THOUGH likening the leasing of taxis to "modern-day slavery", as Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak did, may seem a tad harsh, there is no doubt that it reflects the sentiments of cabbies and critics of the current practice of awarding licences to companies rather than individuals.
Cabbies resent the leasing system because they have to spend long hours behind the wheel in all kinds of weather and traffic conditions to pay the rental, cover the running costs and make enough to make ends meet. Unlike most workers, they get none of the fringe benefits and social safety nets like social security coverage, disability insurance or vacations. On the other hand, fleet owners are guaranteed steady earnings regardless of how long cabbies drive or how much money they take in.
For this reason, the policy has long been criticised as a way for rent-seekers to profit while leaving drivers with crumbs and the public with lousy service. Indeed, while there has been an unending litany of complaints about taxi drivers, there is a broad understanding that the root of the problem lies in the system in which they operate. Quite clearly, the underlying motivation for overcharging, non-use of meters, refusal to pick up passengers, reckless driving and the like is financial. As leasing cabs for a flat fee has had a deleterious effect on the quality of service and the incomes and working conditions of taxi drivers, the prime minister has picked the right target for taxi reform.
However, as the Land Public Transport Commission (SPAD) has still to complete its study on the taxi industry, it is not clear whether the radical step of abolishing leasing altogether will be taken. As it is, SPAD chairman Tan Sri Syed Hamid Albar has said that the "new model" will not affect existing taxi operators but will target cabbies who have been driving for a long time but do not own taxies. Certainly, as Syed Hamid said, not all taxi drivers want to exit the leasing system. Undoubtedly, leasing is a common arrangement in most countries, as is a dual system of taxis owned and maintained by both companies and individuals. For sure, the subsidy for buying tyres and the tax incentives and soft loans for the purchase of taxis are major steps in the right direction. But any serious attempt to improve taxi services and the welfare and well-being of taxi drivers should place more of the industry in the hands of owner-drivers, reduce the role of companies and absentee rentiers, and provide adequate social protection.