Monday, April 23, 2007

Rats In The Ranks

Rats In The Ranks

The City Hub recently obtained a leaked copy of a submission to the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) alleging corrupt practices and maladministration within the NSW Taxi Industry, involving figures within the government, the Taxi Council and the Transport Workers Union. The submission was compiled over a 10 year period and highlights "a virus within tile body politic where good Government and competent public administration are forever beholden to a shadowy force of vested interests."

The author of the submission is Faruque Ahmed, a taxi driver of 14 years and President of the Taxi Drivers Section of the Transport Workers Union. Ahmed believes that "the corruption in the NSW taxi industry is so endemic that the normal processes of affecting political change and industrial redress" have been exhausted and are no longer available to him. In order to unravel a suspected web of corruption within the industry, for 10 years Ahmed has gathered "extracts from government reports, correspondence/replies from... (numerous) NSW State Government Ministries / departmental heads responding to a range of enquires from advocates of taxi industry reform, press coverage of the NSW taxi industry, Hansard transcripts, reproduction of official notices distributed to taxi drivers and minutes/summaries of...meetings." He submitted his report to the NSW Ombudsman, who privately suggested that he should forward it to ICAC. After spending 6 weeks reviewing it, ICAC has recently responded saying that they will look into it further.

The public generally has a very negative perception of taxi driversand the industry. Many think that the drivers charge too much for the journey, they often do not know where they are going, the vehicles are in bad condition and they are not around at times when they need them. The reactionary sections of the media then ride the wave of public discontent, abusing the drivers without much insight into the machinations of the taxi industry or the resultant affect their casual comments have on the safety of the drivers.

While there are many valid criticisms, Ahmed said that the issue isfar more complex than what is apparent at first glance. He said thatthe majority of drivers are competent at their job. 'There are a fewrogues, as you would find in any industry" he said, but he arguesthat many of these problems are as a result of the conditions thatthe drivers have had to endure due to laws that have been created in a hostile environment which lacks consultation between the taxiindustry "representative" body (the Taxi Council) and the drivers. He claims that there are corrupt and insidious reasons for the lack of consultation and ultimately the lack of efficiency in the taxiindustry. Many problems in the industry date back to the 1940s, but they escalated in the 1980s with the removal of the "seniority system for the allocation of new taxi plates". Under this system, thedrivers who had been driving the longest were allocated plates. These owners would generally drive the day shift and have another driver looking after the night shift. Ahmed said that "a close bond(generally) existed between the two through a system of trust". Many drivers feel that it was this method that was most fair and efficient. The drivers were rewarded for their long service and beingat the "coalface," they were directly responsible for their industry.

Taxi ownership was then deregulated and according to Ahmedthis "shifted the balance of power and numerical strength within theindustry away from the single owner operator / bailee norm in favour of the more corporatist fleet management/ entrepreneurial ownership regime that is now in place. This meant that someone could own a taxi plate without needing to drive a taxi. Owning a plate, or if you were wealthy enough, owning many plates, then became an investment issue.
The more plates you owned the more economic muscle you had and therefore the more decision making power you were granted in theindustry. Decision making powers were taken from the single owner operators and given to a Board of Directors who were the larger shareholders in owner 'cooperatives'. As a result the democratic nature and the efficiency of the taxi industry were undermined. The owner operators were required under government legislation to financially contribute to these 'cooperatives', even though, according to Ahmed, they had no say in the running of them.

Ahmed said that many disgruntled owners decided to leave theindustry, allowing "the big fish in the industry to furtherconsolidate their power." The bigger players either bought up thenewly available plates or convinced new owners to put the platesunder their management control. The industry was moving closer to monopolisation at this stage with the Boards of Directors of themajor co-operatives being able to use inside knowledge of the taxiindustry to both increase the percentage of taxi plates on the roadunder their direct control and extend their influence over government policy through the creation of the Taxi Council' as the major advisory body to the government." Taxis Combined Services, one of the taxi networks, now looks after the radio bookings for seven of the eleven taxi networks.

The need for a representative body for ail interests was expressed back in the late 1960's, when the Full Bench of the IndustrialCommission, said that "the taxi companies exercised an unfairadvantage over their bailee drivers to the extent that they were able to avoid their legal responsibilities to the drivers". A reportcommissioned by the taxi companies unsuspectingly reiterated theconcerns recommended by the Industrial Commission's findings and suggested a group comprising "representatives of the taxi industry (drivers, owners, etc.), Dept of Transport, Police and a Consumer group.

The resulting Taxi Advisory Council, created after these findings,gave a greater avenue for debate to the shareholders. But it wasdismantled by a newly elected Liberal Government in 1988. According to Ahmed, the heads of the employer body then filled its place with the less widely representative Taxi Council.

In his submission, Ahmed stated that the Taxi Council was and isstill today just a "self-appointed mouthpiece" for a small elitegroup from the Boards of Directors who use it as an "industry spokesperson, government adviser and (for) media public relations".He stated that two contradictory letters revealed "exactly how theTaxi Council had co-opted both the ministry and the bureaucracy to do its bidding". He showed that in one letter to the Taxi IndustryServices Association (TISA), an organisation representing non-owner driver interests, Pamela Sayers, Director of Vehicle Transport Policy Development, said that the Taxi Council was not appointed as a "co-regulator" of the industry. Another letter by the Labor Party Minister for Transport, Brian Langton, stated that anew "consultative mechanism" for the government and the Taxi Council was one of "co-regulation under the Passenger Transport Act, 1990".

This system of "co-regulation" is dictatorial in nature, as the drivers' union and other representative bodies are excluded from the negotiation process. It is designed purely for the elite in the industry to represent their commercial needs to government.

In a letter responding to Ahmed's query regarding the status of theTaxi Council, it was revealed on 3/8/95 by Brian Langton that theTaxi Council "has no status under law". Under the Industrial Relations Act 1996/1990 and the Industrial Arbitration Act 1930 the Taxi Council, as an unregistered body, cannot legally represent anybody. How then does it come to represent elite interests in the taxi industry ? How could it have been allowed to co-formulate regulations with the government?

The breaching of privacy rights of 20 000 registered drivers in NSW is also called into question through further correspondence from John Stott, the Acting Director General of the Department of Transport, which alarmingly revealed that the release of personal files from the government department to the taxi networks was allowed under an existing "contractual agreement" between the Department of Transport and the NSW Taxi Council "whereby the Dept. may grant a very limited view access to certain records contained in its database of public transport drivers and operators..."
Ahmed asks the question "why weren't other stakeholders, such as the Transport Workers Union (TWU), informed or consulted over contractual arrangements governing the release of private computer database information on individual taxi drivers and owners?"
The potential infringement of the rights of drivers to freedom of speech by the Taxi Council and its authoritarian nature is again highlighted by the 1990 "Code of Conduct" which, according to Ahmed, makes it an offense for drivers to do or say anything thatis "detrimental to the (taxi co-operative) network". Ironically,Ahmed is in breach of this Code by submitting his document to ICAC.

The Taxi Council has recently proposed another law to be passed bythe end of October that will severely curtail drivers' freedom ofspeech. Under the new law the NSW Taxi Council will be ordering cabbies to not discuss politics, religion or football and to agree with anything the passenger says. It was reported in The Daily Telegraph (14/8/98) that "the Taxi Council assistant executive officer Howard Harrison said that drivers would be ordered ... to always agree with passengers". He then went on to contradict himself and said "drivers would be told not to initiate conversations about politics in an effort to "control the atmosphere of their car".
How is it possible to control the atmosphere of a conversation byblindly agreeing with the passenger? In order to control theatmosphere a driver needs to have the freedom to judge the mood and direction of the conversation. It is far more dangerous for a driver in a potentially life-threatening situation to have to rely on a set of rules to judge his/her next action. ] Communication skills cannot be learned ( from a 3 hour Big Brother lecture (as the Taxi Council is proposing) because they are subtle skills learned experientially. Any taxi driver knows how important it is for their safety to be in control of the vehicle that they are driving. Passengers hop in, in all states of mind, under all sorts of influences. What is political to one person might be general conversation to another. This new law poses a serious threat to the safety of the drivers and an attack on the most basic of their rights guaranteed to them under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Passengers, especially tourists, enjoy hearing new ideas andexperiencing individual personalities rather than a McDonalds*version of our eclectically diverse city. Many taxi drivers also know that most of their tips come from people that appreciate good open conversation. What the Taxi Council is proposing is no different from the reactionary, mind-numbing control that Pauline Hanson is attempting to impose on Australia's diverse community. The Taxi Council's proposal should not be "law", but just one of the options available.
Ahmed thinks that the Taxi Council would like to use this law to stop dissenting drivers from speaking out to passengers.

He said that he has tried to support the conditions of the drivers by representing their concerns through the NSW Transport Workers' Union (TWU). He has found in his correspondence to the government that it rgards the TWU as the representative of employee/bailee drivers. While Ahmed makes the point that he is no union basher, as unions are vital for the protection of workers' rights, he recently has strong reservations about the TWU full-time Executive who he feels have been compromised by the Taxi Council "to such an extent that no fair-minded person would consider they are still acting in their members' interests."

Two years ago the government and the Taxi Council claimed that it was necessary to raise the flagfall (starting amount on meter) from $2 to $3 in order to pay for new security measures. This caused a rise in the drivers' daily pay-in of up to $40 a night. Many drivers feel that as a result of this fare increase they lost many smaller fares, where passengers would hop in the taxi knowing that it would not cost them more than their loose change. When the flagfall dropped back down, the pay-in stayed at the same rate with a small compensation. Drivers felt hard done by and are frustrated at the inaction of the TWU in standing up for their ever-diminishing conditions. When money was initially being raised for the 'safety'features, the first 'safety' devices introduced were newly styledlogo stickers for the taxis. A cynic might suggest that these were introduced as a superficial aesthetic change for the public. Many drivers were angry at the safety priorities of the Taxi Council. Howmany unnecessary attacks were there as a result of the stickers receiving a higher priority over true safety features?

The Taxi Council also plans to introduce 500 extra taxis before theOlympics to cope with the rush hour even though statistics show that taxis are empty for 35% of the time they are on the road. These plates will only be available to certain people which is raising questions about corrupt practices.

There is a suspicion amongst many drivers that the Taxi Council is introducing changes into the industry as part of a money making exercise. According to Ahmed's calculations the Taxi Industry should have raised up to $126 million from the fare increase, the costs of the safety features would have come to approximately $20 million (including satellite tracking, surveillance cameras and safety screens). Uncomfortable and some say authoritarian looking uniforms were introduced. These were purchased for $1.50 per garment from Indonesia and sold for up to $20.
New 'safety* capsules were installed in the taxis. Owners complained about their high price. Drivers complain of the lack of security that they provide, that they trap air in the front seat, they cannot hear the passengers, they are uncomfortable and in the event of a driver's door being smashed in an accident that they will be trapped in the front seat, and that they dangerously distort their vision behind them. Every day, especially on Friday and Saturday nights emergency codes are sent out on the internal taxi radio giving the location of taxi drivers consider themselves to be in danger from a passenger, this is done in the hope of receiving support from other taxis in the area as it can take the police up to an hour to respond. One would think there is a media blackout on this issue, as attacks on taxi drivers go unreported every day.

Ahmed says that he has tried to communicate the drivers working conditions and safety issues to the government, but keeps getting referred back to the TWU. Even though he is a member of the TWU, he feels that the Executives are not responding to his concerns. He has much support from the drivers, but thinks that the union is protecting their leadership "to prevent the emergence of any groupwho wish to democratise their union leadership in the interests ofworker/bailee drivers".

Ahmed said that many drivers who have tried to stand up for their rights have found that they come up against a wall of silence or intimidation. Under the Taxi Industry (Contract Drivers) Contract Determination 1984, the owner has the right to instant dismissal.Under the current laws there is a lack of political will to enforce basic conditions for individual owners and non-owner drivers.Individual owners are still not given much say in the industry decision making processes of the monopolistic Taxi Council, being voted out by the larger players. But they are still forced to pay increasing network membership fees and business expenses (in 1995 a green-slip was $2200. now it's $4450, and monthly radio network fees have doubled since the $1 flagfall rise). Some of these costs are passed down to the non-owner drivers, who are not guaranteed a minimum wage, holiday pay or sick pay and are working in an increasingly dangerous environment.

Ahmed is determined to create change within the industry. He said "I do so on behalf of myself as an aggrieved individual who has been denied the right to work at various times as a result of the corruption that exists within the NSW taxi industry. I do so also outof consideration to the bailee taxi drivers that I represent, on behalf of the overwhelming majority of honest workers within the NSW taxi industry, in consideration of the long-suffering taxi commuters of NSW and in the interests of natural justice, good government and democratic rights (including the right to earn a living) of the people of NSW and Australia."The author's name has not been printed due to taxi drivers' freedom of speech being limited under The 1990 Code of Conduct

Sydney Taxi Corruption

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