If the 2,000 taxi drivers in Derry all decided to take a Monday morning off, it’s a conservative estimate to say that around 10,000 people in the city would have no way to work, or school, or to do the shopping or make their hospital appointments. In a city surrounded by huge housing estates where many residents don’t have the luxury of a car, taxis have long been a mode of transport for people who have no other choice.
Now, thanks to a struggling economy and soaring levels of unemployment here, more people than ever have turned to taxi driving to try and earn a living. It’s led to an industry which is over populated and whose workforce are arguably the most underpaid in the country.
The facts speak for themselves, says Tom King, a life long taxi driver who five months ago set up the ‘Independent Workers Union’ to try to mobilise drivers who find themselves at the bottom of the food chain in a business which is only lucrative if you’re at the top.
“This is not a battle we want to politicise but the figures when it comes to taxi driving tell the real story,” he says.
“On average, it costs a taxi driver in Derry between £260 and £280 a week just to go to work. This is taking into account rent to an office of around £60 per week, diesel costs, insurance, servicing of the car which must be done every 6,000 miles and keeping the car clean. In a city where the minimum fare is £2.50 we have drivers working up to 70 hours a week just to get enough to keep afloat.”
Tom’s hope is that drivers in the town will come forward and join a union. He says it’s only then that things will change when drivers are united in their approach.
“What we’re looking for isn’t complicated, we want a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work,” he says.
“At the minute, that just doesn’t exist. I know drivers who are sleeping in their cars. They feel like that’s what they have to do to make enough money to get by.”
Like many an argument which has reared its head in the North West over the years, the debate about taxi fares and the treatment of drivers draws on comparisons between here and Belfast. There are a few instant disparities.
In Belfast, the number of drivers allowed to operate in the city is capped and the £2.50 minimum fare is unheard of.
In this sense, Tom believes, it’s a fairer deal for the drivers who stand a chance at bringing home decent wages at the end of the working week.
“Until taxi companies here come together to agree a new minimum fare, the possibility of drivers in Derry earning an acceptable amount is out the window.
“Because of rent increases and the amount of drivers, everything about being a taxi driver in this city has changed for the worse,” he claims.
“I remember a few years ago, when drivers pulled up alongside one another, we used to talk about football or whatever was on tv. That was only five or six years ago. Now, when we talk to one another, it’s just about the never ending problems in the industry and in a town where there isn’t any other work, it’s an industry people are forced into.
“We do not want to overcharge customers. That’s not what we’re about. We’re not high earners and every driver in this town knows what it’s like to struggle. But we’re just trying to make a living. I’m hearing from drivers who are working so hard just to scrape by that it’s having a detrimental effect on their home and family lives. If you’re working sixty or seventy hours a week, you can imagine the levels of exhaustion alone and that’s not safe for anyone. No other person in employment in Europe has to work those hours.
“In one case, I spoke to a driver recently who had problems with his car that he had to spend over £800 sorting out. He was off the road for three weeks and when he wanted back to start work he was told to pay three weeks rent or he’d be removed from the system of the company he was working for. There are companies and owners who are understanding and very decent to work for, but I don’t think people in the city realise that some companies have drivers living in a climate of fear. Some drivers have taken out payday loans with extortionate rates so that they can keep working.”
That fear, Tom says, has held many drivers back from joining the union.
“Some drivers have received messages through the GPS systems in their cars telling them they’re being watched. One driver was reprimanded by the manager of a local company for ‘liking’ the union’s Facebook page.
“Drivers have been told they will be ‘switched off’ from the company system. As a union organiser I think that’s completely unacceptable and no other workplace in the town would get away with operating like that.
“In spite of that however more and more drivers are coming forward to our monthly meetings and my hope is that that trend will continue and together we’ll be able to make the changes we need for the good of all drivers.”
Tom’s also hoping for a little help from Stormont who hold the power to change some of the everyday issues affecting drivers.
“The MOT fee for a taxi driver is £138.50 which is astronomical compared to the cost for any other car. The only difference with the test itself is checking the fire extinguisher and the roof sign. The MOT fee for a 52 seater bus is £98.50. We’d really like to see that cost lessened for drivers. Not to mention the fact that for the 2,000 or so drivers who are operating in the city there are around 25 designated taxi spots, all of which are tied to particular companies, so drivers who want to operate independently have nowhere to work from.
“That’s something that as a union we’ll be raising with local politician Mark H Durkan who we’ve spoken to in the past and who is now in the position of being Minister for the Environment.”
The Independent Workers Union have already negotiated a deal with a local accountancy firm on behalf of taxi drivers in the area and have been involved in resolving a number of individual disputes.
“We know that we can make a difference, and with more drivers on board we can go some length towards making major differences in the lives of those who spend 14 hours a day in a taxi,” Tom said.
For more information on joining the union contact Tom King on Telephone No. 07725470638