Taxis: Modern Slavery?

August 30, 2020 1:00 PM
By Zulf Ali

Zulf Ali (Rochdale Central Liberal Democrats)Slavery was finally abolished across the British Empire in 1833, but a hidden form of slavery exists 187 year later in the modern day. One example of the emergence of modern-day slavery is the Modern Taxi Business in the UK.

Drivers work unregulated, long hours for uncertain pay - in an often hostile, violent environment - while being responsible for near extortionate expenses for rental of the taxi, insurance, maintenance and local authority charges. All of this with little or no support from employers, local government or the Police.

The most common victims of modern-day slavery in the UK have come from countries across South Asia - often with little education and limited language skills - meaning that early migrants found work in traditional industries.

By the 1970's and '80's unemployment among low skilled workers from inner-city minority communities was rising at one of the fastest rates as traditional industries closed their doors for good.

These communities were really feeling the crunch. The lack of emphasis on education for the first generation of immigrants meant second generation immigrants had limited choices with regards to jobs and often struggled to access mainstream jobs and faced a bleak economic future. However, some would set up their own businesses such as shops, market stalls, restaurants and takeaways. But for many the only option was the Taxi business.

Up until the 1980's there were very few taxi drivers from an ethnic minority background. The taxi business was well run and it was a respectable profession which provided a good service and fares provided a living wage. The customers had respect for the taxi drivers and held them in high regard as they were integral parts of the community. Attacks on taxi drivers were very rare. Refusing to pay was uncommon - after all, the Taxi driver knows where you live.

In the 90's they started operating a 24/7 taxi service including public holidays - but prices did not rise to reflect the expanded service. Sadly, operating a late-night service also meant drivers faced racial abuse, threats, criminal damage to their Taxi and even violence. The patience of the drivers was often tested to the limit.

In some extreme cases drivers would complain to the Police and Licencing Authorities but to no avail. However, when complaints were made about drivers they would be investigated rigorously - leaving the driver in fear of losing their licence and their livelihood.

Drivers these days work long unsociable hours - in a hostile, dangerous environment - with many working 7 days a week. A driver's shift can often be 12 hours or more - with long spells of inactivity waiting for a fare. Imagine working a 12 hour shift and still not taking home a liveable wage after expenses?

If you think that expenses are just a few gallons of fuel - think again. Rental of the Taxi can be close to extortionate. Commercial vehicle insurance and maintenance of the Taxi only adds to the costs. On top of this each year there is an increase in the local authority charged. Taxi drivers are literally being held to ransom.

In the ongoing Corona virus pandemic, Taxi drivers find themselves as one of the most vulnerable groups - with infection and death rates amongst the highest for any profession. Lockdown did not apply to Taxi drivers - and nor did the furlough scheme. The choice they faced was to lose their livelihood - or risk catching a deadly disease.

As things stand, there is no government or local authority organisation which takes care of the interests of Taxi drivers. This needs to change.

Taxi drivers must be treated fairly, and their working conditions improved. It is wrong that a Taxi driver must contend with abuse, threats and violence on a day to day basis. Failure to pay should be a Police matter - with a fixed penalty. The local authority should create a body to hear and act upon issues affecting drivers in a timely manner.

Working hours should be fixed and regulated and a realistic fare structure - in line with Hackney carriages - should be implemented.

Private hire operators should use their buying power to create umbrella insurance cover for all drivers working for them. They should also make provision for sick pay, holiday pay and pensions - like any other employer would.

Private hire operators should be legally responsible for the health, wellbeing and safety of their drivers - like any other employer.

1833 was 187 years ago - lets keep it that way.