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File picture, Port-of-Spain, Chaguanas and Curepe taxi drivers wait for passengers at their taxi stand at King’s Wharf, San Fernando.

RADHICA DE SILVA

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Struggling with reduced income from fewer passengers, some taxi drivers in South Trinidad have been forced to double their fares as they struggle to cope with the negative impact of COVID-19.

Despite operating at a loss for six weeks, many other drivers plying the Chaguanas/San Fernando route, Port-of-Spain to San Fernando route, City Gate/ East-West Corridor and Curepe to Port-of-Spain routes have not increased fares but are now devising creative ways to supplement their incomes and protect themselves.

Some drivers have installed plastic sheets between seats. Others have supplied hand sanitizers to passengers whilst ensuring that their vehicles are sanitized after every trip.

But they say the cost of doing this is taking a toll on them.

They are planning to meet this week to discuss how they could approach government with proposals to assist struggling drivers.

President of the Maxi Taxi Association Eon Hewett said increased expenses and a drastic reduction in their salaries has made drivers depressed and worried. Two drivers have already contracted COVID-19 but have recovered and despite the threat to their safety, Hewett said they had no choice but to work.

“We have to sanitize after every trip and since the lockdown started we are operating at 50 per cent capacity. We using the same amount of diesel and we have fewer passengers, less income. It makes no sense working right now. We have not raised fares because people catching hell everywhere,” Hewett explained.

He said some drivers were paying between $45,000 to $60,000 annually for insurance and he was hoping that drivers could lobby insurance companies for a rebate.

The $1,500 salary reduction grant, he said, was a slap in the face for most drivers who had experienced a 50 per cent to 70 per cent reduction in passengers for the past month. Hewett said two maxi drivers had even contracted the COVID-19 but fortunately had recovered.

President of the Route 2 Maxi Taxi Association, Linus Phillip said drivers lost 70 per cent of their income even though their expenses remained the same.

Calling for a lifting of the 50 per cent capacity for maxi taxis, Phillip said the government should impose a one passenger per seat policy.

“With the 50 per cent capacity, we are running with two seats empty. This will still maintain social distancing and would give us ease because every passenger counts,” he said.

He added that many drivers would lose their houses and vehicles if the restrictions continued.

“We cannot hold off, we have mortgages. We will be forced to look at an increase in fares because we cannot face the burden alone. I thought the government could have done something separate for drivers. We won’t stop working, we are trying to survive like everyone else and we understand that we need social distancing,” he added.

Sean Mulchan who plies the Diamond to San Fernando route said some taxi drivers have partitioned their vehicles using plastic sheets to protect themselves. Others have reduced the number of hours they worked while many more are maximizing on private hire for essential workers.

“I am fortunate that I have my special trips with nurses who I used to carry before this. I am still charging them the same fee,” Mulchan said.

But Alister Jaggan who works from Penal to San Fernando said he has no choice but to double his fees from $10 to $20.

“It really slow and I am allowed to carry only two passengers. I charge $20. If you charge less you cannot afford to put gas. It was $10 before but we have to charge the passengers more because we have to compensate for what we pay in gas,” he said. Jaggan said he cannot take the risk of carrying more than the allotted passengers because he could not afford to pay a $5,000 fine.

President of the Taxi Drivers Network Adrian Acosta said the COVID- 19 restrictions were hard on taxi drivers.

“We are the front liners and our salary has been cut. Every other front liner has been working for a full salary. It’s tough to put food on the table. We are looking forward to the next phase of opening up,” Acosta lamented.

He noted that many people have applied for the Salary reduction grant but have not received it. He said their salary was cut after the government raised gas prices and it was further cut when they were placed on 50 per cent capacity.