Drivers suffer as taxi owners drive a hard bargain
An outpouring of fury from Shanghai's cab drivers offers a glimpse into the lives of the city's poverty-stricken working class.
The cab drivers claim they're the most exploited workers in the city, drudging away at tedious and exhausting work, only to find themselves falling victim to higher fuel prices, worsening traffic congestion and unreasonable payment demands from state-owned taxi companies.
An average cabbie in Shanghai earns about 4,000 yuan (HK$4,700) a month, slightly above the city average of 3,600 yuan.
However, its nearly 100,000 drivers pocket that above-average salary at significant cost.
The city has 50,000 taxis on its roads, with two drivers sharing the car each day.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that each taxi runs for at least 16 hours a day - or 56 hours a week for each driver.
Drivers say they have no choice but to work much longer than the 40-hour limit stipulated by labour laws in order to pay the taxi companies, which enjoy a cosy duopoly over the business.
Unlike other mainland cities where taxi drivers are somewhat self-employed and are allowed to own their vehicles, Shanghai cabbies are required to use taxi companies' cars because the companies own the operating licences.
The drivers have to pay a so-called management fee varying from 300 yuan to 350 yuan a day to the companies - nearly double the payment required of their Beijing counterparts.
The companies, dubbed vampires by most drivers, can recoup their investment in the vehicle in a year.
Shanghai Qiangsheng, for instance, raked in more than 600 million yuan from its taxi business in 2009, while arch-rival Dazhong Transportation makes about 900 million yuan a year.
On top of the management fee, fuel costs an average of 200 yuan a day, so a Shanghai cabbie has to make 600 yuan a day just to break even.
That's no easy job, with many saying they're unable to break through the 600 yuan mark until late in their shifts.
The drivers are also forced to dip into their own pockets to pay for vehicle maintenance and repair.
And days off, let alone holidays, are a distant dream.
Shanghai took drastic steps to develop the cab industry in the late 1980s when Zhu Rongji , then the city's mayor, pledged to build up a fleet of taxis that could serve as 'mobile gateways to the rising metropolis of the East'.
Before that, a shortage of taxis and absence of meters made cabbies the envy of the city.
The drivers, most of whom were state-owned employees, were supposed to turn in all taxi fares to their employers. But a chorus of complaints about drivers demanding substantial tips prompted Zhu, who later became premier, to revamp the sector.
The companies were ordered to draft a code of conduct for the drivers and sign contracts with them, giving them any fare revenue that exceeded their daily quota.
The system benefited hundreds of drivers, who got rich as demand for taxi services soared.
However, the city's fleet of cabs expanded rapidly and competition intensified in the late 1990s.
The increasing number of privately owned cars on the roads also wreaked havoc on the taxi industry because residents now need to take fewer taxis.
The explosion in vehicle numbers has also worsened traffic congestion, increasing the chances of cabbies being caught in traffic jams.
It's not exactly what Zhu had in mind when he came up with the idea of mobile gateways.
Shanghai is keen to show its best face to the world after unveiling its ambition to transform itself into a global financial centre.
So maybe it's time to provide some relief to the drivers of its mobile gateways so that they can better serve passengers without grumbling about their lot in life.