Dubai, Taxi Drivers, and a City Under Strain

This article first appeared in 2007, on a website I was running in Dubai, Kipp Report. With limited public transport options, Dubai relies heavily on its taxi fleet – and this had created a degree of strain. There was little opportunity to discuss this, or mention ‘problems’, in the local media. The article contains several references to the UAE dirham; the exchange is roughly the same as 2007, Dh5.6 = £1.

“I have three fines right now,” says S, a taxi driver in Dubai as he shows me the slips. “I was waiting for my partner in the car, early in the morning, and the officer gave me a fine for not driving. I tried to explain the situation to him, but he wouldn’t listen.”

S, who has driven in the city for seven years and is terrified of having his real name published, has plenty he wants to get off his chest. He says he has not had leave in the last two years, and when he wanted to resign, he was prevented from doing so. His employer promised to sort a period of leave. To date, nothing has happened.

“My house is in the border area of Pakistan and Afghanistan, a very violent region. Recently it was destroyed by a bomb. I really need to go home and see my family.”

S is not alone in his complaints. Almost all the drivers I spoke to over the past month feel they are not being treated well, and that the dramatic growth of the city’s taxi service is crushing their ability to earn a living. Already working seven days a week on 12-hour split shifts, the city’s 6,000 taxi drivers take home an average of Dh3,000 (£530) a month. For many, unexplained fines and the cost of repaying recruitment agencies is eating into their take home pay, as congestion makes parts of the city no-go areas.

The drivers are being trapped between the RTA’s need to upgrade the professionalism of the taxi service while scrabbling get more taxis on the road as the city expands. An estimated 850 new people arrive in Dubai every day and the number of vehicles on the road increased by 15 per cent last year. The police say more than a million vehicles use Dubai roads between 6.30am to 8.30am every day.

The taxi drivers’ chief complaint is the commission-based pay scale. Drivers receive 25 percent of their earnings if they make less than Dh9,000 per month, 30 percent if they make between Dh9,000 and Dh12,000, and 35 percent if they make Dh12,000 or more. K, a driver from India, who has been here for almost five years, feels they are being cheated:  “We should be given regular salaries per month, not commission.”

According to another, R, commission makes short journeys less appealing, and though drivers can’t refuse a fare, the temptation can be too great.

“During peak traffic, we’re hardly able to move on the roads, and if we go small distances, then we can’t make adequate money.”

Spotting this, the RTA encourages customers to phone in and complain if a taxi fails to stop. With the new in-car monitoring system the RTA can keep track of all journeys and tell if a driver is speeding. The theory is that customer feedback will keep taxi drivers on their toes. The reality is rather different.

“If we are hungry, sick or want to visit the washroom, how will we stop?” asks S. “Neither the customers nor the officials understand that. They just slap a fine on us and don’t give us any chance to explain.”

That is not strictly true. The RTA asks drivers to come in and explain what happened, but this has to be done in the drivers’ time – again, eating into his earnings – and there is no bonus for being proved innocent.

“Once I dropped someone at the mall, and after that had to visit the washroom. The security guard kept pushing me to take a customer, and when I refused, he threatened to give a complaint. I was so angry, I just asked him to go ahead. He then let it go,” recounts K.

Crash, bang, walloped with another fine

Accidents are another problem. Some say that they are charged fines whether it’s their fault or not.

“Currently, if it’s our fault, we are charged between Dh1,000 to Dh2,000,” says K, “but we just got a notice saying from now on fines will be between Dh5,000-Dh6,000.”

This is a double whammy. If the car is damaged and out of action, neither driver can make money. There are only a few spare cars, and, with new drivers being hurried through training, often with as little as 15 days training, prangs are commonplace.

Older drivers despair of some of the new recruits. The city has approximately one taxi for every 500 people (London, with more public transport options, has nearer one per 400). There are countless complaints from commuters that there aren’t enough taxis at peak times.

H, who has been a driver here for more than 20 years, says rushing newbies through is not working. He says 90 per cent of the new drivers are terrible (“they barely know which direction Sharjah is”), and that this is harming the reputation of the whole service.

“If you follow the rules and regulations, you will not have any problems. I have never been fined, the law is law.” What he doesn’t like is the RTA’s lack of communication with drivers. It is almost impossible to speak to an operator at the RTA call centre, he says, which is frustrating if he has to explain a problem with a fare. He says good drivers are not being shown enough respect.

He has a point, certainly if the RTA treats its drivers as poorly as it deals with requests from the media. Despite repeated phone calls and emailed questions, the RTA has refused to comment.

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