really good democratic country for giving priority to human rights and being a multicultural country. Unfortunately, the Taipei Main Station hall issue makes Taiwan a little bit unfair in the minds of migrant workers,”Mira said.
There are other opinions about the role of the station, which was last renovated in 1989 and currently receives 500,000 visits a day.
Teng Hon-yuan (鄧鴻源), an associate professor at Chinese Culture University and columnist, said although the station is a public space, it should not be treated as a park.
“(Mass gatherings) are really unsightly and make the station look like a refuge,” he said.
Aside from public image, some suggest passengers find it difficult to navigate the station.
However, Hu Ting-shuo (胡庭碩), who suffers from spinal muscular atrophy and uses a wheelchair, said he experienced no inconvenience as a result of the gatherings.
The social enterprise leader, who was invited to attend a TRA meeting to solicit pubic opinion, said it is actually the shops around the lobby that block the way.
“Everyone who shows up in the station is a passenger,” he said, arguing that a station does not have a single function so the less the space is supervised, the more economic and cultural value can be generated.
Whether the restriction is lifted, the way the hall is used will inevitably be different in the future, said Lee Ker-tsung (李克聰), a transportation technology and management expert with the Consumers’ Foundation, Chinese Taipei.
The TRA must review whether the way the hall is currently used meets its original purpose, and let the public know what changes it plans to introduce, as COVID-19 has created new social distancing rules, he said.
One possible solution could be “social distancing circles” which have been adopted in other countries and are drawn on the floor to make sure people stay the recommended distance apart, Lee said.
Whatever the outcome, Hu suggests that related TRA meetings over the issue should be convened in the lobby.
“If you have never sat on the floor of the lobby, how can you possibly know what it feels like, what effect it has and how to make improvements?” he asked.