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By Shelley Shan / Staff reporter
Illegal taxi service operators could soon be fined up to NT$25 million （US$783,650） for breaches of the Highway Act （公路法） after an amendment to the law secured preliminary approval from the legislature’s Transportation Committee yesterday.
The amendment was proposed to address controversies caused by US-based ride-hailing app developer Uber Technologies Inc, which has been offering an illegal taxi service and recruiting unlicensed drivers.
As Uber has refused to register as a transportation business operator and pay taxes as such, legislators proposed increasing the fines against illegal taxi service operators in a bid to prompt Uber to toe the line.
The committee was scheduled to deliberate two versions of the amendment: one proposed by Chinese Nationalist Party （KMT） Legislator Chen Hsueh-sheng （陳雪生） and the other by the Democratic Progressive Party （DPP） caucus. It eventually chose the DPP’s version, which would raise the penalty for illegal taxi service operators from between NT$50,000 and NT$150,000 to between NT$100,000 and NT$25 million.
The approved amendment also authorizes administrative authorities to provide monetary rewards to people who report such illegal businesses — a proposal suggested by some of the legislators — for which the Ministry of Transportation and Communications said it would create enforcement rules after viewing various proposals.
During a question-and-answer session at the meeting, Minister of Transportation and Communications Hochen Tan （賀陳旦） confirmed that the US has expressed concerns over the amendment, saying that the ministry has been approached by representatives of the US government, as well as from the private sector.
However, Hochen declined to disclose the time and locations of such meetings, denying that he was pressured to take a favorable position regarding Uber.
“They mainly expressed concern about the general direction of our regulations toward taxi firms and companies that offer a platform to match drivers with people’s requests for service,” Hochen said, adding that the amendment was meant to reaffirm the government’s determination to enforce its laws.
He said he was confident the amendment was the beginning of a partnership with Uber.
However, Chen said that he received a telephone call from a section chief at the American Institute in Taiwan on Monday, who listed the benefits of having a service provider such as Uber in Taiwan during a 30-minute conversation.
“I told the person in a firm manner that both Taiwan and the US are nations governed by laws,” Chen said, adding that Hochen should tell Premier Lin Chuan （林全） and President Tsai Ing-wen （蔡英文） that they should not give in to pressure from the US.
Several legislators at the meeting pointed to advertisements that Uber bought on the front pages of the nation’s four major Chinese-language newspapers yesterday, each with a different theme.
One advertisement was a direct attack on lawmakers, saying that they want to punish Uber drivers by forcing them to pay NT$25 million fines while legislators only pay fines of NT$90,000 for drunk driving.
DPP Legislator Cheng Yun-peng （鄭運鵬） said he had been indifferent to the government imposing such strict penalties, but felt “there is no turning back” after seeing the advertisements and receiving petitions from Uber drivers on Tuesday.
“Uber might think that the advertisements will intimidate the government and lawmakers, but its tactics only reaffirm our beliefs and determination to amend the law,” Cheng said.
DPP Legislator Lee Kun-tse （李昆澤） questioned Uber’s request for the government to create tailor-made regulations for it, as it has already voluntarily followed lawswhen introducing the same service in other nations, adding that in Japan, Uber is restricted to providing services to residents in remote, rural areas.
While Uber can operate legally in China, it is subject to regulations that apply to taxi service operators, he said.
An amendment to the act could potentially take effect next month, DPP Legislator Lin Chun-hsien （林俊憲） said, adding that if Uber chooses to contravene the amended legislation after Jan. 1, the fines should start at NT$25 million instead of NT$100,000, because the government has allowed the firm to infringe on the law for four years.
While the amendment was supported by a majority of the committee, that does not mean it is satisfied with the level of service offered by legal taxi operators, DPP Legislator Yeh Yi-jin （葉宜津） said.
Uber Taiwan said that it was “very disappointed” by the committee’s decision, which fails to serve the interests of riders and drivers in Taiwan.
The San Francisco-based company said it fears it will be difficult for ride-sharing to continue to flourish in Taiwan if the amendment is passed into law.
“We would need to reconsider our strategy for Taiwan,” the company said in an e-mailed statement.
Additional reporting by Lauly Li
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