Taxi drivers fight for equality, justice

March 28, 2013 - All News

Toronto cabbies ask for equal treatment for all drivers

We’ve all heard that sad old joke about calling a cabbie if you want a doctor – which would even have been funny if it didn’t hit so uncomfortably close to the truth
Staff Writer
Generally ambassadors are greatly regarded around the world and considered as highflying bureaucrats. As part of diplomatic missions, they play key roles in representing their countries abroad.
But in Toronto, ambassadors are also a class that has nothing to do with diplomatic missions. Rather they — those looked down upon as members of the city’s taxicab fleet — are battling for equal rights and fight for survival every single day.
“Here (Toronto) ambassadors are lower class cab drivers and we are fighting to acquire equal rights for all operators,” Sajid Mughal, president of iTaxi Workers Association, told SAF. “We want one system for all where no one is inferior or superior to the other.”
Mughal alleged the city of treating differently members of the cab drivers’ community and complained of a ‘two-tier’ system, which divides and differentiates one from the other.
SAF hadn’t received any response from the city as at the time of going to press.
“If you need a doctor, call a cab” is a famous phrase in the GTA as a large number of drivers — especially immigrants from South Asian backgrounds — are highly qualified.
Many of them are doctors, engineers and vastly skilled foreign professionals. They happen to drive taxies due to lack of Canadian experience.
Census figures
As per the 2006 Census, there are 11,055 taxi drivers in Toronto, including taxi, limousine and chauffeur drivers.
Among them 96 per cent are male and only 4 per cent are females. Some 63 per cent of them are between the ages of 35 and 54 of whom 81 per cent are immigrants, including a large number from India, Pakistan and other South Asian countries.
The figures show that 73 per cent of them are visible minorities, and that 24 per cent speak English as their mother tongue.
The Census also reveals that around 44 per cent work more than 50 hours a week.
The stats further explain that in contrast to the Toronto-wide median full-time employment income of $45,350, half of Toronto’s taxi drivers earn less than $11,949 per year.
For decades, the City of Toronto has made efforts to improve its taxi industry and to maintain its image parallel to New York’s Yellow or London’s (UK) Black taxi.
Consultations, special reports and fact-finding efforts have brought numerous changes that have ultimately reshaped the industry — in many cases for the betterment of all.
Being the voice of Toronto’s taxi drivers, and to fight for their rights, the iTaxi Workers Association was formed in 2009.
The main function of the association is to provide free services to its members such as paralegal, traffic tickets, political advocacy, improving working conditions, and creating a safe and friendly ride for both operators as well as for the clients.
Industry background
Until 1998, there used to be only one “standard” plate for all cabs, which was legally allowed to be sold in the open market back in 1963. The move essentially made the license a capital value asset.
Due to its capital worth, not only the open market value of license plates was on the rise in 1998, but also the wait time to get a plate from the city was exceeding its limits.
However, to meet the challenging task of maintaining the image of a world-class city with modern infrastructure, the municipality started to review the taxi industry.
In April 1998, the City Council established a Task Force to examine the industry in response to growing public concerns about a decline in customer service levels, safety standards, and working conditions.
The Task Force was aimed at reforming the industry and introducing a new system which could provide safe and secure service; offer high quality customer service in clean and comfortable taxis; employ courteous, knowledgeable and experienced drivers; and to permit people who work in the system to share fairly in the costs and benefits.
Later, on the Task Force’s recommendations, the city stopped issuing further “standard” plates and introduced a new “ambassador” plate.
This was a move which ultimately shook the entire industry.
Difference in plates and drivers
There is a lot of difference between standard and ambassador plates.
Standard plates are transferable, not tied to a single driver, can be owned by absentee owner, have high market value, can be rented or leased out, and comprise typically a ‘lessee business model’.
On the other hand ambassador plates are non-transferable, tied to a single driver, can only be held by the person driving the taxi, have no market value, cannot be hired out to any driver, and represent solely an owner-operator business model.
“This is a two-tier system. Ambassador plates have no value, these owners cannot hire a second driver. Whoever owns it has to drive until he can, but once he quits or retires, the plate and its license expires and goes back to the city,” said Mughal. “Others can sell their plates or use them as retirement.”
Half-a-million dollar plate
In 1998, the approximate market value of a plate was around $90,000. Today, Mughal said the “standard” plate in Toronto worth more than $350,000 — and in some instances close to $500,000.
He said the standard owners are also allowed to rent/lease it out, hire more drivers, sell it or keep it as a retirement.
“This is why we are struggling to get equal rights for everyone. What if an ambassador driver falls sick or needs a day off… he simply loses that money because his business will stop moving.
“But if a standard driver falls sick, he can hire someone to drive his taxi.”
Becoming a driver
To drive a taxi, an applicant simply needs to get a certification from the city. Upon acquiring the certification, he/she can start driving a cab as a shift or lease operator.
Once the driver has three or more years of experience, he/she can apply or get in the queue for obtaining a license plate. There is however a $5,000 administration or plate transfer fee.
“Taxi drivers always supported efforts to improve the industry, but the introduction of ambassadors was something from where our struggle for balance in the law started,” said Mughal. “We believe it’s a two-tier system.”
Out of 5,000 Toronto-wide cabs — 3,500 standards and 1,500 ambassadors — iTaxi represents more than 1,000 members, which include leased drivers, shift drivers, fleet operators, owners and ambassadors.
Industry review
The last review of the taxi industry was done in 1998. Currently, after 14 years, the city has hired an outside third party expert to again analyze the industry including drivers, owners and ambassadors.
A detailed report and recommendations are due shortly.
“We hope that the consultant would consider our recommendations,” said Mughal (see box).
He said the iTaxi is demanding that everyone uniformly has a standard license — or that all follow the ambassador format.
“At least there will be equality in the system and no one would be superior or inferior to the other.
“Our struggle is for balanced laws. After going through the same procedure, one person gets a valueless plate while the other gets a plate which is valuable, leaseable and saleable,” said Mughal.
Criminal records
Recently, the city announced it would do more frequent criminal record checks on taxi drivers because some drivers with criminal records are still on the roads.
Mughal said the instance in 2007, where a Beck Taxi driver was convicted of assaulting a female passenger, was an isolated case and that the iTaxi association strongly condemns such acts and doesn’t support or tolerate any assault or misbehavior with passengers.
Problems on the road
Mughal said the city’s taxi drivers are facing numerous issues such as safety, longer work hours, job security — but stiff police attitude is one of the biggest concerns.
“As compared to 1998, security is much better, but drivers are still at higher risk of being robbed or getting hurt, especially those who work the night shift,” said Mughal.
He praised the onboard camera system which has considerably reduced the crime rate. However, he complained about slow police response in case of small incidents.
He also criticized the police attitude and said: “Once a driver is stopped… it’s over, he will definitely get at least three to four tickets. Later, it doesn’t matter if we challenge it because out of three or four tickets, most certainly the driver will get conviction in minimum one ticket. This ultimately affects our insurance premiums,” said Mughal.
Giving examples, he said most common tickets are ‘over-crowding’ (parking), ‘meter is not update’, ‘log sheet’, ‘car is not clean’.
“There are too many by-laws in the city. Other than cab stands, drivers cannot stop anywhere. In a city of 5,000 cabs (3,500 standard and 1,400 ambassadors), there are only 400 available stands.
“We cannot cruise all the time, it costs, and more importantly it is not good for the environment,” said Mughal. “The city should provide more stands.”
Insurance monopoly
Mughal pointed out that in Ontario, only two companies can provide auto insurance to taxi drivers.
“We do not have the option of shopping around. It’s a monopoly because for us, there are only two insurance companies,” said Mughal.
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Cabbies’ recommendations for the future
The iTaxi Association’s top recommendations are:
• A task force that includes health practitioners, police and taxi drivers be established to address drivers’ health and safety as the level of risk of attack and/or injury for taxi drivers is among the highest of any profession in Canada.
• Only one type of owner’s license (plate) for the taxi industry be allowed, and to avoid discrimination, all existing licenses be converted to one new standard plate held by taxicab owner-operators.
• The city should charge $5,000 for conversion of all 1,400 Ambassador and W plates. These funds can be set aside by the City to establish a benefit fund to provide health and dental insurance, as well as pension protection for drivers and their families. This should include automatic enrolment for shift drivers and the option for new standard plate owner-operators to buy-in. Most taxi drivers currently have no access to CPP, EI, WSIB or any benefit plans.
• The city should work with taxi dispatch companies, plate owners, and drivers to settle on a single negotiated rate per shift for the rental of taxicabs by drivers.
• The city should recognize that taxicabs are an important component of public transportation and, as such, they should be factored into future transit and transportation planning. In combination with mass transit, commuters often use taxis to complete portions of their daily trips.
Sajid Mughal, president of iTaxi Workers Association, said his association is confident that these recommendations will decrease gridlock, reduce pollution, provide for a less expensive taxi service for the public and keep more income in the driver’s pockets.