Why taxi-drivers are long overdue a fare deal
Friday, July 6, 2001 -
Irish Times - by Ken Johnstone
(taxi-driver in Dublin and part-time freelance journalist)
Taximan Ken Johnstone argues that while deregulation has not been catastrophic, all is not cosy on the ranks
Once again the long-suffering travelling public in Dublin, and throughout Ireland, face the daunting prospect of industrial action by taxi-drivers.
A proposed 11 per cent increase on the metered fare cannot come into force because one of Dublin's four local authorities, Fingal, has rejected it.
The increase was strongly opposed by SIPTU and the other taxi unions, on the grounds that in practice it would mean a fall in their members' income - particularly on fares from airports, ferry terminals and bus and rail stations - since it was proposed to scrap the 40p extra baggage charge.
It is now six months since entry to the taxi industry was deregulated by the Government, which effectively allowed any suitably qualified applicant to obtain a taxi licence at a cost of only £5,000.
It has to be said that deregulation has not had the totally catastrophic effect on earnings that many taxi-drivers initially feared. But the question that must now be asked of Mr Bobby Molloy and the Government is whether or not the taxi service, particularly here in Dublin, has become more effective and efficient as a result of the deregulation legislation.
Ask anyone who is still experiencing waits of up to two hours for a taxi, especially in the late-night period after midnight, and the answer to this question would be an emphatic and resounding no.
There are various reasons for this.
Many of the new taxis now in service were already hackney operators or second (cosy) drivers of existing taxis. So whereas prior to deregulation there were 2,800 taxis working 24-hour shifts with two drivers per car, 95 per cent of the 6,000-plus taxis now operating are one-driver cars, and there is no compulsion on anyone to work the night shift, which many drivers view as both anti-social and extremely dangerous.
This is tied inextricably to the existing fare structure, where an extra 80p is charged for any fare taken between midnight and 5 a.m. At best, a driver will manage an average of about three fares per hour during this busy period, which, in effect, gives them only an extra £2.40 per hour, or £12 for the five-hour period.
Hardly an effective enticement to lure drivers on to the ranks at the most dangerous and stressful period of the day!
SIPTU and the other unions are calling for a total overhaul of the archaic fare structure, to allow drivers to earn a decent living without having to work upwards of 70 hours-plus each week, which is in itself a direct breach of the spirit of social partnership and health and safety legislation.
There has been an increase of only 20 per cent in taxi fares since 1985, while at the same time average industrial earnings have risen by a massive 132 per cent over the same period.
The current fare structure, with its "extra" charges for everything from telephone bookings, additional passengers, baggage, unsocial hours, animals and public holidays is extremely confusing for the travelling public, and leaves itself open to blatant abuse by an unscrupulous driver.
What is required is not the current piecemeal solution passed by the local authorities, but a whole new fare structure, which is both transparent to the general public and which allows the taxi-driver to earn a decent living within the framework of a maximum 48-hour working week.
The only way for this to be done effectively is for a far higher rate per mile to be set across the board, and a dual tariff system to be introduced for drivers working antisocial hours.
Another problem that is becoming apparent as deregulation takes effect is that many taxis are now being driven not by full-time taxidrivers, but on a part-time basis by people who are already in other full-time employment. Many of these taxis make an appearance only at the busy and lucrative weekend period.
This is a direct breach of safe working practice and in many cases actually illegal, where the driver is employed by the State, such as in the case of a garda or a member of the defence forces.
Many full-time taxi-drivers are dependent on the profitable weekend business to earn a decent weekly wage.
Surely some method can be adopted that ensures that anyone being granted a taxi licence intends to work as a full-time taxi-driver, and not to use it simply as a little part-time "earner".
Perhaps it is finally time for control of the taxi business to be taken from the local authorities, who cannot seem to grasp even the most fundamental basics of the trade, and for a separate agency to be set up to deal effectively with the taxi unions.