It’s been one month since a Halifax taxi association sent a petition signed by hundreds of drivers demanding the province set a $10 minimum wage for taxi and limousine drivers — and they’ve yet to hear a yes.

“What we want is affordability,” said United Cab Drivers Association of Halifax president Darshan Virk, a cabbie for 40 years. “So we can afford a vehicle that is safe to drive, and we can keep the customers happy while having them pay cheaper fares.”

Virk got 350 association members and hundreds more taxi and limousine drivers to sign on. He sent that petition, along with a letter, to Premier Stephen McNeil’s office April 27, asking the province to pay drivers the minimum wage.

He received an email response May 19 stating that the matter was being looked into and that he would receive a response shortly.

The Chronicle Herald followed up with premier’s office last Friday and was redirected to the departments of municipal affairs, labour and transportation. As of Tuesday, the departments said the request is being reviewed.

In his initial letter to the province, Virk wrote that matching the province’s wage of $10.70 would not cost the city, the province or customers. He proposes that the Nova Scotia Utility and Review Board regulate the number of vehicles operating in the city by balancing out the cab to population ratio.

Virk’s call on the province follows 25 years of asking the city to place a cap on the number of limousines and accessible taxis operating to ensure the average driver can get enough customer calls to cover their expenses and make a decent living.

The HRM taxi industry is regulated by a city bylaw (T-108), and any recommendations to change the bylaw are sent directly to council’s transportation standing committee. According to Steve Adams, chair of the now-defunct Halifax Taxi Commission, there are 1,000 taxis operating in HRM. The number was capped a decade ago.

But Adams said there is no cap on the number of accessible taxis and there are no restrictions on who they are allowed to pick up.

“I would say over half have never had a wheelchair in their vehicle,” Adams said over the phone last Friday.

There are 38 operating in metro.

Virk claims both the minimum wage and the unlimited number of accessible taxis are covered by the Nova Scotia Human Rights Act.

Under the Human Rights Act, a taxi company is said to be the driver’s employer and the driver is the company’s employee. But taxi companies do not pay their drivers. A taxi driver pays the company $7,644 a year for using the dispatch service and for using the company’s name on their roof light.

During an interview last week, Virk and association member Ed Benoit spread out a stack of letters and research on a table at a west-end Halifax diner.

The letters include copies of those sent to the premier, Halifax mayor Mike Savage and city auditor general Larry Munroe asking for more information on the number of taxi licences leased out in the city. They also included some responses.

They also showed pages of tables and spreadsheets, laying out in detail the daily, monthly and annual expenses of the average driver.

Those expenses include payment for office rent, roof light rent, insurance, car maintenance, vehicle loan payment, and gas. According to their numbers, the average driver has about $30,500 in expenses each year.

“To make a living, the driver stays on the street,” said Virk, adding some drivers will work 12 to 16 hours a day.

Virk, 71, created the United Cab Drivers Association in 1993 after non-smoking drivers were being penalized for not wanting to pick up customers who smoked. He and Benoit started Green Cab three years later, and have the same expenses as drivers with bigger companies such as Yellow Cab and Casino Taxi.

But the taxi industry has a lot of power, the two say, so it’s a tough battle.

“Taxiing is a funny thing,” said Benoit, who has been a driver since 1988.

He has to deal with meagre wages and unpredictable hours. But there is also a sense of freedom and public service that keeps him hooked.

“When you work nights, you are the shoulder they cry on, you are their bouncer. . .you are everything and everybody.”

“It’s a sweet jail,” added Virk. “Once you’re in, it’s hard to get out because when you get a little older you can’t find another job anyway.”

Since sending in the petition, they have been approached by drivers wondering if there has been any response from the province. If the province denies their request, then Virk and Benoit are unsure of what their next steps will be.

“You don’t know what you are going to do next, because you don’t know what is going to be done this week,” said Benoit.

Some aspects of licensing accessible taxis were scheduled to go before Halifax Regional Council Tuesday night.

via The Chronicle Herald

Original publish date: May 24, 2016