Taxi dispute still rankles drivers

JOSH MARTIN
Last updated 05:00 15/12/2013
Manmohan Singh
LAWRENCE SMITH/Fairfax NZ

SMALL GAINS: Auckland Taxi Association representative Manmohan Singh and taxi drivers protested at Auckland Airport over hefty fees and competing ranks.

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A group of 180 taxi drivers who have returned to work after a four-day hunger strike last week at Auckland International Airport claim they are earning as little as $4 an hour while the airport rakes in an estimated $300 an hour from its coveted taxi licence fees.

The drivers, working for smaller taxi firms, settled their bitter dispute on Thursday night with the airport over competing taxi ranks outside the international terminal arrivals hall.

The 180 contractor cabbies have been the face of the battle, while their companies Goldline Taxis, VIP Cabs, Silver Cabs and Auckland Black Cabs had met the airport just once since the hunger strike began and at least one company is understood to be gagged by contractual agreements.

Auckland Taxi Association (ATA) representative Manmohan Singh said the taxi company owners were absent because they were involved in handing over more than $3 million a year from drivers to the airport.

"They're the money handlers

that suck the money from drivers, taking a cut and then passing it on to their airport masters," he said.

Only one of the taxi companies that employed the striking drivers returned calls by the Sunday Star Times.

President Taxis owner Dejan Majneric terminated his contract to have taxis at the airport last Monday.

The dispute was centred on a four new taxi parks, seen first by passengers when they exit the main international arrivals hall. The premium parks were awarded to Auckland Co-Op Taxis, Corporate Cabs and Goldline Taxis through a tender process in March this year. The ATA late on Thursday night backed down from its core demand, that the premium rank go back to its previous, less prominent location. The drivers have resumed work after the airport agreed to provide more promotional signage for their secondary free-flow rank.

Singh hoped business would improve, but the "very tough, very harsh" contract conditions and licence-fee regime still in placewere out of their hands.

Singh claimed the smaller taxi companies were too scared to talk over their drivers' concerns with airport management out of fear of losing access both to the airport and a bond, in one case worth $120,000.

A contract shown to the Sunday Star Times stipulates the taxi company risks losing its bond if it speaks to the media or challenges or breaks its terms. The bond is equivalent to a quarter of the taxi firm's annual licensing fees.

"The taxi companies cannot take on a new manager, employee or anything. They can barely breathe without asking the airport company first," Singh claimed.

The contract, between the airport and a smaller taxi company, showed the airport takes about $183 of the $190 weekly fee each driver pays to the taxi company to operate at the country's main gateway.

In addition each taxi pays $2 each time they enter the free-flow taxi rank. Based on the average of 2.5 trips a day, this pushes the amount a driver paid to the airport to nearly $210 a week.

The contract between the Auckland Airport and one taxi company issued with 50 licences, shows the airport earns nearly $490,000 a year from the company over the three-year term of the contract.

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Singh said the airport earns about $3 million a year from the free-flow rank, based on the approximate weekly fees multiplied by the number of licences issued. That does not include the $2 rank entrance fee.

The airport said the exact numbers were commercially sensitive and it does not disclose them in its annual report, but said the $3m figure comes from both free-flow and dedicated ranks.

"There's no doubt it is very lucrative, but I wouldn't say it is exploitative," Auckland International Airport's general manager of retail and commercial Richard Barker said.

But Singh claimed the airport was using its monopoly position to exploit smaller-company drivers.

He also claimed that another company, which won a tender for one of the four dedicated taxi parks, was also protesting, indicating how restrictive the contracts were.

President Taxis owner Dejan Majneric said the approximate cost figures were accurate and typical of all small taxi company contracts with the airport.

Majneric was the only owner to enter the dispute publicly and has now terminated his contract.

"Luckily that was only a minority part of our business. These other drivers don't have the option to pull out because they rely on the airport for business and the airport company and the taxi companies know that," he said.

Majneric said he risked losing his bond, which he claimed was worth over a $100,000, for breaking the contract and speaking out.

The airport had promised to reimburse him, although he was still waiting at press time.

The airport said President Taxis' decision to end its contract was due to the company being unable to make enough profit from its airport operation, and was unrelated to the strike.

Barker said the strike was a predictable reaction from companies that didn't win tenders and saw competitors benefit.

Singh claimed the same "dysfunctional" relationship between taxi drivers, companies and airports didn't occur anywhere else in New Zealand or in Australia.

However, Wellington International Airport also has dedicated ranks, with four of the city's taxi firms represented, as well as a free-flow rank directly outside international arrivals.

- Sunday Star Times

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