Melbourne, February 14: More than 200 taxis blocked the Bolte Bridge, moving along at a walking pace on Monday morning, as part a planned protest by Victorian Taxi and Hire Car Families (VTHCF), to fight against any watered-down compensation for taxi license, bought from the Victorian government.
Demanding full compensation, more taxi license owners joined in; en-route to the state Parliament, flooding the streets nearby as traffic chaos ensued.
Talking to Bharat Times, taxi driver Harry Singh vowed to fight “tooth and nail” against the current lukewarm proposal to refund just 20 per cent of the initial investment.
“I used my Dad’s savings to buy a future for my young family and to take care of parents in their old age.
“I wake up shaking with fright at night thinking of the black hole we are going into… all because of Daniel Andrews and Allan Fels… I had bought the license with government assurance and now I am demanding that the government honour its own assurance.”
A majority of the taxi license owners belong to the recent migrant community and have young families to support. They are accusing the Victorian government of wiping out their financial futures with an ‘unfair’ licence buyback scheme.
VTCHF spokeswoman Sandy Spanos said that the protests should hopefully highlight the plight of 3500 Victorian taxi-families who would suffer immensely under the current deal on the table.
‘We need you to come to the party and pay us out. We are mums and dads, grandmas and grandpas and we don’t want to be on welfare,’ she said.
She also indicated that VTCHF would occasion more such disruptions until the government provided for a total compensation deal.
The Andrews government is proposing to deregulate the taxi industry by abolishing taxi licences and introduce a single format of registration – including taxis, hire cars and ride-share services like Uber.
This would legalise the much criticised Uber service and pave the way for a $2 levy on all trips.
According to the government, taxi licence holders would be compensated with $100,000 for their first licence and $50,000 for up to three others.
The series of taxi reforms, unveiled in August last year, also included the removal of all existing taxi licences with a buy-back scheme.
However, the proposal is unacceptable to all license holders. In some cases, license owners have paid up to $500,000 for a single license and understandably license holders dread the prospect of such a meager buy-back scheme.
“It will send me broke… my future will be depleted and the bank will come after me… I may even have to go bankrupt,” Dalbir Singh Arora of Noble Park said exasperatedly.
According to VTCHF, more than 3000 Victorian families may go bankrupt under the government’s plan.
“We took out bank loans to buy these licenses,” Ms Spanos said.
“We are mum and dad investors… how would you like if someone were to seize your home and give you 20 per cent of its value?”
Ms Spanos had invested in 3 taxi licences for a comfortable retirement.
Opposition Leader Matthew Guy has called for the government to sit down with taxi drivers to ‘negotiate a fair deal’.
However, the Victorian government has said that the proposed ‘forced buy-back scheme’ is progressive, fair and will bring stability to the industry, in which, the government seems to have garnered some support.
“People who purchased taxi licenses made a commercial decision… you live with it like all of us. I can’t give up work to block the Bolte Bridge… who do I fight to get my losses back?” asked Seema, irritated. She declined to give her last name.
Some others lamented that “monopoly” of the taxi industry which had continued for a long time, had led to attrition of any qualitative service within the industry.
Many believed that influx of new taxi drivers with little or no training on work ethics – like talking on their phones in an ethnic language while driving a passenger, not opening doors for passengers, no knowledge of routes and other factors had led to a gap in service, allowing another player to enter the market.
“In fact, this competition should enhance the car-hire options for consumers like us… isn’t that a good thing?” asks Ian McDonald.
“Every one makes commercial decisions, sometimes they work sometimes they don’t,” told IT worker Shivaji Tamra.
A facebook user noted that buying a taxi license was like making an investment into a monopoly industry, which now had competition – akin to “buying shares in the only retail liquor outlet and then Dan Murphy setting up shop, thus altering the landscape”.
Some others noted that with over 4000 taxis in Victoria, only 200 actually turned up to the Bolte Bridge blockade, hinting to a minority support base from within the industry.
The Victorian Hire Car Association did not participate in the blockade.
Yet, there were others who supported the fight for proper compensation to taxi license owners.
“You can’t regulate and then not appropriately compensate those that are impacted. Andrews, if you can blow a BILLION dollars paying out contractors for the EAST WEST LINK with nothing built you can appropriately compensate taxi license holders,” wrote one facebook user.
“They should be compensated given the government profited from the licensing. It has nothing to do with a bad investment decision,” wrote another.
“Why is the government legalising a multinational predator, which will destroy small local businesses?”
But according to the government, new regulations mean that it will be cheaper to operate a taxi or hire car. The current annual licence fee of $23,000 will be axed under the new scheme.
The Andrews government, meanwhile, has allowed for $378 million to assist licence holders with an additional $75 million “Fairness Fund” to provide targeted support to those experiencing immediate financial hardship as a result of the changes.
Minister for Public Transport Jacinta Allan said more than $420 million would go towards supporting the industry, being the largest transition and support package in Australia.
License owners are calling for Ms Allen to either provide for a full compensation deal or resign over her incompetency in the matter.