Covid-19 has allowed governments to entrench regulations they wouldn’t otherwise be able to pass. But few predicted that Taiwan’s railway administration would exploit the opportunity to ban something as harmless as sitting on the floor of Taipei Main Station permanently.

Before social distancing restrictions took place during Covid-19, the main hall of Taipei Main Station was a bustling, multicultural scene. It was a social venue for migrant workers to gather on Sundays to exchange books and tales.

Taiwan Railways Administration (TRA), the country’s largest railway operator, has banned visitors from sitting in the main station hall since February to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

The TRA said on Monday it plans to extend the policy “permanently,” sparking concerns again about Taiwan’s unfriendly attitude towards migrant workers.

台北車站禁席地坐 民眾仍坐大廳

Photo Credit: CNA

A Taiwanese couple is spotted sitting on the lobby floor of Taipei Main Station despite the sitting ban.

Chen Yi-chun, an employee at Brilliant Time, a non-profit bookstore that lends books to migrant workers, said she felt disappointed about the announcement but not surprised.

“People tend to equate Taipei Main Station with migrant workers nowadays, and that might be what TRA is frustrated about,” Chen said.

But migrant workers are not the only ones occupying the hall space. “A lot of Taiwanese also like to sit around the lobby. These include people who play mobile games together, couples, teenagers who have community group meetings or band practices, and so on,” she said, drawing on her observations from running the Brilliant Time station library every Sunday.


Photo Credit: Brilliant Time

The TRA proposal came a week ahead of Eid al-Fitr, the celebration that marks the end of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. It has prompted netizens to organize a massive sit-in protest on May 23.

Since the onset of the pandemic, some migrant workers in Taipei have been ordered by their employers to stay home to minimize the risk of infection, Chen added.

Etty Diallova, an Indonesian care worker in Taipei, has still been able to meet up with her friends on the weekends despite coronavirus fears. Aside from her day job, she has also been pursuing her academic interest in literature at an Indonesian university in Taiwan. Her short story won a prize at the 2017 Taiwan Literature Award for Migrants.

A recent incident, however, revealed some of the more unwelcoming tendencies in Taiwan, contrary to its international reputation as a friendly country.

On Diallova’s day off, she was waiting for a friend at Taipei Main Station. “An auntie cleaning the floor came up to me and said, ‘Hey, you’re a migrant, you have to sit outside, not here, because you brought the virus to us,’” Diallova recalled. She left, and the auntie wiped down her seat immediately.

Diallova said she felt hurt, but understood some Taiwanese might feel scared after an Indonesian caregiver was diagnosed with the virus in February.


Photo Credit: Etty Diallova

Etty Diallova speaks about her culture and the meaning of hijab to students at Yuanshan, Taipei.

“One Indonesian caught the virus, but it doesn’t mean every Indonesian is careless,” she said, adding that she has been wearing a surgical mask and washing her hands frequently.

“I’m also scared of catching the virus and that I would pass the virus onto my [patient] and my employer,” Diallova said. “All I want to ask is please, please, please don’t judge Indonesian migrants based on that one case.”

Like other migrant workers who treasure the social space in Taipei Main Station, Diallova hopes the TRA would reconsider the ban. The lobby is not only where she meets familiar faces, but also makes genuine connections with local Taiwanese.

“Perhaps the government can allow people to sit around but just maintain physical distance,” Diallova said. “When the government tells us properly, we would listen because we also live here.”

If the TRA moves forward with the permanent ban, Chen said, perhaps Brilliant Time will put up a projection of Taipei Main in the bookstore to re-create the lost memory.

In response to the TRA proposal, Transportation Minister Lin Chia-lung wrote on his Facebook page that he has instructed the TRA to consult with the Central Epidemic Command Center for reopening the public space.

“The station hall is a public space and its utmost beauty lies in the passing travelers who are standing or sitting around,” Lin said. “We should treat foreign friends who came a long way to work or live in Taiwan in the same way we wish our citizens to be treated in other countries.”

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TNL Editor: Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)

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