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Taxi Cabs and Capitalism in Toronto!!

By: 
Mostafa Henaway, Stefan Christoff
Date Published: 
November 01, 2005
    The following is an interview with Ahmet Gulkan, a member of the Toronto Coalition of Concerned Taxi Drivers and a regular contributor to Taxi Post, Toronto's cabbie newspaper. Ahmet addresses the economic and social struggle of taxi drivers who collectively represent the second largest income for the city of Toronto.

    Taxis make up a fabric of the urban landscape while also representing an underclass of majority immigrant labour in North American cities. This interview addresses the realities faced by new immigrants working as cabbies who face daily police harassment through the issuing of multiple city by-law tickets and who endure workplace conditions such as long hours and low wages.

    This interview was conducted in a taxi cab in downtown Toronto by Mostafa Henaway and Stefan Christoff. The following is an edited version of an interview that originally aired on CKLN.

    AG: The current significant issue for taxi drivers in Toronto is racial profiling. Most of them are from different minority groups and are new immigrants and feel they have been taken advantage of. We are trying to represent them and look after their issues. Recently we hooked up with OCAP because we had a massive demonstration at Queen'sPark against Bill 69, which prohibits Toronto drivers from picking up fares from the airport. At the demonstration, one driver was really brutally beaten and given three serious criminal charges. We hooked up with OCAP and they assisted us with lawyers and helped this guy avoid criminal charges. He could have gone to jail, or lost his license and plate. In that way, we were very successful and it was a very good example of what happens when drivers organize and get some community activists behind them.

    MH: Can you explain more about the campaign around racial profiling and the racism that is experienced by taxi drivers in Toronto?

    AG: As I explained before, I have been driving for almost twenty years in this city, and what happens is that cab drivers are easy targets for the police and bylaw enforcement. As we all know, there is a quota system and they are really hitting hard on the drivers - especially on the night drivers because there is not a lot of traffic on the road. They go above and beyond their call of duty and some off duty officers are harassing drivers and ticketing excessively. Taxi drivers were intimidated and because they don'tknow the legal system and their rights to fight back. They really needed genuine legal representation to fight back against the system and get some justice.

    SC: You talk about taxi drivers being new immigrants. Taxis make up a fabric of every major city in Canada - Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver. Could you describe the dynamic of new immigrants driving cabs and their relationship with broader society?

    AG: When I started driving a taxi in Toronto I didn't know the road, I didn' know the street, I didn't know the people. It was a great learning experience, but at the same time, you get a lot of abuse by the people. Whenever you run into some kind of trouble, the first thing people say is "Yo! Cabbie where are you from?"

    The racial thing is still there - so is the stigma. As a cab driver you don't see many white Anglo-Saxons driving cabs in Toronto. Everyone knows that the average taxi driver makes less than minimum wage, and you have to work for 11 to 12 hours a day to make an average living.

    It's a living and learning experience but along the way you take a lot of abuse from people. You should see the people's attitudes when they get a little bit drunk, maybe they have had a bad day, and racist attitudes really come out and they take it out on the cab drivers.

    SC: Talk about what you felt when you first were driving a cab in Toronto and how people treated you and your experiences with the law and the city and how that related to your decision to become politically involved.

    AG: Before we started getting organized I realized that there was a big abuse by the brokerages and municipal politicians against the drivers. Because drivers are mostly immigrants and they are not organized, they were under constant abuse and exploitation. Most of the plates were leased-what we call a package deal. This created a big problem. The drivers couldn't sustain their cars because of the expenses. They were working 14 or 16 hour shifts to cover their expenses. A lot of people were suffering.

    We decided to organize, so we contacted some unions and at the time RW (Retail Workers - now amalgamated with CAW) was interested so they started organizing drivers. We had a really good reaction, because drivers had never heard anything like a massive organization campaign before. With the organization we started to form our platform of what we wanted from the city. What we pushed for is that all the taxi plates and taxis should be owner operated: one plate, one driver. We were against multiple plate ownership.

    We started escalating our organization and started some protests, as I told you, we blocked the Don Valley Parkway with 400 cars in the morning rush hour. That had a big impact on the media and we started having public support. At the time, the Toronto Star did a big exposé on how the Taxi business is run in Toronto. It was a huge scandal in the eyes of the public. When it came out, politicians and brokers had to drop their guard: they got caught and exposed and they felt like they had to do something to slow down the drivers' escalating protests.

    So the city came up with a taxi reform program. What they came up with was to give drivers ambassador plates, which are plates with no value. At the time I was against it; I want drivers to have regular plates. But at the time, most of the drivers were so desperate to get out of the lease deals and the really harsh exploitative situation, so they were going to accept it.

    So we agreed and compromised on the ambassador program and taxi reform package. To date we have 1400 plates for the drivers, but the catch is that they can't rent the plate, and they can't sell it to another driver. Right now, we have 3400 real plates that you can sell and trade in the market and put two or three drivers on it and 1400 ambassador plates. Another thing that is missing from the reform package is our demand to have some kind of benefits package. Since they are not giving us plates with any value, we are asking that they give us some benefits package, or some kind of retirement plan to back it up. That is why drivers work so many years. At their retirement, if they can sell their plate it is like a retirement plan.

    Now we are pushing the city to keep up with their promises. But it is not an easy task because politicians promise a lot of things when they are in opposition. But when they are in power, they are like anybody else. Look at Mayor Miller, in the last three elections the NDP mayor [was promoted as] taxi drivers natural choice. Hundreds of taxi drivers contributed to [the mayor's] success. But the first thing David Miller passes as a bylaw is something called licensing thresholds which means that if you have six demerit points on your license they take your cab driver license from you. This is a kick below the belt, and when we confronted him, he said: "we can't do anything." We confronted him at the police services board, which he is a member of, and we told him about police abuses and racial profiling issues and exploitation of the drivers. And in front of the media, he started making excuses, saying "we are investigating, and we are going to offer business for ambassador drivers.He hasn't done anything to benefit drivers so far.

    You have to have the pressure on all the time. And that means speaking to the issues that taxi drivers demand.
    _________________________________________________________
    For more information on how to support the Toronto Coalition of concerned Taxi Drivers contact

    taxidriverscoalition (at) gmail.com
    Ontario Coalition Against Poverty www.ocap.ca
    Taxi Post www.taxipost.ca