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Toll workers deserve thanks and dignified treatment

On Sunday and Monday, the front pages of local newspapers were splashed with sentimental coverage of the end of the manually operated freeway toll system. Heartwarming tales of people spontaneously offering good-will cards, gifts, hot coffee and even cash thanking the toll collectors for their service were widely reported.

The expressions of gratitude are indeed enough to touch one's heart. But the moment requires some cool-headed reflection on the part of the government as well as the media because there is a crisis of employment here that the social shift has brought about.

More than 900 toll collectors were laid off as a direct result of the disappearance of their profession. A scandal has been brewing, but society, including the media, didn't pay enough attention to the transition that was bound to take place when the nation fully adopted the electronic toll system.

Indeed, this day was a decade in the making. In 2002, the government issued a BOT (build–operate–transfer) project for the electronic toll collection (ETC) system, and from that moment the end was in view.

Far Eastern Communications Group signed a contract with the Ministry of Transportation and Communications for control of these workers, which was done on the understanding that the workers' phasing out would be handled with full support from Far Eastern Electronic Toll Collection Co. (FETC), the company formed to build and operate the new system.

When FETC took over operations, it promised in the acquisition proposal to “absorb the toll collecting personnel of the present and the future, and to plan with good diligence the treatment of these personnel,” according to the China Times Weekly in an article on Aug. 30, 2013. The “promise” included a five-year “right-to-work” with a corresponding wage of not less than the most recent year as a toll collector, according to the article.

The facts of the fallout are ugly, with a huge human cost.

According to media reports, 900 of the 947 people released on Dec. 30 have not found a new job. The end of 2013 saw the termination of the toll collectors' employment, but the track record of the FETC's disengagement plan shows a pattern of interpreting the promises it made in the acquisition proposal in a manner that reduces its liabilities to the maximum extent possible and hangs the toll collectors out to dry.

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