Taxi drivers\' blockade wins its demands

May 3, 2008

Taxi drivers staged a spontaneous and ultimately successful protest on April 29-30, shutting down the major intersection of Flinders and Swanston Streets for more than 22 hours, after the near fatal stabbing of a young driver.

Some 500 drivers, the majority of whom were of Indian or Pakistani background, blocked the road with their cabs and staged a peaceful, but noisy, sit-down in the middle of the intersection. The protest, which continued through the night until mid-afternoon the next day, brought the morning peak hour to a standstill.

The action was sparked by the stabbing of a young taxi driver, Jalvinder Singh, earlier in the week. But the frustration and anger among the drivers runs much deeper.

A similar blockade was held by taxi drivers in 2006 following the murder of part-time taxi driver Rajneesh Joga. The leaders of that protest set up the Victorian Taxi Drivers Association.

The majority of Melbourne's taxi drivers are overseas born, and many of them are students. Racism is a constant problem, but another persistent complaint is that the police do not take their emergency calls seriously, often refusing to attend. As Raman, a former driver, told Green Left Weekly: "Why do Australians hate us, just because of the colour of our skin?"

Taxi drivers are classified as independent contractors and so have none of the employment rights afforded to most other workers. They are not subject to the federal minimum wage, which is $13.74 per hour for full- or part-time workers or $16.48 for casuals. Most drivers rarely earn more than $10 per hour (before GST and income tax).

Rather than deal with this, the Victorian government has consistently taken a punitive approach to the drivers by placing more onerous and stringent rules on their conduct. This approach is fuelled by, and reinforces, racist populism and sows the seeds for the kind of racist attitudes that the drivers are protesting against.

The protest was an overwhelming success, forcing transport minister Lyn Kosky into an emergency meeting, but not before the police had added insult to injury by issuing parking fines to the drivers. Lord Mayor John So even pleaded with the drivers to move their cars, but he was unsuccessful.

After initially refusing to meet with the drivers until the protest was called off, the minister met with a contingent from the Victorian Taxi Drivers Association and Transport Workers Union representative John Parker met with the minister. Kosky conceded to a number of the drivers' demands, including the mandatory fitting of safety shields, 50% of which will be funded by the state, as well as making pre-paid fares compulsory between 10pm and 5am. Police were eventually ordered to cancel all the fines that had been issued.

But the broader problems of racism and the police's disregard for the welfare of drivers remain, as do the appalling wages and conditions endured by drivers. Until these substantial issues are tackled by the state government, the major problems in the industry will remain and the taxi drivers of Melbourne will be forced to take action again and again.

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