THE recent fuel price hike has added fuel to the miseries of limousine drivers as they are not only bearing the brunt of price rise but also the wrath of the passengers and a section of the media which without understanding the mechanism and dynamics of limousine service industry judge the drivers as villains who are ripping off the passengers of their hard-earned money.
In the past two decades the limousine occupation has become the most irregular and disorganized business in the Kingdom. The business flouts and breaks belligerently all the rules put in place by the Transport Department with no action or punitive measures against them. It has made its own set of rules which completely contradicts the government regulations including those of the Labor Ministry. Its irregularity has been institutionalized to such an extent that officials, passengers and drivers have accepted them as legitimate practices.
In late ‘90s when the Transport Department was restructuring its policies on limousine operations in the Kingdom, it was planned that in five years time all the expatriate drivers will be phased out, replacing them with Saudis. It did create almost a panic situation within the expat drivers’ community who at that point of time figured around 25,000 all over the Kingdom. But what surprised the transport officials most was almost the knee-jerk reaction from Saudis who opposed the proposed “Limousine Saudization” purely for “social and tradition” reasons. The proposal was never rescinded but never implemented too. However, limousine operators took advantage of the insecurity prevailing among their drivers and almost overnight changed the rules of the game to make a win-win situation for them.
Under the new “set of rules” the drivers were not to get any salary but were to work more on a commission basis. As per the new system which is prevailing even today, drivers of limousine companies were like outsourced partners or if bluntly put like bonded laborers who were required to pay (those days) between SR120 to SR135 per day; all money earned above that was theirs. The added bonus was that Fridays were “free” for the drivers. They were not required to pay any money they earned on Fridays. Apparently it was a very lucrative offer. But what lied beneath this offer was some very repressive and anti-labor law practices. The drivers were stripped of their salary, they were to arrange their own accommodation; all the government fee like, iqama renewal, exit and re-entry visa and vacation ticket were to be paid by drivers only. The basic maintenance was paid by the owning company but fuel and oil change etc. was drivers’ responsibility. In addition, the drivers did not have the luxury of falling sick. In the event of sickness there was no reprieve for the drivers and they have to pay their usual fee of SR120-135.
The new rules of the game made limousine business more lucrative and almost one of the safest trades in the country which was never effected by any external threats of loss not even with the fuel price hike! This new face of the industry suddenly caused a huge spurt in the new companies and in a very short span the number of taxis plying on the roads of the Kingdom almost increased by 300 percent. The banks were generous in giving loans as they too did not have the threat of bad loans or default in installments.
The sudden increase in limo companies caused fierce competition among the limousine drivers as it started becoming difficult to earn even the “prescribed fee” of SR120-135 per day. The drivers lowered their tariff, stopped taking fare on installed taxi meter, which has government prescribed rates and haggling began. Passengers too lost the habit of paying their fare through installed meters. The authorities too turned a blind eye. It was a free-for-all situation in this sector. After several media reports in 2002, the Transport Department issued a new set of rules to end exploitation of drivers and regularize this important component of transport sector. Under the new rules, it was mandatory on the part of limousine companies to pay a minimum salary to their drivers and also treat them as regular employees and provide them all the facilities prescribed under Saudi Labor Law for foreign workers.
The limousine companies were probably ready for this move and immediately put all drivers on payroll but only on paper. In reality nothing had changed and the business was as usual.
The stiff competition forced drivers to “increase their working hours and most of the drivers started working for 15 to 18 hours to meet the “fee” and then earn for their livelihood. If we go by statistics it is from this period that number of accidents involving taxis increased dramatically,” says Mohammed Shaheed, a Bangladeshi driver.
When the government made it mandatory for each company to deposit salaries of their employees in banks and submit their statements, then “most of the companies did open salary accounts for their drivers in banks and they did every month deposit SR700 as their token salary. The only change was that they calculated minus SR700 from each drivers earnings,” says Masoum Ali, also a Bangladeshi driver.
Today the “fee” has gone up to SR150 per day for each driver to pay to his company in the Eastern Province; and SR160-SR170 in Jeddah and Riyadh. It is the drivers who have to bear the extra cost of fuel. And of course there is no fixed rate. It depends on the bargaining ability of the passengers and flexibility and “generosity” of the driver. The taxis are still not run on meters and with the advent of new players like Uber the competition is getting tougher every day. It is about time that the Transport Department regularizes this industry with some stringent rules. It is absolutely necessary to make it mandatory for each limousine to operate on meters. The Labor Department must make sure that the malpractices committed by several, if not all, limo companies are curbed and each driver is treated as a regular employee and not an outsourced driver.