Gaps between fares hit St. John’s cabbies squarely in the wallet
— Telegram illustration
The following is an excerpt from
“The Other Side of Midnight: Taxi Cab Stories”:
The first horse-drawn taxis in St. John’s started up on Water Street in the mid-1800s.
Anyone owning a cab went to the harbour and to the railway station on the east end of Water Street looking for a “hobble,” or casual work. By the start of the First World War, automobiles operating as taxi cabs began to appear in the city. The industry then went through a boom during the Second World War to accommodate the influx of thousands of Allied (American, British and Canadian) troops. There are now 364 taxis and anywhere from 500 to 1,000 full and part-time taxi drivers operating in St. John’s. Whereas their habitat was once defined by the harbour and the railway station, it now encompasses stand-by lots which are spread out all over the city, places where drivers wait for the dispatcher to send them on a job: strip malls, gravel patches just off the main roads, colleges and government buildings. Taxis wait at airports and at hotels with which the company has a contract.
The St. John’s taxi cab industry, once a collection of family run and neighbourhood stands, at its peak, in the 1950s, counted 41 stands. Twenty-five years later, that number had dropped to 30. Now there are just seven. What happened in the intervening years? As operating costs soared, older drivers and small fleets left the industry and sold their taxi cab licences to larger stand owners. The 1970s also saw the emergence of the “broker,” an independent contractor or middle-man, who had acquired small fleets and then leased cars to individual drivers for an even share of the profits. By the early 1990s, a handful of companies had grown to encompass three-quarters of the 364 taxi cab licences issued annually by the city.
For the taxi cab drivers themselves, their working conditions have remained relatively static. In some respects, they have worsened. Large fleets have created a soft monopoly which contributes to the drivers’ inability to affect change.
The popular image of the St. John’s taxi cab driver is characterized as blue-collar and itinerant, if not criminal and low-life. But their backgrounds are often working class and lower middle-class. Unlike most major mainland cities where upwards of 50 per cent of taxi cab drivers are from predominantly Muslim countries, the St. John’s taxi cab industry remains largely ethnically homogenous. They are students, pensioners and the sons of taxi cab drivers. Many are career drivers; few are women. Some, let go from other work, are too old and undertrained to re-enter their chosen career field.
Like in many other municipalities, leasing doomed many vulnerable drivers to a kind of wage slavery. At the end of the day, drivers are paid 50 per cent of whatever has accumulated on the meter, minus gas expenses. It was an obvious attraction to fleet owners and brokers because it ensured daily receipts and removed the spectre of rising gasoline and insurance costs. Individual taxi cab owners, generally referred to as “independent operators,” became subject to exorbitant and unregulated weekly stand fees.
In a brief prepared for St. John’s city council in June 1987, the United Taximen’s Association, a now extinct stand owners’ advocacy group, stated that this aspect of ownership “ensured good taxi service to the public.” However, drivers are sometimes subject to the removal of equipment, arbitrary dismissal and blackballing, or collusion amongst stand owners. Beginning in the mid-1970s, the city permitted each stand to hire up to three part-time drivers. Now the taxi cab industry depends upon a steady stream of these men and women, hired at the discretion of the stand owner, broker or independent operator, and whose income and record of employment often goes undocumented. This lack of regulation and entry level training encourages low standards of employment and a seemingly limitless pool of drivers operating around the clock.
Inadequate car maintenance is another serious problem. Pressured by high insurance premiums and other exuberant startup costs, few taxi cab drivers buy new cars and many are stretched beyond 300,000 kilometres. In fact, high mileage automobiles are often purchased at auction, and regular maintenance is sometimes curtailed because of slim profit margins. Poor suspension and bad brakes are not uncommon.
The taxi cab industry was once administered by a full-time inspector. But the bylaw sets only minimum standards for the conduct of drivers and the acceptance of vehicles as taxicabs. Currently, two enforcement officers are responsible for issuing licences, investigating complaints and ticketing bylaw infractions for the department of building and property management. With limited manpower and resources, it’s often difficult to ensure that stand owners and brokers are meeting basic standards. This invariably affects the quality of service provided to the public.
St. John’s taxi cab drivers have made several attempts to mobilize their ranks. The United Taxi Drivers’ Association, formed in 1985, had as its stated purpose to “promote the welfare of the members of the association with a view to enhancing their business” and to “examine problems pertaining to the operation of taxis.” They had hoped to create a balance of power between stand owners, brokers and taxi cab drivers. But taxi cab drivers have always been difficult to organize. The highly competitive nature of the industry is a dividing force. Drivers are also physically separated from one another, creating an isolating work environment.
Failing to find consensus and solutions, beginning in 1989, the city conducted a commission of inquiry into the taxi cab industry. The commission spent a year consulting drivers, brokers and stand owners, as well as the public, and reviewing the appropriateness of the bylaw. The final report, released in late 1990, dealt with issues that had had dogged the industry for decades. Improving the quality of drivers, reversing the system of servitude to stand owners and clarifying licence ownership were given top priority. Council considered a number of changes: returning the taxi cab inspector to a full-time position, beefing up its role as a regulator and starting to test taxi cab drivers’ skills and knowledge of the city and safety. After two months, The Evening Telegram reported that only one recommendation had been implemented. The city continued to drag its feet, and little was ever accomplished.
For decades, St. John’s taxi cab drivers have been pushed to the fringes of the working poor and alienated from other working class professions. They are financially marginalized by what the commission of inquiry defined as “economic servitude,” employment uncertainty and poor working conditions. Although there have been attempts at reform, little has changed since brokers became the dominating force in the industry. Long hours are a necessary part of a job that more often than not pays less than minimum wage. The problem is “dead time,” the tiresome minutes and hours between jobs.
“The Other Side of Midnight: Taxi Cab Stories” by Mike Heffernan, will be launched at Bianca’s, on Water St. in St. John’s, Thursday from 7-9 p.m.