“Better to starve fighting than starve working” – the taxi driver hunger strike

By   /   December 18, 2013  /   16 Comments

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When I first heard of some taxi drivers at Auckland Airport going on hunger strike I instinctively thought “We don’t do that here”. It seemed impossibly radical, surely there were other options that would be more effective in a New Zealand context?

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When I first heard of some taxi drivers at Auckland Airport going on hunger strike I instinctively thought “We don’t do that here”. It seemed impossibly radical, surely there were other options that would be more effective in a New Zealand context? I mean, I’m sure it’s bad but can’t be anything we haven’t seen before right? What issue in a country like New Zealand could possibly move them to such extremities?

Troubled by my own ignorance on the matter, I took a drive out to the protest to talk to the drivers outside the Auckland airport management building. I was struck immediately by the tight organisation of the picket line – this was creme de la creme of picket lines. The 70 or so mainly Indian new migrants had professionally printed signage , relentless chanting that fell in repeated rounds with precision, support was strong and morale was high even if people were hungry. The response to my initial ponderings was summarised on one taxi drivers placard “Better to starve fighting, then starve working.”

They were certainly on starvation wages if they had work at all. Days earlier 50 taxi drivers with President Taxis had effectively been fired. President Taxi’s had had its contract severed with the Airport. Even before the contract was severed most of these guys were earning around $4 an hour – well below the minimum wage.

The interesting thing was – it was President Taxi employees who happened to be the core activists of the newly formed Auckland Taxi Association. Earlier this month around 200 airport taxi drivers identified a number of abuses against taxi drivers at the Airport. Being contractors and not direct employees, they couldn’t join a union so instead formed the Auckland Taxi Association to fight for better conditions and rights.

Manmohan Singh, one of the drivers affected and the spokesperson for Auckland Taxi Association (ATA), said he believed that President Taxis losing its contract to Auckland Airport was an attempt by the Airport Company to isolate the leadership of the Association and break its campaign for the rights of taxi drivers at Auckland airport.

200 taxi drivers who were members of the Association met together to discuss a response. Mainstream news told us these taxi drivers were prepared to go on hunger strike, or even set themselves on fire in protest. While the rest of us gasped into our lattes, for the drivers the choice was between starvation wages or solidarity and fight back. There was nothing to lose and a decision was made democratically among the drivers to do whatever it took to get their incomes back.

Despite the high levels of self-organisation I witnessed on the picket line , leaders of the ATA sought support from FIRST Union and union organiser Bill Bradford was assigned to the dispute, helping out with negotiations and hauling the rest of us organisers out to support the drivers where needed.

Auckland airport management had previously refused to seriously engage with the taxi drivers Association.

After marching, picketing and chanting for 6 days and holding their hunger strike for 4 of those days finally Auckland Airport management wanted to meet. And wanted to meet seriously. After 8 hours of negotiation all of the taxi drivers concerns had been addressed.

The taxi drivers dispute was a success story and an example to us all.

Nevertheless, I have to acknowledge my original initial response. “We don’t do that here.”

Businesses continue to exploit new migrant workers in this country , this has led us to associate new migrants with vulnerability. However as our migrant communities grow in confidence, and begin to reject the exploitation many of them suffer from, we have seen and will continue to see them use their collective strength to create difference in their lives.

The same goes for workers in non-traditional and insecure work such as contractors or casual workers.

This will necessarily entail forms of organising and tactics that are unfamiliar. As a movement, we need to support, celebrate and learn from these as we come across them or risk isolating ourselves from the increasing numbers of migrant and precarious workers and their communities.

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16 Comments

  1. Jenny says:

    Congratulations to Manmohan Singh and ATA.

    A well deserved win.

    And a special thanks to Tali Williams, Bill Bradford and First Union for showing solidarity with these workers.

    Together you have given all working people a happy Christmas present. May the families of the taxi drivers enjoy the season with a bit more in their pockets.

  2. greywarbler says:

    This oppression of taxi drivers is similar to that at Wellington Airport. There are numerous restrictions on taxi drivers, ones that are not granted a contract have poor opportunities to get clients, niggling demands can apply. One example is if someone backs into you and puts a dent in your side panel and breaks a tail light, then your taxi is not in pristine condition and you can’t go near to the pick-up area.

    The airports are monopoly businesses in this case, their operations create travel movement which is needed by taxis. Their customers need taxis and bus transport. Airports are adopting the position of feudal lords with the taxi drivers as serfs. The urban dictionary posits that another apt description, peons, could mean people that some ‘superior types’ think they can pee on. Taxi drivers I think, are feeling that they are peons in the eyes of airport management.

  3. AndyS says:

    I have met some fascinating people working as taxi drivers in NZ. Mathematicians, physicists, doctors. All working for a pittance and all workings as taxi drivers because their qualifications are not recognised in NZ

    • Che'sCrushedSkull says:

      “…..All working for a pittance and all workings as taxi drivers because their qualifications are not recognised in NZ…..”

      I’d think their qualifications would be recognised – taxi drivers make good bus drivers. And bus drivers don’t work for a ‘pittance’.

      And buses are greener too – but being ‘browner’ maybe makes better press!

      • Mel says:

        what makes you think their qualifications have been recognised?Do you really think your liberal white friends would accept a dark foreigner with brain surgeon degrees? No, that doesn’t happen. Talk to more taxi drivers and then you’ll understand that many are overlooked because they are considered less qualified. Very sickening indeed.

  4. Matthew says:

    Nobody is forcing these taxi drivers to work out of Auckland Airport. If they don’t like the conditions the airport sets then don’t work their. If there aren’t enough taxi’s as a result of that then the Airport will change it’s stance.

    I also note at the lack of solutions proposed in the article and in the comments. If indeed these drivers are working on $4 an hour (which I highly doubt) then no amount of discounting by the airport is going to fix that.

    Perhaps while they are hunger striking the taxi drivers could study some maps of Auckland so they know where they are going post-strike

  5. Darien Fenton says:

    Tali – rest home workers went on a hunger strike in 1993 at Presbytarian Support. It’s good the taxi drivers have found resolution, but there are major structural issues in this industry which will keep them poor until another government does something about it. Btw, president taxis severed the contract with AIA, not the other way round and didn’t tell the drivers they were seeking to do so until AIA made them. There’s no doubt there’s an issue about Airport companies gouging not only drivers, but other small businesses, but some of the practices of taxi companies need a light shone on them as well.

    • Matthew says:

      What structural changes is the Labour Party proposing?

      We’ve heard plenty from Cunliffe about the problem but nothing as far as I’m aware about what Labour Party policy is in this area.

  6. Andrea says:

    So when are union officials going out cold calling and letting their services be known? After all, it’s not too likely that the companies will be calling first.

    Seems like the days of Joe Hill and Gene Debs aren’t over yet.

  7. Mike says:

    I’m a bit puzzled by the section that says the drivers can’t join a union because they are contractors, not employees. What law says that contractors can’t join a union? I thought anyone could join a union if they wanted (and if the union wanted to have them). Has National changed this?

    • Marama says:

      Contractors aren’t covered by the employment relations act because they are not employees. They have to follow the provisions in the commerce act and can’t form a collective as this would lessen the competition between them.

  8. Maria says:

    I was upset to read Mathew’s comments as the daughter of immigrants/refugees, I witnessed the struggles and hardship that my parents had to face to survive in New Zealand. New Zealand has always been seen as a sympathetic nation , stretching it’s hand out to help other’s in need. I hope Mathew’s thoughts and lack of feeling reflect a minority opinion.
    Thank you for your article and good luck to the taxi drivers and their families.
    Maria

    • Marc says:

      Maria

      Re “stretching hands out”, that my have been so in the past, perhaps still is so in some parts in NZ, but come to Auckland, and we see a lot of things that are not like that!

      Auckland is largely like any other place in the world, it is fight and survive, work with certain people that advance you, or fail and sink down the sinkhole!

      Also that “reaching out” has always been applied selectively, towards the supposedly “deserving” that qualified what people’s circumstances were. I heard a fair bit of such judgmental crap on Sean Plunket’s Radio Live Show this morning, same as at other times. He told a seriously sick and incapacitated woman, who shared her distress and frustrations, that it may make her feel better to “contribute”, make a “donation” or “do voluntary work”, rather than be “bitter” on her health related benefit.

      So we are back to “work your way out of it’, “work will set you free” and that kind of mentality, and it sickens me, that such high ranking persons go about lecturing the poor and sick, how they should think and live.

      Bring back the poor houses and work houses will be next, I am sure. F. you all, who support such NAZI stuff!

  9. Marc says:

    This is how “welcoming” NZ is nowadays of new migrants, I dare to say. I am a migrant myself, perhaps a bit more fortunate, possibly given my own background, but I would share the taxi drivers’ views, that it is not easy to “succeed” in this country, if you are not into boot licking, and do not tick all the boxes of the establishment.

    So we have a points system granting rights to be “invited’ to apply and then get residency, or at least a work permit of sorts. I have met ECONOMISTS selling bus tickets or tickets on Veolia trains in Auckland, I met doctors, scientists, engineers and what else driving taxis. They mostly agreed, that in their profession they had little chance to work here. They all were unhappy, but struggled and did all to survive and see themselves and families through to survive, perhaps for a better life here.

    What the damned hell is going on in YOUR KIWI’s brains – that is those running the departments, immigration, MOBIE and other departments, same as national government?

    Are we all just fucking “numbers” to be screwed as it pleases you? Do you not care about individual and family fates? I know you up there DO NOT CARE, as I have experienced it so often, it makes me regret ever having come back to this place, after having lived back in Europe again for a few years.

    Treating migrants and poorly paid workers, like these taxi drivers, like crap, that is not going to serve the “image” of NZ at all. Well, some tourists and business travellers may not worry, as they just want to keep their costs down, but hey, the image of a “fair and decent” society, that is NOT what NZ of today deserves!

    I support the taxi drivers and their actions, as they are victims of a screwed up, exploitative immigration policy, and also a society, where the better offs do no longer care. So much for an “egalitarian society”, ahem, where did that ever come from???

  10. Mel says:

    shall we all get real here, basically it’s because of racism. NZ doesn’t not care because most of these taxi drivers are of non white appearance and ethnicity. Whites in our society hold the balance of power because that’s how they’ve set the game up. These taxi drivers didn’t know their years spending at a student studying to be a doctor, lawyer or brain surgeon wasn’t going to get them a job here in racist NZ. If they’d known I doubt they’d had come here to begin with. White people who hold the balance of power don’t care and want to keep the status quo, which keeps them in a privileged position. Hear, no evil, see no evil, pretend no evil exists.

  11. Richard Manning says:

    Great article Tali. I especially liked your conclusion re. the need for a more inclusive approach to working with new migrant workers and for being more ‘open’, as a movement, to adopting new tactics that are familiar to the people concerned (PS: Yes, I’m your former Social Studies teacher: It’s great to see you doing this work after all these years. Keep it up!).