Every day over the festive period here on UniteLive, we will highlight a different ‘hero of the year’. Today, we pay tribute to taxi drivers, who were among the first to help their communities when their work dried up when the pandemic first hit.
In the feature below from March, we hear from Unite rep and black cab driver Jim Kelly, who told UniteLive of the difficulties they’ve faced during the pandemic and their strong desire to help others.
‘HELP US SO WE CAN HELP OTHERS’
Taxi drivers, a majority of whom have lost all their work, are itching to help in the national effort to tackle the coronavirus epidemic.
But to help others they desperately need government support to make up for their lost earnings which have evaporated virtually overnight.
Self-employed workers across the UK had been forced to wait for agonising days without income for concrete assurances from chancellor Rishi Sunak – only to be told on Thursday (March 26) night that they’ll have to wait until the beginning of June to get any assitance to cover their lost incomes.
“We were left sorely disappointed by the chancellor’s announcement,” Unite rep and black cab driver Jim Kelly told UniteLive. “Drivers need financial help immediately – they need it now not in two months’ time to get them through this. They will struggle if they have to wait till June for any payments.”
Jim highlighted that taxi drivers are now effectively unemployed, both because of the reality of the UK-wide lockdown and because of conflicting information from government over whether or not they can still work.
“Some say that we can continue to work but others say only key workers should be going to work – so there’s a contradiction there,” he said. “But in effect there’s no work out there for taxi drivers for obvious reasons.”
‘No way to cover costs’
With no work and no income, taxi drivers are faced with a significant bill for ongoing overheads that they now simply cannot cover, Jim explained.
“They have their taxis to pay for. Some of them still have to go through the process of paying for their licenses – what we call the plates – for their taxis. We have a mixed response from insurance companies about whether they would suspend insurance payments. Some have said yes but others have been a bit more reticent.
“All of these are ongoing commitments. Without any income, there’s no way to cover those costs. For many cab drivers who rent their vehicles, they’ve been forced to give their taxis back to the rental companies. So now they have no means of working even if they wanted to.”
The government told self-employed workers that they can claim Universal Credit (UC) as they wait for earnings support not due till June, but this is little consolation for millions, given UC payments amount to only about £400 a month.
What’s more, Jim said he believes that a substantial number of taxi drivers will not even qualify for Universal Credit.
“Universal Credit eligibility is quite draconian,” he said. “I strongly believe the government devised it to ensure that the majority of people won’t be able to claim it. If you have a certain amount or more in savings, you don’t qualify; if you partner is working again you don’t qualify. I believe both these facts alone would disqualify a vast number of taxi drivers.”
‘Perfectly suited to help’
Earlier this week, prime minister Boris Johnson responded positively to a question from an MP who said there was an “army of black cab drivers in and around London itching to get involved like the Spitfires in 1940”.
“Prime Minister, can we find a way if we need to get doctors and nurses safely across London to use these black cab drivers, not on the meter but perhaps on a contracted basis?” asked MP for Broxbourne Charles Walker.
The prime minister said that such an idea “has already been raised in our considerations. The black cab drivers are a fantastic service, they are an unsung service and I believe they can certainly rise to this challenge.”
Jim noted taxi drivers have already long expressed keen interest in wanting support the health service and others at this time of national crisis.
“Of the cab drivers who still have their cabs, we’re perfectly suited to help,” he said. “We’re all DBS checked. We have clean, purpose-built, wheelchair accessible vehicles. There is a partition between the passenger and the driver which is a key safety measure amid the epidemic that can reassure our passengers.
“We could help out with food deliveries to people. We could help out at hospitals by getting patients to non-emergency appointments to ease the pressure on the health service. There are a number of areas where our expertise can be used to help in the national effort.”
But, he added, helping others as they are so now so eager to do will only be viable if they get the support they now so desperately need.
‘Taxi drivers need support now’
“Taxi drivers need to be reassured that their families will be looked after – and we were hoping support from the chancellor in this respect. We were hoping for something that would mean payments were released immediately. This hasn’t happened. It’s made an already difficult situation even worse.”
It doesn’t have to be this way, he noted.
“There are more resources going into HMRC and other sections of government to deal with this crisis. Much of the systems in place are automated, our information is online; our bank details are in their systems – it’s all there. They can easily release that money right now on a regular basis leading up to June. All it takes is political will.”
Unite national officer for passenger transport Bobby Morton agreed, noting that Unite will continue to relentlessly press the department of transport on a number of issues on behalf of its taxi members.
“Beyond immediate cash assistance, we’re also calling for the suspension of all taxi-related running costs, the provision of PPE halting means-testing for Universal Credit, and loan repayment holidays among other measures,” Morton said.
“While we welcome that the chancellor has agreed to extend the wage support package for employees to the self-employed, forcing them to wait until June is unconscionable,” he added. “Taxi drivers need support now.”
Jim saluted all those across the UK who are pitching in to help at a time of crisis.
“It’s a terrible time and this is a terrible virus, he said. “But it’s remarkable that ordinary people have risen to the task and reached out to their neighbours and communities. Millions joined in last night to clap and show massive support for the NHS, while 400,000 people have signed up to volunteer.
“I think in many respects people are coming together and showing unprecedented solidarity around this crisis – it’s fantastic and we as taxi drivers want to be part of this in coordinated way. My message to government is this – help us so we can help others.”