Uber didn’t invent modern day sharecropping, the taxi mafia did, but Uber perfected it

Fair Work Ombudsman Natalia James, last month told the media “We have minimum pay rates in Australia. They apply to everyone, and they are not negotiable”. The statement was made in the wake of the revelations that large corporations like 7-eleven, Woolworth and Coles, had systematically been underpaying what she called “vulnerable workers, such as visa-holders”. These ‘vulnerable workers’, even while they were being underpaid, earned more per hour than the average bailee taxi driver. Does anyone give a damn?

by Tim Hoi

When I began driving a cab in Sydney in 1997 the rule was that drivers paid for fuel and wash, an arrangement I like other new drivers just accepted, blissfully unaware that only three years earlier those costs were borne by the operators. Why was that no longer the case? Allegedly the TWU had sold out to the taxi mafia in the NSW Industrial Relations Commission (IRC). The TWU lawyer supposed to represent bailee drivers was a Mr Adam Hatcher, who according to witnesses present at the time, made little or no effort to defend the drivers’ rights, effectively stabbing us in the back. Prior to this event more than 1,000 Sydney cabbies were members of the TWU, but in its wake hundreds resigned and today its has less than 50 according to a source close to the union, yet officially it still represents bailee drivers. And what happened to Mr Hatcher? Well he’s now a Vice President of the Fair Work Commission. No joke.

Has the TWU changed its spots? As we have reported previously, the TWU has been in pitched battle with the NSW Taxi Council in the IRC ostensibly to improve the income and conditions of contract taxi drivers (bailees). The battle has so far been going on for three years and was no end in sight. A few days ago, at a hearing at the IRC, the parties, by mutual consent, agreed to postpone the case indefinitely. It’s the only serious attempt the union has made in 20 odd years to improve bailee driver conditions.

The most contentious issues in the union’s claim were for a flat minimum wage of $24.45 per hour, holiday and sick pay and superannuation for all drivers, full-time or part-time. Not an unreasonable demand when you consider that a simple cleaner for example gets paid $18.46 for ordinary work hours, up to $36.92 for weekend and overtime work and up to $46.15 on public holidays, as well as super and other entitlements.

Reasonable or not, the simple fact is that the claim was and is unsustainable. Given the current regulated fare and industry structure, no operator would be able to afford to pay such a minimum wage, not even the national minimum rate of $17.70 an hour, let alone super. It would require a substantial fare increase and very few drivers would support that, especially now, following the legalisation of ridesharing and the reforms announced for the industry. A dog’s breakfast, a race to the bottom.

Already owners struggle to lease out their plates, operators struggle to find drivers as an increasing number join UberX , and that situation will get considerably worse if Cabcharge launches its private hire, aka ride-share, service in other cities besides Adelaide and Maitland.

Long before the invasion by Uber in 2012, contract cabbies were already treated as sharecroppers by their networks and operators. The proposed reforms, which largely absolve government from any regulatory responsibility and hands control to taxi networks and booking services, will only escalate the exploitation of all categories of P2P drivers.

Historically, every attempt by bailee taxi drivers to organise and start their own association has failed, largely due to lack of interest, an unwillingness to pay even a tiny membership fee and executives’ incompetence. The only alternative has been to join the TWU, but with a membership fee of $667 p.a. and a reputation for selling out to the taxi establishment that would be a big ask.

Rather than trying to build bridges with taxi drivers, the TWU’s national secretary, Tony Sheldon, has his eyes squarely fixed on UberX and ride-share drivers in general. It may have escaped him that they, with only a few exceptions, are owner-drivers and the vast majority drive less than 30 hours a week. However, it would be interesting to watch the TWU take on Uber.

Earlier this month nearly 14,000 Uber and Lyft drivers in New York signed up to join the local branch of the Amalgamated Transit Union, according to a union spokesperson. The group planed to rally at the NYC Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC) headquarters the following week to demand a formal vote on unionizing. No update yet.

Maybe Mr Sheldon is on to something. Maybe he could make a deal with Uber and Cabcharge to represent their ride-share drivers. Maybe he already has. Maybe all P2P drivers should cooperate and find a union prepared to fight to get them employee status so an award can protect them. Just a thought bubble. •

 
 
 
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OZ Cabbie February 2017

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