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 drivers
and 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 is
far more complex than what is apparent at first glance. He said that
the majority of drivers are competent at their job. 'There are a few
rogues, as you would find in any industry" he said, but he argues
that many of these problems are as a result of the conditions that
the drivers have had to endure due to laws that have been created in
a hostile environment which lacks consultation between the taxi
industry "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 taxi
industry. 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, the
drivers 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 being
at the "coalface," they were directly responsible for their industry.

Taxi ownership was then deregulated and according to Ahmed
this "shifted the balance of power and numerical strength within the
industry 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 the
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 the
industry, allowing "the big fish in the industry to further
consolidate their power." The bigger players either bought up the
newly available plates or convinced new owners to put the plates
under their management control. The industry was moving closer to
monopolisation at this stage with the Boards of Directors of the
major co-operatives being able to use inside knowledge of the taxi
industry to both increase the percentage of taxi plates on the road
under 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 Industrial
Commission, said that "the taxi companies exercised an unfair
advantage over their bailee drivers to the extent that they were able
to avoid their legal responsibilities to the drivers". A report
commissioned by the taxi companies unsuspectingly reiterated the
concerns 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 was
dismantled 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 is
still today just a "self-appointed mouthpiece" for a small elite
group 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 the
Taxi Council had co-opted both the ministry and the bureaucracy to do
its bidding". He showed that in one letter to the Taxi Industry
Services 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 a
new "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 the
Taxi Council, it was revealed on 3/8/95 by Brian Langton that the
Taxi 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 that
is "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 by
the end of October that will severely curtail drivers' freedom of
speech. 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 by
blindly agreeing with the passenger? In order to control the
atmosphere 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 and
experiencing 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

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 o 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 styled
logo 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. How
many 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 the
Olympics 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 group
who wish to democratise their union leadership in the interests of
worker/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 out
of 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