On Saturday, November 13, I met up with my new friend Peter in the hope of learning more about what it’s like to be a taxi driver in Canberra.
Peter drives a cab every Saturday from 3am or 5am to 5pm, which is a typical shift for most taxi drivers. Luckily, I got to meet up with him at 10.30am.
Given the average worker is contracted to work an eight-hour day, taxi drivers have some tough conditions to contend with.
Joining Peter on a Saturday morning made for an interesting insight into the type of jobs taxi drivers normally pick up at that time of day, as there wasn’t the big demand that comes from Friday and Saturday nights or Federal Parliament sitting weeks.
Peter bases himself at the Dickson taxi rank and that day he was lucky enough to get a client that needed to go to Jerrabomberra. This is a dream fare for many drivers, as it pays a comparatively good price to all those short jobs that amount to less than $10.
A $10 fare needs to pay for running costs and then be split with the operator, then GST and income tax come out of it. A driver might only end up with $4 from a $10 fare. Short fares followed by long waits equals very little money.
Peter tells me that his shortest trip ever was to take a frail old lady and her groceries 200m from the Dickson taxi rank to the far side of Antill Street. The job paid $6.90, after which he had to go to the back of the five-car queue.
Earlier this year the ACT Government launched a review into the Taxi Industry. Public submissions were due by May and we are waiting for the results. Through the review the Government has suggested that increasing the number of taxi licences or introducing peak period taxi licences will solve concerns raised about a lack of supply during peak periods.
The crux of the problem, however, is the airport, where the peaks typically begin and end. For many years the ACT Taxi Industry Association (ATIA) has lobbied for High Occupancy Taxis (or HOTs) which would take groups of people to and from the airport, to locations such as Barton, Civic and Parliament House at those peak times.
However, there is a long-standing and unresolved issue between ATIA and the airport about commissionaire fees, made even more complicated because we have two taxi companies in the ACT.
As Peter told me, introducing more taxi plates or peak plates, which might work in a bigger city such as Melbourne, but not necessarily in the ACT; it won’t address the issue of what happens outside of those peak times.
“What are drivers and owners meant to do to earn a living?” he asked. This issue is what has been missing from the debate.
As Peter pointed out to me, the running costs of a taxi are fairly well exactly the same whether you drive a taxi all day or just at peak times. An owner is going to have to earn enough to keep the taxi on the road, pay their drivers and earn a living themselves.
Peak hour is usually the only time of day that drivers are able to get enough jobs to make decent money and the fares they get during peak periods can help average out the lack of jobs during the rest of the day.
Flooding the market with more taxi licences will push an already below minimum wage even lower, and will challenge the very viability of the industry.
Issuing more licences is not going to solve the problem, particularly when we hear taxi owners are handing in licences because they can’t afford to keep them.
We need to deal with the reality of the situation and address the problems at the airport. If we don’t, we endanger the livelihoods of those people who drive taxis for a living, including people like Peter who work very long hours to earn a wage for their families.