“Taxi Rights – human rights”
By Michaela Rost
Melbourne: After being brutally stabbed within one centimeter of his heart, abandoned in a pool of blood for hours, suffering a punctured lung, heart failure for ten minutes, suspected brain damage and kept in an induced coma for several days, Indian student and taxi driver, Jalvinder Singh has amazingly survived.
“On Sunday we reversed the sedation and he woke up normal. It’s remarkable, so therein, I think, lies the miracle of what’s happened,” said Royal Melbourne Hospital cardiothoracic surgeon, Dr. Alistair Royse in the Age (13.5.08). He believes Singh “will make a full and complete recovery.”
Frustration and anger about the attack had quickly exploded into a 22-hour spontaneous, but peaceful, protest by Melbourne’s tax drivers on April 30 at the city’s busiest intersection outside Flinders St. station, causing traffic chaos, tram diversion and commuter confusion.
Tensions about driver safety had long been high. In 2006 Rajneesh Joga was attacked, thrown out of his cab and left to die. Despite a subsequent strike by drivers and negotiation with the state government, it had done nothing to fulfil its promises to improve driver safety and working conditions.
No wonder 1000, mostly Indian, drivers took dramatic and desperate action to get their legitimate demands heard. Bare chested drivers shouting slogans like “Taxi rights – human rights”, “What do we want? Justice!” and carrying placards such as “Stop racism”, “Stop killing taxi drivers”, sent an upsurge of fresh, raw, democratic energy flooding town.
The public’s mood was generally supportive – a man brought a box of apples to the drivers – Victoria Police were tolerant, even waiving parking fines, and the ever diplomatic Lord Mayor John So tried to negotiate.
With outrage at the violence often meted out to drivers and their cabs by drunken abusive passengers, and through sheer determination to protect theirs lives, the taxi drivers’ achieved victory. But not before they threatened to block access to Melbourne Airport.
Public Transport Minister Lynne Kosky eventually agreed to discussions with representatives of the protesting drivers. The government capitulated and rolled out new safety measures – safety screens, prepaid fares between 10pm and 5am, free training to improve drivers skills in dealing with difficult passengers.
“It is only fair that taxi drivers are paid properly for the service they provide and are not subject to disputes from passengers trying to avoid payment,” Ms Kosky said. But there was no mention of rock driver bottom wages.
The Victorian Taxi Directorate agreed to provide assistance to the victims of crime compensation process. The Melbourne community would be “sensitized and educated” about the important services rendered by taxi drivers to the community through a public awareness campaign.
The Melbourne Leader (7.5.08) reported, “ After the protest, Cr. So told the Melbourne Leader the council was looking to improve its Safe City Taxi Rank Scheme to ensure more people used the service. Under the scheme, taxi ranks at 55 King St, 50 Bourke St, outside St Paul’s Cathedral and Flinders St Station have an emergency button and pinhole camera which activates the nearest Safe City Camera.”
Like most other cabbies, Kass, a fulltime driver originally from India, believes the strike had a good outcome. “It changed the law in a day”, he said. “I won’t like the screens, but we need them for protection. Three days ago, a driver was held up at gunpoint, but was too scared to report it and give his name to police because he was frightened his family might be harmed.”
He finds 95% of passengers not violent, and can handle difficult ones because of his experience, but the proposed free taxi driver education would be useful, especially for new drivers.
Ten years ago, Kass had to take a redundancy from work as a manufacturing quality inspector. He started driving cabs. “Taxi wages have reduced since then because there are many more cabs now, about 8000”, he said. “A recent 4% wage increase is lost in rising expenses. I work 80 hours per week driving, but earn less than for 50 hours in my previous job. After petrol costs and GST, I’m left with $8-10 per hour. And there are pressures on drivers from operators”.
Taxi drivers are stuck at the bottom rung of a complex, almost feudally structured, investment industry, which is driven by profit returns at the top. Taxi licenses, now costing half a million dollars, have been traded by licensed brokers since the Victorian Taxi Directorate allowed the taxi industry into the stock market.
License owners, 60% of who do not drive their cabs, lease licences to operators for over $24,000 per annum, a fee that has increased tenfold in recent years as the licence price escalates.
Operators pay for the cab and all other networking costs including driver wages. So they need to have cabs on the road for 24 hours. This puts huge pressures to take shifts on drivers, who have individual agreements with their network service provider for access to provider dispatch systems and services.
None of the agreements between licence holder, operator, and driver is regulated by the government – they are considered commercial agreements, although the VTD is part of the Public Transport Division of the Department of Transport. Yet taxis, like trams and buses, provide the same essential public service.
The VTD website states, “The Government is concerned about this shift from owner-operator services to an investor-driven industry.” This concern appears to be more about customer service than drivers’ working conditions and wages. Submissions are open for its ‘Taxi and hire car reform.’
According to another experienced taxi driver, Govind (not his real name), unless drivers take a shift, if they don’t make enough money, or if they complain about the cab’s condition, they may not be given work again.
“Financial pressure on operators results in indirect pressure on drivers. The big cab companies list earnings of drivers like a competition. Students can feel intimidated to work more than they should,” he said. “The earnings are not even always shared on a 50-50 % basis anymore – some operators now take 60-40%”.
Govind only drives during daytime for booked and corporate calls. Since a stabbing attempt on him seven years ago, and no compensation for his stolen earnings – he had to re-pay them to the operator – he is too scared to pick up passengers at night.
The TAC covers taxi accidents, but provides no Work Cover for drivers because they are self-employed subcontractors. However no insurance company Govind called was willing to insure him because taxi driving is considered a too high risk – yet other public transport drivers and police are insured.
“Violence, especially in the city, is increasingly alarmingly. It is drastically out of control, “ he complained. “In all the big taxi companies many M13 situations happen. A driver is in trouble, every 20-30 minutes on weekends.” When in danger, drivers press a button to call for help. The nearest driver is sent first, who calls ambulance and police when necessary.
This echoes the Times of India’s story quoting RMIT lecturer, Pradeep Sarkar: “I’d say it’s one of the most dangerous jobs for immigrants in this country.”
Govind believes all depot cars should be fitted with screens, but he is concerned that the glass barrier could lead to more communication problems with passengers.
Even though “taxi drivers are ambassadors of the country, meeting tourists at the airport”, Govind claims the VTD does not understand the serious issues facing taxi drivers, including negative media stereotyping. Therefore problems have not been identified,
Student drivers are not informed of their rights and open to exploitation. “It took me six years to find out my rights,” said Govind. “Why does the VTD issue licences to students if they can only work 20 hours and it is not safe?” he asked.
In a report by The Age (1.5.2008.) Melbourne trauma psychologist, Michael O’Neill, sees “on average two Indian taxi drivers per week suffering post traumatic stress after being attacked, usually at night, while at work… Many of his clients are students.
“O’Neill wonders why many more nasty assaults are happening and why there has been an increasingly bitter racial element to them… [He] has seen taxi drivers who have been punched, stabbed, kicked, and hit with weapons including metal bars, clubs, bats and rocks.”
Hari Yellina, Vice President of the Federation for Indian Students, believes the strike went very well. “It was the first time someone listened. Overseas students have no voting rights, so they have been ignored. And they have no choice about jobs because it is hard to find work other than taxis and cleaning,” he said.
“Taxi drivers’ long term frustration was not unreasonable. They only wanted prepaid fares, already used in petrol stations, and screens, which tram and bus drivers have.”
Hari gives alarming statistics about violence against Indians – 693 cases were reported in one year, but according to police, non-reported cases are ten times more because of cultural reluctance.
Because he had been attacked three times for no reason, and no result from police, Hari decided to act to help prevent this from happening to others.
In September 2007 he and FISA organized a forum with police, the Indian Consul, Anita Nayyar, and Marsha Thompson, state Member of Parliament for Footscray, where many attacks occur. This dialogue and collaboration produced not only the development of the volunteer operated ‘Dial-a-mate’ program, but it also ushered transformed and new supportive police attitudes.
FISA is producing a brochure containing information about rights, essential services and emergency assistance to educate international students, with plans to also distribute flyers during recruitment before they come to Australia.
However FISA has been unable to attract any sponsors, government or community, for this essential community project The only financial support FISA has received is from the Victorian Multicultural Commission to start a website.. Hopefully, as the importance of this initiative becomes more known, further funding will be granted.
Extraordinary events have produced extraodinary outcomes – Jalvinder Singh’s miraculous recovery, taxi drivers’ fearless protest, government action on safety issues, positive police response, big media coverage, and the increased public awareness and support, including intelligent blogs by young school kids (Education Age) – may mark a new era in resolving old problems.
Since the cabbies’ strike, angry traders marched down Swan St. Even pensioners took to he streets, some stripping to their bras and undies in protest at the budget’s minimal pension increases, with Senator Fielding removing his shirt in support.
Hopefully Jalvinder Singh will quickly receive promised compensation from the Victorian government, including payment of all medical, psychological and legal expenses, plus his parents’ travel expenses if necessary. It must also negotiate with immigration to ensure that he retains his student visa while recovering, and that his education provider re-enrols him to repeat this semester, with tuition fees paid courtesy of Spring St.
It’s the least Minister Kosky can do after the state’s years of disgraceful inaction over taxi driver safety and income parity. With Indian and other international media reporting this story, her government faces a huge task in remedying Melbourne’s new image as a violent, exploitative and racist place to be.
(FISA can be contacted on 1300FISA4U for ‘Dial-a-mate’ help line/advice in 4 Indian languages, or firstname.lastname@example.org)
- South Asia Times (May 2008)