Hell on wheels

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 26 July, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 26 July, 2005, 12:00am

I have had enough,' said Liu Yang, as he sat in a traffic jam in the evening rush hour. 'I've been driving for 12 hours, I am exhausted and want to go home. But I cannot, because I have not fulfilled my quota for the day. That means another six hours at the wheel.'

Mr Liu, 42, is similar to the majority of Shanghai cabbies who work a 24-hour shift on alternate days - two operate one taxi - and have to pay a fixed amount per day to the five big state companies that own their vehicles. Only a small percentage of the 42,000 taxis on the city's streets are owned by their drivers.

Mr Liu has to pay 350 yuan a day to his company, and only after he has earned that does he make money that he can keep. He also has to pay for fuel, insurance and repairs.

It is a lucrative business for the five companies that own the vehicles, each with its own colour, nearly all of them locally made Santana saloons. At 350 yuan a day, the company earns almost 128,000 yuan a year per car, while the cost of a new vehicle is 80,000-100,000 yuan. Within less than a year, it has earned back its investment and the rest is profit, plus the price of the vehicle when it is sold.

The victims are Mr Liu and the other drivers, who are happy if they can earn 50-200 yuan a day. What they would like is the right to buy their vehicle after they have paid off the purchase price, but the companies show no sign of giving up this pot of gold.

So the drivers are trapped into trying to earn the best they can in a city whose traffic congestion is worsening, with the auctioning of 5,000 new licences each month and fuel prices climbing.

Mr Liu goes further than most cabbies, calling for a suspension of new licences. 'The roads of Shanghai, especially on the west side of the river, are only so large, but the government keeps issuing new licences. We should learn from Singapore and cities in Europe and make private cars a luxury, with a high tax, and levy a fee on those with a single person inside,' he said.

But many drivers express the official view. That is, that a city with two of China's auto plants - joint ventures with Volkswagen and General Motors - has no alternative but to encourage car ownership, and that their suffering is a necessary sacrifice for the growth of the economy.

They have no bargaining power because, however bad their working conditions, there are a thousand drivers ready to take their place. Many come from Chongming , a large agricultural island north of the city, whose farmers are eager to take a job in the city.

'My son is going to high school and I have to feed my family,' said Mr Liu. 'So I have no choice but to go on doing this, bad though it is.'