CONFESSION: How I Became Complicit in Overworking Taiwan's Bus Drivers

CONFESSION: How I Became Complicit in Overworking Taiwan's Bus Drivers
Credit: Toomore Chiang@Flickr CC BY 2.0
Why you need to know

Tired bus drivers are a danger to us all. Here, a middle man in the disputes between bus companies and their drivers reveals all the tricks he was forced to use to keep drivers overworked.

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Reporter: Ho Yu-hsuan

From time to time, Taiwan’s media flashes news stories about car accidents involving buses, where the suspected cause of the accident is an overworked and therefore tired driver.

These incidents, among the worst of which saw 33 people killed in a bus crash last year, provide a timely reminder that Taiwan’s labor issues are not simply disputes between the workers and their employers, but are relevant to the safety of the general public.

In the discussion of these events, the passenger transport industry is very often boiled down to just two actors; "management executives" versus “blue-collar drivers."

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Credit: Reuters / TPG
Police inspect a tour bus, which crashed after an accident on a highway in Taipei, Taiwan Feb. 14, 2017.


The general public is often uninterested in delving deeper into who acts as mediator between the companies and drivers in order to find a solution to the disputes, but these are the very people responsible for allowing the bus companies to continue their reign of oppression over drivers.

So who are they? The answer is the bus companies’ "legal affairs teams.” Legal personnel must always be on standby, because they need to be able to rush off to the scene of an accident and deal with any driving disputes or insurance matters.

They themselves are even forced, at times, to become accomplices in the imposition of illegal conditions, and they play a key role in upholding the structure that perpetuates this oppressive working environment.

In an interview with The News Lens, a former member of a bus company legal affairs team, who appears in this article under the name ‘Y,’ reveals the chaos of the labor conditions in the passenger transportation industry that he saw during his time at one such company, and describes the role of legal personnel, including their own working conditions. In addition, we also discover how the operators manage to drag the legal affairs team into their crooked structure and turn them into accomplices.

The News Lens: Please give us a bit more information about your work?

Y: My official job title was "Safety Inspector," but when introducing myself I would just say I was in "Legal," a term generally understood by most people. In terms of the responsibilities, I don't know about other companies but in ours we were more like the "Claims Department" within the insurance section.

Our job usually required us to go to the scene of an accident involving one of our buses and deal with the situation, which included checking inside the bus, deciding whether we needed to go to court, and sometimes, even when it wasn’t necessarily the driver’s fault, we’d persuade the driver to directly apologize to the other party.

Officially drivers have one day off per week, but they don’t usually get to take it

TNL: Regarding overworked bus drivers, in addition to the usual scheduling problems and fatigued drivers, what other problems have you seen?

Y: Actually, bus drivers are not only overworked in terms of driving; even when they do get a day off they will still end up working. If we go to the National Palace Museum for instance, everyone usually only pays attention to the local attraction, but there is also generally a person wearing a vest standing beside the bus stop, guiding passengers on and off the bus. Those staff members are actually drivers, there to "work off a debt."

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Credit: Reuters / TPG
Family members of the passengers on a crashed tour bus pray during a Taoist ceremony for the victims on a highway in Taipei, Feb. 14, 2017.

If the driver is at fault for a major accident they will have a strike against their name, and if they accumulate three major strikes then they will be dismissed; the drivers who have accumulated two major strikes will usually spend their days off making up for their “accidents.” This is seen as a "voluntary service" so their names will not show up on the work schedule, but of course they only have time for this when they are not working.

The result is that even though they have a day off, they end up working every day of the week, and the day after volunteering, they have to drive the bus, but as they are still tired, they will probably cause another accident, receive another strike against their name and will therefore have to volunteer again… completing the vicious cycle.

Moreover, drivers are not only exploited during working hours; it also happens on the money side of things. In order to avoid a rise in the following year’s insurance premiums, which would result in the company’s loss, the company stipulates that if the damages during accidents do not reach NT$30,000 (US$972), then it will not be "claimed," so drivers will have to pay all of it.

The company will first cover those damages, which then get deducted from the driver’s monthly salary. Therefore, many drivers will regret not causing more damage, and probably think “maybe if the damage amounts to NT$50,000 to NT$60,000 [i.e. more than their monthly wage], then company will pay for it!” In actual fact, the company can bankroll up to a limit of NT$200,000 in insurance claims. If the claim exceeds NT$200,000, then the driver and the company will have to share the burden at predetermined rates and usually, the driver will end up bearing costs up to a number anywhere in the hundreds of thousands.

The vicious circle: staff shortages, over-hiring and firing

TNL: What is the bus driver turnover rate?

Y: Because the working hours are long, there’s always a shortage of drivers, and because of this lack of manpower, almost any Tom, Dick, or Harry will get hired, but they make too many simple mistakes and are just as quickly dismissed. I once met a new employee who couldn’t even drive a stick shift. How he was hired is beyond me.

Some drivers have financial pressures, like raising a family or paying off loans, and the companies love these types because they won’t run away too quickly. Although after being overworked for a while, everyone’s physical and mental condition starts to suffer, yet they will keep coming to work. Some develop hardness of hearing, get seriously sick, or have poor mental health, such as bipolar disorder, and others are suspected of taking recreational drugs to get by.

Even if a new driver joins the company, the best routes in the city are all taken up by the old-timers, so they only ever get the worst jobs. For instance, Taishan to Tianmu is notoriously a difficult route to navigate, but newcomers are assigned this route for their first days, which is basically like handing them a ticking time-bomb. In addition, if a newcomer has an accident, they definitely won’t last long in the job, so they have to hire someone else, who will make the same mistakes, and the vicious cycle will repeat.

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Credit: Reuters / TPG
Volunteers pray outside the funeral of victims who died in a bus accident which killed passengers, including tourists from China, near Taoyuan International Airport, July 21, 2016.

TNL: Have drivers banded together to protest against unreasonable working conditions before?

Y: Most drivers are not well educated, so even if they do feel that the system is unreasonable, they won’t know whether it violates the law, or they don’t know how to go about protesting, so they just bite their tongues. Personally, I have never heard any driver talk about the working situation from the perspective of the law; plus, the driver unions are also close to the operators.

Operators turn legal teams into accomplices by instructing them to tamper with shift records

TNL: What role does the legal affairs team play in these unlawful labor conditions?

Y: If the driver causes an accident, the Public Transportation Office (PTO) will check their work hours within the last three days, but the company will have the legal team tamper with the shift records, so that it says the driver only ever worked a maximum of 10 hours a day, even if they have worked more. The original method was to change the departure times of buses or directly remove problematic shifts completely, but later the management decided it was a bad idea, because if there was a bus on the street, but not on the schedule, then it might be very easy for the PTO to catch the company out.

The easiest part of the schedule records to change is the "return time," when the bus arrives back at the station, because we can say that traffic was smooth, so they were able to return to the station quickly. We only ever needed to minus five minutes from each of their journeys to make up enough time on their working hours, especially as there were so many journeys to change.

This meant that each person in the law team shouldered the responsibility of forging documents, something we could not hide as the documents have our seals stamped on them. If the company was charged with fraud, then whichever team member was on duty that particular day would have to bear all legal responsibilities, and would be seen as an accomplice.

TNL: What happens when the legal affairs team does not cooperate?

Y: If the records were not changed, the company forced that team member to bear the financial burden of the fine, either upfront or from their salary. I have also witnessed the company force the rest of the legal team to pay for a fine, after the original team member had resigned. It was the most ridiculous situation ever and really emphasized how unjust the company was.

The legal team is usually also very busy, so we would never want to clash with the company on things like this. In any case, the company's approach is to entrap the legal personnel, and bank on us not having the courage to expose the fraudulent activities.

Those that can endure this type of working environment are the ones the company wants, and those that could not would have already left. Therefore, the turnover rate in the legal team is also very high, and every company has a lack of manpower in this area. The longest serving legal team member I’ve encountered, worked for three years, no one else managed more than two.

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Credit: Reuters / TPG
Taiwanese rescuers work on a tour bus crashed into a steep ravine, Sunday, Dec. 3, 2006 in Nanshi, Tainan County, 350 km (217 miles) south of Taipei, Taiwan. The double-decker bus crashed into a ravine, killing 22 and injuring 24 others.

TNL: Has the company ever tried to reform their unreasonable working conditions?

Y: Everyone knows that the requirements are unreasonable, but I’m sure the company has never had plans to reform their procedures, because they are too lazy to even try brainwashing the staff.

Working environments for the legal team are also poor

TNL: Let’s return to the topic of the legal affairs team, how are you treated and what are the working conditions like?

Y: For a newcomer the salary is about NT$38,000 to NT$42,000. The working hours of the legal affairs team are also very long, though. Officially, the hours are from 8:30 in the morning to 5:30 in the afternoon, but if it is your turn to be on standby, then your day will be from 5 a.m. until 1:30 a.m. the next day. In short, as long as there is a bus service running, then you will need to be on standby. Usually we will have to be on standby once every five days, but when there’s a staff shortage then it is possible that it will be once every three days.

Each legal team member has a considerable area of responsibility, for instance, from Keelung, all the way across to Zhongli is considered one person's jurisdiction. If a bus has an accident anywhere within this area, then the team member will have to rush to the scene immediately, but during this time there will be other accidents that occur in other places, and oftentimes you can barely get through half of the on-site procedure, before you receive another call, and have to rush off again to the next location. They worked us hard for a very low salary.

When you are not on standby, you still have to spend a lot of time out of the office travelling, negotiating and settling cases. In the office, we would have to deal with legal proceedings; complaints, defense statements, and objection statements for payment orders. The legal team had no qualified lawyers, so if the driver was criminally prosecuted, we could not directly represent the defendant in court, but team members still needed to sit in the courtroom gallery when the case was heard and assist with any administrative tasks.

TNL: Finally, if the driver is not in a good physical or mental condition to drive, even if it is because of being overworked, should I file a complaint, or do you think that would cause more trouble for the driver?

Y: In cases like these, if a passenger does complain, it will always be the driver that gets punished, nothing will happen to the company and the poor labor conditions will also never be improved. My suggestion is that if you want to really make a difference, then you take note of the route number, the vehicle registration, the driver's name, and the time and location of the incident, and file a complaint directly with the PTO. This is the best course of action because it is the only way to make sure the company also gets punished, so that it is not only the staff that suffer.

This article originally appeared on the Chinese-language Taiwan edition of The News Lens. The original can be found here.

Translator: Zeke Li

Editor David Green (@DavidPeterGreen)

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