Hundreds of Winnipeg taxi drivers protest alleged mistreatment from cab owners

More than 250 cab drivers converged in a Winnipeg parking lot Thursday night to protest what they say is unfair treatment by taxi owners.

"There is a disrespect … and we don't want this to happen," Harvey Bara, a Unicity driver of four years, said while flanked by scores of other drivers from Unicity and Duffy's Taxi.

Gohar Aftab, a Duffy's driver of 11 years, claimed owners impose arbitrary rules on drivers.

"Overnight they make the rules, overnight they break the rules," he said.

The drivers met in a parking lot at Polo Park Shopping Centre Thursday night, after they say a driver was suspended following a previous meeting of drivers on Wednesday night in Assiniboine Park.

"I guess they don't like our unity, they don't like our gathering, and constantly we've been getting messages on our screen, on our taxi meter, that if you guys get together you might get suspended," Bara said.

'You're suspended'

Varinder Chahal, who has been driving cabs for 20 years, said he is the driver who was suspended Thursday night.

Chahal claims he was parked at the airport with other taxis when one owner showed up and started verbally abusing him. When a second owner came by and told him to leave, Chahal says he refused.

"And suddenly, 'No, you're suspended.' I said, 'For what?' No answer, and then I said 'I'm not going to leave,'" Chahal said.

"He said, 'Then I am going to call security on you.' Then suddenly [drivers] got mad."

Bhupender Singh, a Duffy's driver of eight years, said cab owners impose strict rules on the people who drive for them.

"It's my way or the highway … follow this or you're out," he said.

Singh said drivers should be able to meet to discuss whatever they want without fear of punishment from owners.

"We were just exercising our right to assemble peacefully, just because [of] what's happening in the industry. That was the reason," he said. "This is Canada, we have rights."

No standardization

Parminder Tiwana has been driving a taxi for four years and said there is no standardization in the industry, which means individual owners can decide how much money drivers owe them after each shift with little recourse for the drivers.

Tiwana claimed that when some owners found out the drivers had assembled they came to the protest "and took their cabs already, and they already asked the driver don't come and work tomorrow."

Tiwana claims some cab owners plan to change the fees some owners charge drivers to use their cab, thanks to lower demand, which he associates with ride-hailing companies moving into the Winnipeg market.

"Some of the drivers are already paying the increase because they don't have any other option because when you are doing a particular job for the last five, six years, it's not easy to switch."

Drivers aren't the only ones facing challenges. At a meeting on accessible transit earlier this week, many with mobility issues questioned how the city's parking authority, which now oversees the vehicle for hire industry, plans to boost the number of accessible ride-hailing vehicles on the road.

A parking authority policy analyst said the city is doing the best it can to address the many needs of the taxi industry, but said it has been a steep learning curve for the city after the province dissolved the taxicab board late last year and saddled the city with taxi and ride-hailing regulatory duties.

The taxi drivers plan to meet again on Sunday.

Misinformation root of confusion: coalition

The Winnipeg Community Taxi Coalition, which represents owners from Duffy's and Unicity, said neither company sanctioned the interruption in service Thursday night caused by the protest.

"We regret any inconvenience from what happened," said coalition spokesperson Scott McFadyen.

​McFadyen said to his knowledge, there have not been any taxi driver suspensions as a result of the protest, which he said stems a misunderstanding.

"There's been a lot of change, a seismic shift in the industry over the last month or so, and there has been some misinformation out there," he said.

Paul Sandhu, secretary of Unicity Taxi's board and a cab owner, said owners and drivers are both having a hard time keeping up with changes to bylaws governing the industry.

"There's so many changes," he said "Not too many drivers know about the bylaws, not too many owners know about the bylaws."

McFadyen said it's been a very challenging time for cab owners and everyone involved in the taxi industry as the city gets used to its new regulatory responsibilities. Taxi licence fees that would've cost owners $200 this time last year have jumped to about $600, in addition to other per-trip fees.

The entry of ride-hailing companies and the increase in the number of taxi licences have added even more pressure to a stressful transition for drivers and owners, said McFadyen.

"We're not pointing fingers. We just ask that frustrated drivers get in contact with the owners," he added.