Existing to work

An accountant friend told me this year she couldn’t understand why for the best part of a decade I had been working so hard, for such long hours, all night until the early hours of the morning, but never making any money.

I should have paid more attention to this conversation, as in effect it was free advice. “Well,” I said, “despite being self employed and bearing the consequent financial responsibility for the vehicle, I don’t control the supply of the work.”

That is controlled by a taxi company, to whom a percentage is paid, for each job undertaken. Most provincial small town taxi companies will operate on a similar business model, although there are a plethora of different charging schemes, for those drivers who are in the position of having to rent, or even buy a car from them.

Some make a charge of up to 50 pence per mile for the hire of the taxi, some charge a flat rate of between £100 and £140 per week, which has to be paid regardless of whether they actually give you enough work to cover it. Yet more schemes exist, where the income and the expenditure is split on a 60% / 40% basis, or even a 50% / 50% split.

Almost all these arrangements require the driver to pay for the cost of fuel, which is the single biggest expense. And some agreements require the driver to additionally pay for the costs of servicing and maintaining somebody else’s vehicle.

It is a win win situation for the taxi companies and leaves drivers in a position where they earn just enough money to keep afloat - but never any more - and end up stuck in the job until retirement forces them off the road. It is a sort of modern form of indentured labour.

The goal of the taxi company is is to get as many drivers as possible on the road, waiting around for as long as possible, for those occasions when it is busy and they need vehicles to cover large bookings or school runs. The taxi driver ends up doing one job an hour, driving people to and from medical centres and supermarkets.

When you first become a taxi driver, one of the first questions you need the answer to is how much you can earn. The response is deliberately evasive. When you first start, you are given quite a bit of work, to keep you busy, perhaps even the odd airport run now and again. Then that falls away and slowly, the inexorable hours of waiting in between morning and afternoon school runs begin.

It sounds an attractive idea, to get paid for driving people around, when you already have a driving licence. But working for a taxi company is not a job for those who like the security of a regular monthly pay packet, nor even for those who want to make any kind of progress with their lives beyond simply existing to work.

When the wheels are not turning

“If the wheels are not turning, you're not earning,” so said a London taxi driver friend in 2015, one of many sayings which encapsulated the work ethos. In a busy metropolitan environment that is even more the case than it is here in the provinces, where more than half the time spent on shift is spent waiting around for work.

But with a vehicle off the road, it is almost impossible to earn any money as a taxi driver. And on two separate occasions in the last ten days for me, a relatively minor technical issue caused a chain of investigations and work over several months.

Back in February, a slow puncture resulted in a call to the breakdown service and the spare wheel being exchanged for the defective one, in order to complete the journey. Modern vehicles have transmitters fitted behind the air valves in the tyres, the sole purpose of which is to communicate with the dashboard, to illuminate two lights when the air pressure is low and to inform you which tyre is affected. It is supposed to enhance safety, though in reality, for someone who checks tyre pressure daily and visually inspects them, it should be unnecessary.

Since the 2018 MoT rule changes, a vehicle is no longer compliant if a warning light is illuminated on the dashboard and so it was for me, when three months after my spare wheel was exchanged, five new tyres fitted and the spare returned to the boot, the light appeared again.

Subsequent checks showed there to be nothing wrong with the tyres themselves, but that one of the transmitters had been damaged, probably in the earlier transition between puncture and new tyre being fitted.

Trying to find a local mechanic with the necessary equipment and cheerful willingness to change the transmitter and reset the codes, took three days. There were journeys to Abingdon, to Wheatley and to Cowley, to obtain four second opinions, before finally ending up in Oxford, where a diagnostic test alone cost £47, but “it’ll be another five days before we can fix it, mate, while we wait for the part to be delivered.”

Anybody in the taxi business will tell you that going to a manufacturer’s dealership is the most expensive way of getting work done on your vehicle. On this occasion there was no choice and the chain of diagnostic investigations, parts and labour ended up costing £737, inclusive of lost income.

WEstgate shopping centre, oxford

WEstgate shopping centre, oxford

However, the benefits of leaving my taxi at the dealership for two mornings were quite something, as I walked into Oxford city centre and took a stroll around the Westgate, which replaces many of the streets and buildings I knew in my childhood and where one of the rooftop garden restaurants has some interesting black and white photographs of the brave new world of the 1972 Westgate on its walls.

And a slogan on its menu which reads “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”

As published in the Herald Series on Wednesday, 15 May 2019

  1. Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency, MOT rule changes: 20 May 2018, last updated 20 May 2018, retrieved 14 May 2019