This report documents the work of the Taxi Driver Legal Clinic, a joint project conducted by the Federation of Community Legal Centres (Victoria) and Footscray Community Legal Centre in 2011.
In Victoria, taxi drivers have few legal rights, earn little money and have almost no bargaining power in the workplace. Most drivers are either international students or recent immigrants. Some have come to Australia as refugees. These drivers generally have limited employment prospects. They rely heavily on taxi driving to support themselves and their families. For this reason, they are often reluctant to complain about unfair treatment by taxi owners.
We established the Taxi Driver Legal Clinic (the Clinic) to address taxi drivers’ unique legal problems. Community Legal Centres (CLCs) have helped drivers on an ad hoc basis for many years, but the work is sometimes difficult, due to the complex and unusual nature of taxi drivers’ problems. By setting up a dedicated legal service for taxi drivers, we hoped to develop a better understanding of the taxi industry and the underlying causes of drivers’ legal problems. In this way we aimed to offer more specialised, more effective legal advice. From February to November 2011, the Clinic assisted 169 clients. 96 per cent of these clients were born outside Australia and 80 per cent spoke a language other than English at home. Most of our clients did not own the taxis they drove; rather, they drove taxis belonging to large operators or fleets.
Our casework consisted of three main categories: fines, disciplinary matters and motor vehicle accidents. We also advised on credit and debt, consumer, employment, discrimination and criminal law. We initially planned to target ‘bailee’ (ie non-owner) drivers, but we quickly realised that many ‘owners’ also suffer from severe financial hardship. Many of these ‘owners’ are heavily indebted, having borrowed large sums to buy taxis and lease taxi licenses. We decided to assist disadvantaged, low income taxi ‘owners’ on a case-by-case basis. As a result of our work at the Clinic, we believe that the Victorian taxi industry needs urgent, radical reform. This process must start with a review of drivers’ anomalous status as ‘bailees’. As ‘bailees,’ non-owner drivers are deemed to be independent business operators.
In practice, however, the relationship between drivers and taxi owners has many features of an employment relationship: non-negotiable hours, uniform requirements and a high degree of control on the part of fleets, depots and radio networks. Yet, as ‘bailees,’ taxi drivers enjoy none of the benefits that most employees take for granted, such as minimum wages, sick leave, annual leave, superannuation, occupational health and safety training and protection against unfair dismissal. As a result, many drivers struggle to meet their day to day living expenses, despite working 12 hours a day, five or six days a week. In our view, these drivers represent a new and disturbing category of the ‘working poor’ in Australia.