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China's embattled cabbies highlight working class struggles

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Woe is the taxi driver in China.

The roads are clogged with about 40,000 new cars a day, the price of gasoline has doubled in the last five years and passenger fares have barely budged even though everything else in the country is getting more expensive.

Fed up with their shrinking profit margins, 1,500 cabbies in the eastern city of Hangzhou went on strike this month demanding higher fares.

“Ten years ago, taxi drivers belonged to the high income group. Now we have become part of the low income group,” a Hangzhou cab driver told the Oriental Daily, explaining how his pay after expenses had dropped from about $730 a month six years ago to $470 today.

It’s no wonder then that taxi drivers have become the poster children of China’s nagging inflation, which grew 6.5% in July from a year ago to reach a 37-month high.

Their struggle to make ends meet underscores the pressure on China’s broader working class population who are most vulnerable to consumer price increases. And when they strike, they remind the central government how inflation can trigger social unrest.

“Taxi drivers can’t participate in the drafting of polices relating to them, and can’t protect their rights through the courts or labor unions, which means they have no choice but to go on strike,” Guo Yushan, a researcher at the privately funded think tank Transition Institute, told the Financial Times. “If the system doesn’t change, the strikes will continue in different cities.”

Guo said there have been 60 taxi strikes since 2004, including a violent demonstration by 9,000 drivers in the western city of Chongqing in 2008.

In an article published Thursday in the official Communist Party mouthpiece the People’s Daily, cab drivers in Beijing said they had to work up to 18 hours a day and give half their earnings to lease their cars.

“I wish I can have some proper rest,” a driver surnamed Chen told the newspaper. “I work every day, no holidays.”

Beijing taxis charge about $1.50 for an initial three kilometers (1.86 miles). Fuel surcharges of about 30 cents are added after a certain distance. By comparison, New York City cabs start at $2.50 for the first one-fifth mile before entering a byzantine pricing matrix.

The problem for Beijing drivers is that they make their money on distance, not time. Sitting in the capital’s choked roads stifles their profits.

They’re also responsible for their own maintenance and gas. Fuel prices in China have more than doubled in the last five years to $4.63 a gallon even though cab fares have largely stayed the same.

There have been some gains. Shanghai boosted fares by about 30 cents last month. The drivers in Hangzhou returned to work after receiving subsidies and promises of a fare hike.

But a Beijing cabbie told a Times staff member he was skeptical fares would increase in the capital because prices had to appear stable and affordable in the country’s showcase city. He said drivers were frustrated but he and others were too scared to ever go on strike because of official retribution.

“I couldn’t make a living doing anything else if [the authorities] even saw me near a strike,” he said. “I’d be blacklisted. I couldn’t get a license to open a small shop.”

--David Pierson 

Photo: Striking taxi drivers gather near their parked taxis under a bridge in the suburbs of Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, August 3, 2011.  Credit: Reuters / Aly Song.

 
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