Sask. taxi, Uber drivers feeling the squeeze as pandemic keeps people at home

·2 min read
A taxi is pictured in downtown Saskatoon in 2018. The pandemic has sharply affected the taxi industry. (CBC - image credit)
A taxi is pictured in downtown Saskatoon in 2018. The pandemic has sharply affected the taxi industry. (CBC - image credit)

Tarik El Makaoui was a taxi driver in Saskatoon for five years, but he says the financial squeeze the pandemic has put on the industry led him to switch over to Uber.

Even then, with lower upfront costs to drive an Uber than a taxi, El Makaoui was at wit's end in February when his car was seriously damaged by a construction sign that fell on his car.

"This broke me, and this is the worst month in my life," El Makaoui said back in February.

Just this past week, he paid off the final instalment on the $700 deductible for repairs with Saskatchewan Government Insurance (SGI). He and his wife scrambled to afford rent after the seven days El Makoui couldn't work while his car was in the garage.

The suffering of local business — bars, restaurants and venues — has had a ripple effect on the taxi industry that's forcing a workforce of drivers who are largely immigrants to figure out how to support themselves.

Fleet shrunk by dozens at outset of pandemic

When the pandemic first hit, only one-third of Riide Saskatoon's taxi fleet was on the road, said Dave Keegan, account manager with Riide.

Things have bounced back a bit, mostly within the past six months, Keegan said. About 130 Riide taxis are on the road now, which is about 75 per cent of the fleet vehicles.

The majority of cab drivers in Saskatoon are immigrants, said Malik Draz, chair of the United Steelworkers Taxi Workers Council, which represents cab drivers in Saskatoon.

"They are suffering financially big time, especially because of the pandemic. And they are not seeing any kind of relief from the government or anybody who regulates the industry. So it gets ugly," he said.

Draz said the taxi industry relies on gatherings and concerts, all of which have not been happening.

Just over a year ago, he sent a letter to the minister responsible for SGI asking for a 50 per cent reduction in insurance rates for taxis. The government has not announced any such plans.

Draz said daytime taxi drivers have had sustainable incomes. Regular accounts include driving to doctor appointments, vouchers through social services and driving students to school.

However, many taxi drivers rely on nighttime drivers to supplement fees they pay to taxi companies. There are fewer night drivers because there are fewer nighttime clients, which puts the daytime drivers in a tough spot.

For El Makaoui, it was tough enough that he went to Uber.

Uber launched in Saskatoon in 2019.
Uber launched in Saskatoon in 2019.(Jennifer Quesnel/CBC News)

"The business has been divided between the Uber and taxi and we're suffering from that change," Draz said. "But now there's a pandemic. It's a totally different scenario right now."

Meanwhile, El Makaoui said winter, which is usually the busy season, is over and he's still struggling to get by.