Taxi drivers and passengers feel that they have little protection from contracting Covid 19. Rob Rees interviewed a number of people who explained their frustration and fears but it is clear that there is little understanding between drivers and passengers and no sympathy from the employers.
Taxi drivers have been in the spotlight for how they are behaving during the Covid 19 pandemic. Many passengers are critical of them but interviews with taxi workers and passengers between May to August 2020 show that the issue is more complicated.
Experience of working in taxis
Phineas is a taxi driver in Durban. He feels anger at how government gave in to the South African National Taxi Council’s (SANTACO) demand to load taxis at 100% capacity. At the beginning of the 2020 Covid 19 lockdown taxis could only carry a maximum 70% load to enable social distancing. But the taxi owners complained they could not earn a living or make a profit with reduced loads. Taxi drivers experience 100% loading as a threat to their health and safety and they fear getting Covid 19. “This is not our will. It is the taxi owner’s will.” comments Phineas.
The difference between drivers and owners is often hidden. When COSATU (Congress of South African Trade Unions) called for a taxi boycott in protest against 100% loading, drivers were not consulted. COSATU didn’t seem to recognise that workers have different interests from owners.
Masks are meant to reduce the risk of contracting Covid but Phineas says it’s difficult for taxi drivers to force passengers to wear masks. “They come with their mask on their chin. If you ask they will put it on. When you look at the back seat, they take off the mask.” He sees that the passengers are also tense. They don’t want to be too close to each other.
He notes that preventative measures announced by the Minister of Transport are not implemented. The basic need to sanitise the taxi and screen people before loading by taxi rank marshals is not happening. He complains that because this costs money the municipality takes little responsibility. The municipality gives SANTACO some money to make taxis safe but SANTACO puts this in its pocket.
The National Economic and Labour Council (NEDLAC) encourages worker representatives to work with municipalities, but municipalities are not willing to work with taxi drivers and tell them to work with SANTACO. When drivers raise issues with eThekwini municipal officials “no one cares.”
The taxi owners set a daily monetary target for drivers to achieve. During lockdown Phineas believes this has increased the pressure on drivers making them rush to generate more income. This is because there are lower passenger volumes as some workplaces are closed, some work with reduced or rotating staff, and some permit people to work from home. This makes drivers reckless on the road. “If you turn humans into machines, what do you expect?” he asks.
Long distance taxis were not allowed work at all during the lockdown. Many foreign workers are long distance drivers and employers didn’t pay them.
Thando also works in the taxi industry. She complains that taxi owners have not assisted workers to access income. They are not honest about the registration of workers. “They tell you that you are registered so why can’t they apply for relief funds [TERS]? They tell you they are still busy with the minister and the government.”
She further explains that applying for the Covid-19 relief grant of R350 takes a long time and in the meantime families suffer. She cannot apply for the R350 herself because she already has a child support grant. This does not even pay the rent. If she calls her employers for assistance, “they just drop the phone”. The only way she can get support as a woman is if she sleeps with them. Then they will do “whatever we want”. The bosses talk to drivers as if they have no rights, “just tools to make money”.
Drivers are worried and scared. Uncertainty about the virus and their income expresses itself in arguments and tensions with passengers. Passengers experience this as a hostile and uncaring attitude.
Frontline workers, particularly health workers, are publically thanked and appreciated for the work in fighting the pandemic. But the mental health of taxi drivers is also affected by their high risk of exposure to the virus and of transmitting it to their families and no one appreciates them.
Thando is afraid and tired of her situation. She expresses helplessness with how government and the Minister are sorting out the problems in the taxi industry. Phineas feels anger at the bosses and government who don’t recognise or consult workers. Yet he seems to have little confidence in workers being the solution. He nevertheless continues to engage the municipality and other organisations around protection at the ranks.
Taxi owners, Phineas claims, don’t recognise that taxi workers have rights. They do have rights in law but this does not translate into reality. Workers’ rights will only be recognised when they assert their power in struggle against the employers. But workers don’t have the confidence at present to build organisation which means they cannot realise their rights.
Experience of Passengers
Nick and Noma are health workers in public hospitals. Nono is a domestic worker in Midrand while Thabo and Beauty work in different branches of a large retail store. They all work in Gauteng and use taxis to get to and from work. They generally experience taxis as not caring.
Nono describes how in a taxi she sits four on a seat made for three, while some are standing. “We are squeezed in without any social distance. We are breathing onto each other. All they want is money.”
Noma is a community health worker in a Soweto hospital. The hospital screens her every day so she knows her Covid status. But she comments there is no screening on the taxi and she worries that she will bring Covid to her children who she is supposed to care for.
Nick is a nurse in a hospital in Ekhuruleni. He scorns the minister calling for passengers to open taxi windows. “That’s pure nonsense. It doesn’t work. Others will be saying, ‘But we are cold and we are sick. Please close that window.’ And you will end up closing that window.”
If passengers recognise him as a health worker, they express fear of him spreading Covid. However he uses his knowledge to engage passengers, “I still wore the green head gear we use in hospital. I had to allay their anxiety and educate them a little bit more”.
Passengers accuse operators and drivers of “not caring” and wearing their masks around their chin, pulling them up only when they see traffic officers. Thabo a worker at an East Rand retailer finds drivers aggressive and disrespectful. Nick comments that drivers often don’t wear masks. When he complains they tell him, “If you don’t want to take this taxi you will walk from now on. Ngekesizwe ngawe (we won’t listen to you). You can’t tell us what to do.” Noma however finds some drivers pleasant and others not.
Nick speaks of the lack of protection for health workers. They had to fight to get PPE (personal protective equipment) in what is a national disaster. He finds this exhausting. “We’ve been fighting for fumigation of our workplace areas. We’ve been fighting for deep cleaning of our own areas. We’ve been fighting for guidelines that are changing every now and again.”
Beauty works at a Pick ‘n Pay in Johannesburg. The company used to provide some workers with transport. They cut back on this before the pandemic and gave workers an allowance. The company used to provide transport home for the early morning shift (before 7), and to work. They now give workers a measly R40 and the company only provides transport home for workers on the late shift, after 7 in the evening.
When lockdown started Nono, a domestic worker, decided to stay home to protect herself from the danger of Covid-19. But her employer didn’t pay her and she was nearly evicted from the room she rents in town.
When lockdown eased her employer told her to return to work and not use public transport because of the danger of contracting corona. She had to go for a test and pay high private transport costs to do so. Her employer did not contribute. She had to stay in isolation in her back room at work, fed by her employer “like a dog”, until she got a negative result. She feels bitter and resentful.
Taxi passengers and drivers experience fear. They fear contracting the virus in overloaded taxis with passengers and drivers not wearing masks. They worry about taking the infection home. Passengers are fearful of reckless driving and accidents. They are nervous of the aggression and disrespect they get from taxi drivers.
Several workers worry about lost pay or even dismissal if they arrive late at work because of poor public transport. They feel angry at the employers’ lack of sympathy. They are mainly resigned and tired by their everyday struggles to survive and some feel helpless to change things.
Health workers have had to fight for all protection in the middle of the pandemic. This makes them tired and they start accepting unhealthy situations imposed on them.
Workers often experience disrespect and lack of recognition from employers in both the private and public sectors. This is despite the socially useful and necessary work they do as domestic, retail, health care workers and taxi drivers.
Both trade unions and advice offices have put forward the demand for company transport for protection against the virus. This has largely not happened so workers are at the mercy of an unsafe public transport system with little possibility of change.
The article is based on a longer work, “Workers’ Experience of Covid-19: A Focus on Transport and Resistance.” NALEDI 2020.
About the author
Rob Rees is a senior researcher at the National Labour and Economic Research Institute (NALEDI).