One of the major issues on which the next federal election will be fought is Work Choices, the "revolutionary" new workplace relations system the Howard government is taking credit for. Yet it was invented by the taxi industry mafia decades ago. It is called the bailee-bailor agreement and we cabbies — mugs that we are — have put up with it with barely a whimper.
A bailee is a driver who "rents" a taxi from its owner (bailor). Usually the driver pays by the shift, either 50% of the takings or a set rental.
Given that Work Choices and Australian Workplace Agreements (AWAs) individual contracts have become such political hot potatoes, I did a bit of research to find out what taxi drivers think of it. The result was astonishing.
I hailed 23 cabs over two weeks. Of the 23 drivers, five did not know what Work Choices was, 13 didn't care because they thought they were self-employed, and five thought it was terrible and that the unions should do something about it. All of them were bailees, but only one was a union member — a former bus driver who keeps his Transport Workers Union (TWU) membership up out of habit.
Cabbies have worked under an AWA-style system for more than 30 years. Except for a few in Sydney, cabbies do not receive holiday or sick pay, long-service leave or superannuation, nor do we get overtime or weekend and holiday loading. We pay GST. Protection from unfair dismissal protection has never existed.
From time to time taxi driver associations have sprung up in an attempt to improve the working conditions of drivers, to get bailees a fair deal. Only in NSW has there been some success, thanks to the TWU.
However, if Work Choices remains, we can forget ever achieving the industrial rights and benefits of other workers. Rather, theirs are likely to come down to our level.
But of course, if we don't care about that, Work Choices is irrelevant to us, and so is any drivers' association. If we are happy driving weekends and public holidays without any compensation, to work 12- to 16-hour shifts, often at less than the minimum wage, and retire on a pension alone, Work Choices is not an issue for cabbies.
We keep telling ourselves that what we like most about the job is that no boss is looking over our shoulder, yet we are controlled by numerous rules and regulations — government and network regulations, operator rules, traffic rules, fines and penalties. Every break we take costs us money and the "mafia" know that, which is why they have not as yet demanded that we follow a rigid roster system. They don't have to.
In the good old days when most drivers were taxi owners and networks were cooperatives, bailment worked. There was light for bailee drivers at the end of the tunnel. They had the opportunity of becoming owners and co-op shareholders. But, for the past 20 years the system has been exploited by unscrupulous owners, network operators and governments. The result is that the real income of cabbies today is lower than it was 20 years ago.
There have been some improvements in the last few years as most governments have moved to regulate annual fare adjustments and with the new government trend towards leasing rather than selling new plates to driver operators instead of to fleet owners, investors and networks.
What hasn't improved is the bailee/bailor agreement — the original AWA — and that has to change. Hopefully, new driver operators will remember their time as bailees and support a push to improve the bailee system whether Work Choices survives or not.
[Peer Lindholdt is editor of Cabbie Magazine.]